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Pressure grows on schools to suspend Northern Ireland transfer tests

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Thousands of NI pupils take transfer tests each year.

Thousands of NI pupils take transfer tests each year.

Thousands of NI pupils take transfer tests each year.

Pressure is growing on schools to suspend the use of transfer tests in the next academic year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A group of principals at 24 Co Down primary schools have called for their suspension later this year for the September 2021 intake.

In an open letter, reported by the BBC, the heads of schools in Bangor, Holywood, Millisle, Ballywalter, Donaghadee, Carrowdore and Portavogie said they did not believe the tests should go ahead "in these abnormal circumstances" and focus should be on the child and the help they will need after a prolonged break from school.

The Education Minister Peter Weir - whose department has no role in the organisation of the tests - said the revised plans were the “best available” and the onus was on organisers to reassure parents and pupils tests would be “fair and reasonable, and managed as carefully as possible given the level of disruption to pupils’ education this year”.

“It is vitally important that there is a fair and transparent process in place for children undertaking selection tests,” he added.

“My focus remains on looking at ways that my department can provide vital support to all pupils in those key transition years.”

AQE and GL the organisers of the assessments, which normally take place over five weeks beginning in November, plan to hold them two weeks later than normal next autumn following severe disruption to the school calendar caused by the lockdown.

The Department of Education ruled out holding the tests in January 2021 year because it would create problems with the academic calendar and said using predicted grades instead would be unworkable.

Five Catholic grammar schools announced they will not use academic selection for their 2021 intake. The schools, which are all in Co Down, said the decision had been taken “in light of the current circumstances”.

They said they were concerned at the impact it would have on the school children involved.

They are Abbey Christian Brothers’ Grammar School, Our Lady’s Grammar School, Sacred Heart Grammar School, and St Colman’s College in Newry, and St Louis Grammar School in Kilkeel.

Lagan College has also opted out. Over a third of pupils are admitted on the basis of the tests and the schools has also said it will not be used as a test centre.

The Co Down primary school principals' letter said the best interests of the child should be the focus and they would likely need extra help and support. They also said with the risk of a second wave of the coronavirus the tests should not go ahead.

"Each pupil's emotional and mental well being is vitally important to us and the added pressure of sitting academic selection tests in November and December is inevitably adding to the stress normally associated with these tests."

Transfer tests have been unregulated since the 11-Plus was abolished in 2008. Schools are ultimately responsible for deciding on how to admit children and if they use the two sets of transfer tests.

Over half of P7 pupils sit tests each year in the hope of getting a place at an academically selective grammar school.

The Children's Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma and Archbishop Eamon Martin have also called on the tests to be suspended.

Schools are to resume teaching on a phased basis in late August with Education Minister Peter Weir saying key school years will be among the first to return. That will include those entering P7.

Mr Weir has said he wants the transfer tests to be carried out in a manner which is fair to all pupils.

Sinn Fein MLA Karen Mullan called on all selective schools to suspend academic selection transfer tests for the upcoming school year.

“Pressure is growing on schools to show leadership and scrap the use of unregulated transfer tests,” she said.

“This interventions from schools in Newry and North Down is just the latest in widespread calls for the suspension of the test for September 2021.

“I would urge all schools across to follow this leadership and example by also suspending these unregulated tests.

“Academic selection is wrong, unnecessary and places undue pressure on children. It should be scrapped altogether.

“Local schools should shift their focus to preparing teachers and pupils for a return to school when it is safe to do so.”

The Education Authority said it had no responsibility on the matter.

Belfast Telegraph