Belfast Telegraph

MLA raps exam board head for slating single transfer test plan

Former teacher Rosemary Barton supports plans to create a single transfer test in Northern Ireland
Former teacher Rosemary Barton supports plans to create a single transfer test in Northern Ireland
Former teacher Rosemary Barton supports plans to create a single transfer test in Northern Ireland
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

An Ulster Unionist MLA and former teacher has slammed an exams board head for "rubbishing" plans to create a single transfer test.

Rosemary Barton made the comments after a letter from the chairman of the Association for Quality Education (AQE) to school principals and boards of governors was leaked to the media.

John Mulholland said plans for a single transfer test "were not fit for purpose" and that AQE had been kept in the dark about negotiations.

Two different tests currently operate in Northern Ireland, but plans for a unified exam were put forward for consultation in June last year.

The Post-Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC), which operates the GL assessment widely used in Catholic grammar schools, said the response from school principals had been extremely positive.

A report from the BBC also said that most grammar school principals backed the plans.

Mr Mulholland has since contacted the Belfast Telegraph to say AQE still backed the idea of a single test, but had "reservations about the detail of the proposals put forward". He also rejected claims that most principals had decided to support the plans.

Ms Barton, who worked as a teacher for over 30 years, said it was "hugely frustrating now that the AQE board have intervened so publicly and cast doubt over the entire process. Just because they supposedly were kept in the dark by the principals working on the new test - exactly the people I believe who are best placed to find a lasting solution - that alone is not reason enough for them to simply rubbish the plans.

"It is my hope that the principals succeed in their efforts of creating a final agreed test, and despite this regrettable intervention by the AQE board, I am still hopeful for a positive outcome, as ultimately it will be for schools alone to decide whether they wish to agree to a single test or not."

In a statement to this newspaper, Mr Mulholland said: "The letter was intended to be confidential but was leaked to the Press immediately it was issued.

"In due course AQE schools will meet to discuss the proposals and decide the way forward. No decisions have yet been taken. It is entirely inaccurate to state that the majority of principals support the proposals as, at this time, and bearing in mind the restricted time available for deliberation, this is not yet known."

In his letter, he had also expressed concerns that a single test would have a higher overall cost. At present parents pay £50 for children to take part in AQE tests, unless they are eligible for free school meals.

He said the new proposal suggested a compromise where entrants were charged £20, with schools providing the balance which he claimed could be in the region of £6,000-£7,000 and "potentially considerably more".

He maintained the board was supportive of a unified test "but does not accept that it should be adopted at any price".

Stephen Elliott, chair of the Parental Alliance for Choice in Education (PACE), which strongly supports keeping the current AQE testing system, said it was time to end the quest for the "Holy Grail" of a single test, calling it a "failed project of politicians, civil servants and anti-selection interests in academia".

Mr Elliott said he rejected claims it was "inevitable" the plans for a single test would be accepted.

"What most parents find difficult to understand is why, considering these major concerns expressed by Mr Mulholland about the failure of proposals for a single test, the chairman of AQE persists in the view that such an objective is desirable," he added.

Eleven years have passed since the 11-plus was scrapped, but transfer tests are gaining in popularity. In 2016/17, 11,570 applications were made for the 8,743 places at our 63 selective grammars. In 2017/18 12,285 applications were made for the 8,844 places.

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