Pandemic transfer test debate lacks a resolution

3 Nov 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 3 Nov 2020

Education Minister Peter Weir
Education Minister Peter Weir

Even if the transfer test goes ahead, it might cause more problems than it prevents for an Education Minister who is wholly committed to academic selection.


Schools in Northern Ireland opened their doors yesterday after a Covid-19 shutdown dressed up as an extended Halloween.

At the start of this break, Education Minister Peter Weir informed the Assembly that he is not even preparing for the possibility of any further closures. He told the chamber that “I am not planning for failure.”

Taken literally, this is an absurd position for a minister to assume. If governance was only about making plans for the things you want to happen it would be a blissful job.

It is likely that Mr Weir was using a rhetorical flourish as much as he was making a substantive point but, nevertheless, for him to say that he is not creating contingency plans in the middle of a pandemic (even if, behind closed doors, he is making such plans) is quite a statement of intent.

However, there is subtext behind that intent. Academic selection is one of the most divisive issues in Northern Irish education.

Within the broader argument about whether or not the transfer tests are fit for purpose, or if selection is a good or a bad thing, there is a specific argument about the fairness of making 10- and 11-year-old children sit stressful exams during a global pandemic, and following a calendar year of mass school disruptions – with those disruptions affecting some children much more than others.

Yesterday Mr Weir – a passionate supporter of academic selection - was back in the chamber, faced with an Education Committee motion stating:

That this Assembly takes note of the feedback to the Committee for Education's online survey into post-primary transfer testing and calls on the Minister of Education to outline contingency plans for post-primary arrangements.


The committee motion was moved – as is the usual protocol – by the chair of the committee. In this case that is Chris Lyttle, an Alliance Party MLA. Mr Lyttle is sceptical about the selection process in general, and has already criticised as ineffective Mr Weir’s decision to postpone the tests into January, saying this “seems more about preserving a system than supporting children.”

Mr Lyttle told Stormont that the committee had tried to engage with the minister, test providers and with selective schools to determine what plans were being put in place but this did not go well.

“The response, or lack thereof, that the Education Committee received was concerning. We therefore sought to engage more widely with parents, guardians, teachers, children and young people via the online post-primary transfer survey.

“The survey was unanimously agreed by DUP, Sinn Féin, SDLP, UUP and Alliance Party members of the Education Committee, with the assistance of the Assembly Engagement team.

The survey was completed by over 8,500 people. Approximately 6,500 respondents were parents and guardians, about half of whom are responsible for children in P6 or P7. Around 1,800 respondents were teachers, with about half teaching P6 or P7 pupils.

“Disappointingly, the Education Minister refused the Committee's request for the survey to be sent to all teachers in Northern Ireland via the C2k network. About 750 respondents were children or young people, of whom three quarters indicated that they were entering P7.”

The survey found that 61% of parents/guardians, 64% of teachers and 67% of others said they were very or extremely concerned about children taking transfer tests following lockdown.

It also found that, more generally, 43% of respondents felt the current post-primary transfer tests should be abolished, 19% felt they should be retained, 29% felt they should be reformed, with 9% unsure.

Mr Lyttle said he is not against grammar schools – which he said have an approach to education, and are not fundamentally about academic selection. “Teachers can differentiate their teaching approach to different aptitudes in a school without an archaic admissions system to differentiate pupils by school. That, however, is a wider debate about academic selection that the Assembly needs to have in an open and inclusive manner.”


The motion put to the Assembly was not about abolishing academic selection. It does not even go so far as to call for this year’s tests to be scrapped. There are several different views on the transfer process and these were outlined during the subsequent debate.

Robin Newton of the DUP disagreed with the tone taken by Mr Lyttle, but said that it was right and proper that the committee scoping was carried out, before citing further findings from the survey.

“When asked the question about whether the test should be run as planned in the autumn, 45% of young people wanted the test to be run as planned rather than changing the date of the term; 25% felt that schools should use a different way of assessing academic ability, based on scores in primary schools; 14% felt that the tests should be delayed until January 2021; and 12% felt that the tests should not be run.

“When young people were asked about whether the tests should be abolished, 35% felt that they should be retained, 14% felt that they should be changed and 13% were unsure. While 38% wanted the tests to be abolished, up to 62%, therefore, wanted the tests to be retained or changed or were unsure.”

Sinn Fein’s Karen Mullan said she was against the transfer test per se, adding that over 90% of teachers surveyed were concerned about the tests proceeding this year.

Daniel McCrossan of the SDLP said his party is fundamentally against academic selection but that his “biggest concern” with this year’s process is with the significant educational disruption caused by the pandemic noting that “the blended learning that children were encouraged to engage in during lockdown has been recognised to be a much less effective way of learning when compared with face-to-face teaching”.

He also highlighted the risk that Covid-19 might worsen over Christmas, which could plunge the system into a crisis given that the exams would, by that stage, be imminent.

Ulster Unionist Robbie Butler said he believed there was actually some balance and nuance in the results of the survey, and that if there is to be any change to Northern Ireland’s system of academic selection it should be because the current system is being replaced by something better.

Ministerial view

The Minister spoke at length in response to the debate. He said he welcomed the survey but that there are limitations with any such endeavour “not least this survey” – which he said was self-selecting and that he had no doubt some people will have responded more than once.

Parents raised a number of issues in the report that I want to highlight. Those include concerns about pupils not having enough time to prepare for tests and the possibility of further disruption to schools due to COVID.

“I understand that both providers have made changes to their test arrangements by allowing extra time for young people to sit the tests. The dates are chosen by the providers. The only direct role for the Department on the dates is ensuring that the tests can be completed, results can be issued and transfer can take place on time.

“It is also that the tests are not an overall standard that must be met. The tests assess literacy and numeracy skills, which are core to the Key Stage 2 curriculum.

“Concern has also been expressed that some children may not have access to computers or home-based support if they miss school. Where this happens, schools will have contingency plans for remote learning that reflect the needs of pupils, so a number of measures have already been taken.

“There is the provision of IT devices to pupils in three phases: the identification of existing devices that are owned by schools, the purchase of the 3,600 additional laptops, and the purchase of 8,000 additional Chromebooks for distribution to pupils who are assessed, by the EA [Education Authority] and schools, as those who are most in need…

“Schools' boards of governors have got the right to use academic selection or not to use it. That right has been used successfully for both. On this occasion, a number of schools have indicated that they will not use academic selection on a one-year basis…

“[However] in the press statement that they released to say that they were not going to use academic selection, what those schools revealed about the criteria that they intend to use is that they will draw largely on their existing criteria, which prioritise the children of existing teachers at the school; those who have a sibling at the school; and those for whom it depends on an accident of birth, by which I mean that it is an all-boys or all-girls school and depends on whether they have a brother or a sister. In some cases, it will depend on whether their parents went to that school.

“If we are truly looking for a more egalitarian society, schools are certainly entitled to use their own criteria, but I have to say that a system in which selection for grammar school is done by a form of hereditary right is not one that strikes me as being more equal than what exists at present.”

No resolution

The minister then turned his attention to the broader debate about the merits of selection, per se, and the comments from all angles of the chamber were along party lines.

However, the use of that phrase – party lines – is misleading. This is an issue that draws on deep passions. There are many MLAs with very strong views. The debate, at times, became personal.

Of course, the issue of academic selection was not resolved at Stormont on Monday, November 2, in the year 2020. Neither, in truth, was the issue of the transfer test for this academic year.

The minister outlined several ways in which the education system is trying to cope with Covid-19. These including blended learning, provision of laptops and mobile Wi-Fi devices to children who need them, and the safety measures that schools are taking to make sure they stay open. However, none of this was news to those behind the motion.

It is also worth noting that the minister is technically correct that the two private firms that provide transfer tests for Northern Ireland set the dates for those tests and are broadly responsible for their general logistics. However, the minister can influence these companies to a significant degree. They are the supplier, Northern Ireland is the customer.

The motion passed with broad support. The minister looks like he has no intention of changing course. Indeed, it is not that his position seems to be in opposition to the motion but, rather, that he feels the thrust of what the motion requests is already being fulfilled.

Expect this issue to run and run.

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