Schools should seek advice and guidance on entrance criteria, says DUP MLA
Education Minister Peter Weir has said he has not let children down over the transfer test debacle but accepts the disruption was disappointing for many families.
He also apologised for the "misunderstanding" there had been from a tweet in which he said cancelling the test was a "denial of opportunity". He said his language was "clumsy".
On Wednesday AQE announced the cancellation of its planned single transfer test scheduled for late February.
The minister was unable to rule out remote learning continuing until Easter, although he did say he did not want it to continue on a prolonged basis.
Mr Weir told BBC's Good Morning Ulster: "While the transfer test has never been about being compulsory for either a school or an individual parent, it does enable parental choice as a result."
He said he did not think the "in and out" way the test had been handled by AQE - which postponed, rescheduled and finally cancelled the test - had been "particularly helpful" and lacked "consistency".
"It is entirely understandable that many families will be deeply disappointed but in trying to ensure there was the widest range of choice to the parents was maintained, I think was the right."
He said his department was informed on Wednesday around lunchtime of the cancellation.
"For all of us, everyone is trying to deal with a pandemic," he continued. "Schools will set criteria for entrance and we said before Christmas they needed to give consideration to the Covid circumstances and to look at what actions would be needed if we reached the point at which, for example, transfer tests were not able to take place.
"For lots of schools they have looked to AQE in terms of setting the test. I feel that has been pulled from them so it is right they are given extra time to put in place criteria that are right for that school."
Great opportunities exist throughout our education system, thru both selective and non selective schools, all of which have produced the best of Northern Ireland.Once opportunity to be considered for entry to any school is denied,in any sector, it is a denial to opportunity 4 all— Peter Weir (@peterweirmla) January 13, 2021
On Wednesday after AQE's announcement, the minister posted on Twitter that the cancellation of the transfer test was a "denial of opportunity".
He apologised for the "level of misunderstanding" that the tweet had caused by what he described as "clumsy" language.
"There are opportunities to apply and indeed gain entry for a range of schools," he said.
"Once opportunities for entry to any school is reduced, that is a reduction for all.
"There was no adverse intention meant toward non-selective schools."
Mr Weir said schools have had guidance on criteria giving them "effectively two paths to go down".
He said the options were using primary school data - but not direct teacher assessments - as a form of academic selection or a form of non-academic criteria such as siblings attending the school.
But a parent having attended a schools would not be an acceptable.
"Anything can be challenged on the grounds of fairness," he added.
"Whatever route they are going down they need to seek that clear level of advice," he added as there were "flaws" not recommended which would not indemnify schools.
He said using data from primary schools could not be purely based on the assessment of a child as it could not be compared between schools.
"You would need buy in from every school and if you get it from some but not others that would be fraught with challenge," he said.
Asked if he should take control to give parents and children certainty, he said all schools set their own criteria and to change that there would need to be a political consensus as well as a change in the law, which would not happen in the short term.
He suggested he was not in favour of a change of the system saying it was correct for schools to be legally allowed to set their own entrance criteria.
"If we were to have a centralised system [for criteria] where people were dictated to what school they went to and there was no criteria at all... that would be a radical change.
"That would be a denial of parental choice."
On the possibility of remote learning going on until Easter, he said he did not want that to be the case but there was nothing that could be ruled out and schools had to be prepared for every eventuality.
"But it would be very damaging if on a longer term basis we have a continuation of that remote learning because children do not flourish to the same extent as if they do from their teacher on a face-to-face basis."
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Peter Weir faced a barrage of questioning from Stormont’s Education Committee on Wednesday as concerns continued over exams, remote learning and the safety of special schools remaining open.