Parents fear they are being left in the dark over the plans to run a single transfer test for school pupils moving between primary and post-primary education.
The single test will replace the dual versions from the AQE and PPTC, which have been running since the abolition of the eleven-plus exam, and is set to begin operating in November 2023.
But the Parent Engagement Group (PEG) said repeated attempts to meet with Education Minister Michelle McIlveen and the new group which will be running the test have so far been denied.
And uncertainty over the new test was heightened earlier this week when Ms McIlveen revealed it was understood that no practice papers would be available ahead of its introduction.
The test is to be run by the newly formed Schools’ Entrance Assessment Group (SEAG) and will be used by the majority of grammar schools in Northern Ireland to select pupils entering Year 8, with 56 having signed up to use the new exam.
The spokesperson for PEG, Naomi McBurney, said the lack of consultation and engagement with parents and teachers over the new test has left a lot of questions unanswered.
“I would like to know how the body will support P6 teachers from September 2022 to ensure they are supported to deliver the necessary coaching for this new test, and subsequently P7 teachers prior to September 2023,” she said.
“What past papers will be made available to teachers, parents and tutors to ensure pupils are ready for the new format and have the opportunity to adequately practise the tests prior to the first paper in November 2023?
“How can SEAG ensure pupils attending Catholic maintained, Irish-medium, integrated and controlled schools who currently prepare for the GL Assessment are not given an unfair advantage over the pupils attending those controlled schools who have a wealth of experience in only preparing for the AQE test?” she asked.
Ms McBurney said parents whose children will be sitting the first test in 2023, and will be building towards it during their P6 year starting this September, need to be included in consultations going forward, but there was mounting concern among primary school principals and teachers over the preparations.
“We don’t know what consultation was undertaken with primary school staff on the new arrangements and, if so, when this took place,” she added.
“Was there any consultation undertaken with parents on the new arrangements?
“In 2020, during a judicial review, the transfer test, although delivered by private organisations, was deemed to be an integral part of our education system,” she continued.
“It is therefore essential that SEAG consult with all stakeholders on the transfer test process. While I understand, legally, selective schools can set their own entrance criteria, they have a duty of care to pupils, parents and school staff directly impacted by their decision.
“The current P5 children have missed face-to-face teaching from March to June of their P3 year and January to April of their P4 year and are already experiencing considerable disruption to their P5 year. As a parent it is my view that the introduction of a completely new system for these pupils is unacceptable and wider consultation is essential.”
In a response to Ms McBurney’s questions, Michael Carville, principal at Regent House Grammar School in Newtownards and chair of the SEAG, said the organisation “will endeavour to make information available to all parents, and other stakeholders, in a timely and open manner in the coming months”.
Ms McIlveen had been unable to meet the concerned parents, although, in response to a written Assembly question on the new test earlier this week, she responded: “Following a competitive tender process, GL Assessment Ltd in England has been awarded a three-year contract to provide the test. Staff have been appointed locally to oversee the administration.
“The new testing format will consist of two papers, held on two Saturdays two weeks apart, provisionally scheduled for November 12 and November 26, 2023.
“Both test [papers] will contribute to candidates’ scores. I have been advised that the test [papers] will focus on the literacy and numeracy content of the curriculum at Key Stage 2. There will be a mixture of multiple-choice and open questions,” she said.
“In terms of preparation for the test, I am advised that, as the test is still being developed, practice papers will not be available to schools, parents and pupils.
“My officials will be meeting with representatives from the Group in due course and the SEAG’s website will be updated as progress is made.”