The father of a girl who had been due to sit post-primary transfer tests said he was amazed that the tests were cancelled only days before the first exam was to be conducted.
The private companies which run the tests made the announcement on Tuesday ahead of expected lockdown measures to curb the spread of coronavirus.
The Association for Quality Education (AQE) said transfer tests planned for this Saturday, January 16, and January 23 would not take place.
Later on Tuesday, however, AQE issued a fresh statement announcing a single test would be held on Saturday February 27, public health conditions permitting.
“Following a meeting with the schools which use the common entrance assessment (CEA), produced by AQE Limited, it has been agreed that to enable the assessment to take place in the current circumstances, the assessment will be reduced to a single paper to be held on Saturday February 27, provided it can take place in public health circumstances then prevailing,” AQE said.
Meanwhile the Post Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC) announced that it “will not provide an entrance assessment for 2020-21”.
The tests had previously been due to take place in November, but were pushed back following a legal challenge.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill welcomed the cancelling of the tests, tweeting: “This year has been emotionally and mentally challenging enough for children without the burden of these exams.”
Junior Minister Gordon Lyons (DUP) said the move was “common sense” in the “public health situation we find ourselves in at the minute”, but expressed concern at the uncertainty left for pupils.
Dominic Bryan from north Belfast, whose daughter had been preparing to sit both sets of tests, said it had been a day of mixed emotions for their family.
“It was not a easy choice for my wife and I to make, but we wanted give our daughter the most chances,” he told the PA news agency.
“We’re disappointed that we got this far without a decision being made but also somewhat relieved because my wife and I were struggling with the idea of our daughter going into those tests.”
He said he was amazed that the decision to cancel the tests had taken so long.
He said: “Leaving that decision to parents until now was outrageous. I don’t think I have ever felt so angry about anything as we appeared to be being left with this decision (and) that they could not come up with a plan B up until this point.
“I am still amazed.”
Other parents expressed concern about what criteria grammars will now use.
Co Down mother Nicola McIlhagger said her daughter is an only child, and cannot rely on an older sibling at a school to help her to get in.
“We’re extremely disappointed. My daughter has been working so hard all over Christmas, doing her practice papers, and we thought we were on the final countdown at last,” she said.
All the hard work my daughter has been doing since the start of last year for this test is wastedPhil Meredith, parent
“Now she is upset, wondering how she will get into a school.
“For the schools in Belfast where she had wanted to go, our postcode is not particularly close, and then because she is an only child, there is no brother or sister in the school to help – if that criteria is used.
“Tests aren’t ideal but there has to be some sort of selection process, that’s just the way it is. The AQE is probably not ideal but at least everyone is in and able to give it their best shot. Now we don’t really know what will happen, and it seems very unfair if you are an only child or an eldest child who doesn’t have siblings at a school that falls just outside your postcode criteria.”
Phil Meredith, from South Belfast, said: “All the hard work my daughter has been doing since the start of last year for this test is wasted.
“My daughter has a better chance of getting in to grammar school through the AQE rather than the sub-criteria.”
Naomi McBurney, who runs the campaign Bring It Back To Primary, said parents are very divided on the matter.
“There are parents who are very concerned that if their child doesn’t get the opportunity to sit the test, then they are going to be disadvantaged; for example, if they have an eldest child or only child, the main thing for them would be that the test was a more fair way for them to get access to a school that they want to go to,” she said.
“It’s quite frustrating for those opposed to the test because they are saying the country has had to sacrifice so much.
“The problem is the alternative criteria for schools isn’t transparent as yet. The 12 schools that said they would cancel the test back in June have indicated that it would be sub-criteria – so if you had a child already at the school, or if you have a parent that had previously attended the school or a member of the family on the board of governors – similar to that of nurseries, not based on academic criteria.”
Ms McBurney has been running a campaign which urges that children be allowed to sit the transfer test in their own school, instead of having to travel to a large testing centre.
She has also called for reform of the system, with testing regulated by the Department of Education and reduced from children potentially sitting up to five papers if they take both the AQE and PPTC tests to one.
The department-set transfer test was previously abolished, with the last 11-plus paper sat in 2008.