Belfast Telegraph

Transfer test: Warning letters to Northern Ireland schools over coaching sparks new row

By Rebecca Black

Head teachers and parents across Northern Ireland have been left in an impossible position over the political deadlock caused by the vacuum left by the abolition of the 11-plus, it has been claimed.

The Department of Education has been blasted for writing to 11 primary schools after it emerged teachers had been preparing children for unregulated transfer tests.

Since the official 11-plus transfer test was abolished in 2008, children have been sitting unofficial tests in a bid to gain a place at academically selective grammar schools.

Last year some 10,000 children sat the tests issued by AQE and GL Assessment despite opposition by Education Minister John O'Dowd.

Mr O'Dowd has urged schools to abandon academic selection.

The BBC's Nolan Show revealed that 11 schools had received letters from the department since May 2012 about allegations they prepared children during school hours for the transfer tests. UUP MLA Danny Kinahan blasted these as "warning" letters.

However, a spokesman for the department insisted the letters which were written simply "highlight the existing position and offer the opportunity for them to comment".

Yesterday the Belfast Telegraph contacted a number of the schools on the list. However, none was prepared to comment.

Mr Kinahan said he felt it was unfair for schools to be singled out.

"The principals of all primary schools have been placed in this invidious situation because the AQE and GL tests have become increasingly popular with parents," he said.

Mr Kinahan also lashed out at the situation, where for six years unofficial tests have been used.

"That is parental choice - something which minister O'Dowd makes great play of when it suits him; for example when justifying a new Irish language secondary school with officially unsustainable enrolment levels," he said. He added that his party wanted to see an official transfer test reintroduced.

"Principals, teachers, parents and children should not be the victims of this continuing political deadlock," he said.

TUV vice-chairman Richard Cairns claimed that ending academic selection had created "an unequal system".

"All pupils should be able to sit a single test that could be used by all schools who use test results for admission," he said.

A spokesman for the Department of Education said: "Primary schools play a distinct and crucial role in the educational development of all children and have a statutory duty to deliver the curriculum to all pupils.

"Where the department becomes aware of concerns that a school may not be fulfilling this obligation, perhaps because those concerns relate to the fact a school may be using core teaching time to prepare children for unregulated tests, the department will write to the school to offer it the opportunity to comment."

He said the department wrote to some primary schools following reports that they had been involved in coaching pupils for the unregulated tests during core teaching hours.

"This was to provide the school principals with an opportunity to confirm that the board of governors had complied with their legal duty to have regard to the department's guidance, and that the school was meeting its statutory obligation to deliver the curriculum to all pupils," he said.

"The fact that the department writes to a school does not indicate that the school has been engaging in preparing children for unregulated tests."

The schools

Knocknagin Primary School, Desertmartin;

Strandtown Primary School, Belfast;

Broadbridge Primary School, Eglinton;

St Francis' Primary School, Lurgan;

Stranmillis Primary School, Belfast;

Armstrong Primary School, Armagh;

St Bride's Primary School, Belfast;

St Malachy's Primary School, Newry;

St Anne's Primary School, Dunmurry;

Cranmore Integrated Primary School, Finaghy;

Andrews Memorial Primary School, Comber

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