The DUP and Sinn Fein are on a collision course over whether transfer test for Primary 7 pupils should go ahead as planned this weekend.
The first external examination will take place for around 8,000 pupils on Saturday morning, but deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has now called for the test to be abandoned.
In a statement, Education Minister Peter Weir said he has “highlighted the need to both the schools hosting the tests and the test providers, to ensure all exam centres are fully risk-assessed and both the location and logistics of the tests must be compatible with public health guidance”.
“A range of protective measures are being put in place for the tests,” he said.
“There cannot be any compromise with ensuring the safety of our children and families.”
A spokesperson for AQE, who will be running the first of three scheduled transfer tests this weekend, said the body has contacted the Public Health Agency and HSE NI for safety advice and updated guidelines.
But a spokesperson for the PHA said it has not been asked for specific advice by those facilitating transfer tests.
A spokesperson said: "It is the role of the Department of Education to provide guidance and advice to schools. The PHA assists the Department of Education as required."
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, however, is adamant the transfer test should not be allowed to take place in the current circumstances.
“The transfer tests should not proceed,” she said.
“The Education Minister needs to act now and provide clarity at tomorrow’s Executive.”
Justin McCamphill from leading teacher’s union NASUWT said closing schools is deemed necessary, then it defies logic that schools would be open for hundreds of pupils to sit a test this Saturday.
“Bringing pupils together from different bubbles and placing them in an exam hall even with 2m distancing is not safe,” he said.
“Our call for cancelling the tests this month is based on Health and Safety and limiting the spread of the virus.”
Alliance health spokesperson Paula Bradshaw has called on the Health Minister to make a clear statement on the risk involved with private tests taking place in school halls, as such arrangements seem contrary to current coronavirus regulations.
“Experts have now warned clearly there is a significantly high risk to any indoor gathering – which is why restaurants, gyms and non-essential retail have been closed, and why we are prohibited from meeting in households,” she said.
“It is therefore entirely inconsistent, and clearly high-risk, to allow large gatherings in an indoor location.
“Making constant and blatant exceptions to the regulations only leads to lower compliance and thus higher spread – and we can see this clearly in the exponential spread since mid-December.”
And SDLP Education spokesperson Daniel McCrossan added: “This is a very serious situation. The minister is adamant to see children mixed and breaking the integrity of their bubbles by sitting the transfer test. This is not a debate as to whether there should or shouldn’t be a transfer test full stop, this is about whether there should be one in these circumstances.
“I have very serious concerns about the test going ahead."
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