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Grammar schools praised for deciding against AQE testing for Year 8 intake

A political row ensued over an exam going ahead despite a new pandemic lockdown.

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Two grammar schools have announced they will not use an AQE test to select Year 8 intake (David Davies/PA)

Two grammar schools have announced they will not use an AQE test to select Year 8 intake (David Davies/PA)

Two grammar schools have announced they will not use an AQE test to select Year 8 intake (David Davies/PA)

Grammar schools in Belfast and Co Tyrone have been praised for announcing they will not use the transfer test this year for their Year 8 intake.

The Royal School Dungannon, Belfast Royal Academy, Victoria College and Campbell College announced their decisions amid a row over one post-primary transfer test going ahead despite a fresh pandemic lockdown.

Strabane Academy previously announced it would not use the test this year.

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey praised those schools and also urged that the planned test next month is cancelled.

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Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey (Sinn Fein) speaks to media in the Markets area of Belfast following a meeting of the Stormont Executive. (Rebecca Black/PA)

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey (Sinn Fein) speaks to media in the Markets area of Belfast following a meeting of the Stormont Executive. (Rebecca Black/PA)

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey (Sinn Fein) speaks to media in the Markets area of Belfast following a meeting of the Stormont Executive. (Rebecca Black/PA)

Independent test providers the Association for Quality Education (AQE) and the Post Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC) announced earlier this week that exams planned for January and early February would not go ahead.

However, hours later, AQE announced it would run a single test on February 27, public health conditions permitting.

Northern Ireland’s political parties are divided on the issue, with the DUP backing AQE while Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance are calling for no tests to be run this year.

The Ulster Unionist education spokesperson Robbie Butler said the planned AQE single test was “not a realistic” option and instead proposed that pupils’ primary school work could be used to decide their post-primary transfer.

Northern Ireland’s mental health champion Professor Siobhan O’Neill and children’s commissioner Koulla Yiasouma have both said they would like this year’s tests scrapped.

Ms Hargey said she wrote to Education Minister Peter Weir about her concerns over the test proceeding, in terms of the health pandemic, mental health of young people taking the test and disruption caused to education.

She raised the matter under any other business at the Executive meeting on Friday.

“Unfortunately there was a decision taken today by some not to allow a vote to take place on this issue, I feel there would have been parties that would have backed my position and understand the concerns around this,” she said.

Sinn Fein minister Ms Hargey said she hopes other grammars will also rule out using the test.

“We are in the middle of a health crisis. We got a report today from the Executive where we’re seeing increased numbers. We’re seeing a huge pressure on inpatients, on beds being made available,” she said.

“So I am calling on AQE, and calling on all of those that haven’t taken the decision yet, to show that leadership, to show compassion in the year that we’re in.

“To cancel these tests, to work with teachers, with schools, with young people, with the minister and with trade unions to find a way forward on how these young people can transfer as they enter into another part of their educational journey.”

The Royal School Dungannon, which usually uses AQE results to help determine its Year 8 intake, said it will not use the test this year.

Victoria College in Belfast has taken a similar decision.

In a statement on its website, the Royal School Dungannon said its board of governors had met on Thursday and agreed unanimously.

“The RSD board of governors supports the principle of academic selection but in this exceptional year, after careful consideration, governors unanimously decided not to use the AQE single test scheduled for 27th February and, instead, to use RSD’s contingency admissions criteria for Year 8 admissions for September 2021,” it said.

“In so doing, our most important consideration was giving certainty to P7 pupils and families during the Covid-19 public health crisis. The AQE test will, therefore, not take place at RSD on 27th February.”

It added: “We realise that the children have worked hard in preparing for the tests and that this is not how any of us would have wanted the transfer process to have worked this year.

“However, in the circumstances, we have taken this decision based on what we believe to be in the best interests of the children’s immediate welfare and their longer-term prospects of success at RSD.”

A Belfast Royal Academy statement said testing was the fairest way to allocate places but will apply contingency criteria instead, to be published on Monday.

“We realise that our decision will be a relief for some but a disappointment for others, and this is not the outcome that any of us would have wished or planned for.

“However, given the stress which has been experienced by children and parents as a result of the constantly shifting arrangements resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic to date, we hope that the publication of our decision will alleviate any further anxiety at this time.”

Some 34 grammar schools in Northern Ireland typically use the AQE tests each year.

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