Transfer tests are more in the spotlight than ever
Peter Weir’s inaction over this year’s post-primary transfer tests has backfired.
Setting aside the quality of the minister’s governance on this issue, Mr Weir has lit a fire under the very cause he wanted to stay cold.
The minister is a dyed-in-the-wool advocate of the transfer tests. He did not want them cancelled this year and, more than that, he does not want their broader worth called into question.
Earlier this month senior colleagues in the DUP, including First Minister Arlene Foster and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, accused those calling for a cancellation of this year’s AQE and PPTC tests of a proxy war against the tests per se.
Requests for a null year in the middle of a pandemic were hardly unreasonable. What was unreasonable was the minister’s refusal to even produce contingency plans in case rates of Covid-19 meant testing could not go ahead.
The comments from Ms Foster and Mr Donaldson came the day after Mr Weir cancelled GCSEs and A levels – exams that are undeniably more important than the transfer test, and which were largely due to take place much later in the year, in spring, when viral numbers are very, very likely to be lower than over the next couple of months.
The minister failed to recognise that contingency plans would make the tests more likely to go ahead because, one way or another, parents, schools and (most of all) the children themselves would have some clarity about what would happen, depending on infection rates.
Children were anxious last summer about tests scheduled for November. Late on, those tests were moved into January, meaning both the hard work and the anxiety continued over Christmas. That anxiety spilled into this month, when exams were due to take place on four consecutive Saturdays. That become one exam, in February. Now it is no exams.
And, now, academic selection is under the microscope. The Minister was asked to visit the Education Committee tomorrow to be grilled about comments he made that many people took as the dismissal of Northern Ireland’s non-selective post-primary schools (something he subsequently denied).
Many parents are furious with Mr Weir – including those who believe in academic selection. One example is Tim Cairns, a former DUP SpAd, who said of the final postponement: “At this stage I don’t know if I should laugh or cry? The way our children have been treated today is not right. Why could AQE not have announced this earlier?”
However, in a response to deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill welcoming this news, he said: “Welcome for whom? Our daughter in tears as she won’t be able to sit the test she has worked so hard for and now faces an uncertain lottery with no plan B. So certainly not welcomed by her.”
Last summer, Carla Rollock Kieran organised a petition to cancel this year’s tests. She previously told Scope that, while she was opposed to the tests in general, that was not the reason for her campaign this year.
She was extremely keen to stress that this year is different – we all know why – and that, between months of lost classroom time, the fact that this lost learning impacted some children far more than others, and the ongoing threat to public health, this year’s tests were a bad idea.
Mr Weir was not for turning. Ultimately, the tests were cancelled by the providers (after the schools themselves began to drop out), providers that commissioned to carry them out on Northern Ireland’s behalf.
Speaking again to Scope this week, Ms Rollock Kieran said: “We welcome this long overdue decision. Our campaign group has been warning the Department of Education for months about the challenges facing P7 families during the pandemic and the inequity in access to learning. We’ve been begging for the Education Minister to scope out contingencies to testing as it seemed highly predictable that these tests wouldn’t and shouldn’t happen
“It is very disappointing that Peter Weir seemed more focused on defending academic testing and engaging in ideological debate than on contingency planning during this extraordinary year… Our hope is that the Department will now take control of this chaos; identify need, and work across schools to ensure that the fairest criteria is used to meet the needs of all transitioning P7 children.
“Our P7 children have been working hard towards the test, many over Christmas. It’s just a shame that, like so many other decisions affecting education, it wasn’t made earlier at a time that would have provided real certainty and allowed families to enjoy the holidays and make future plans. At least our kids won’t be preparing for tests while trying to engage in homeschooling over the next 6 weeks.”
The delays, reduction and, finally, cancellation of the tests has been a circus. It has also put the bit between the teeth for people keen to see the tests abandoned in general or, at least, see their merit questioned.
Certain DUP figures might say this simply reveals the truth behind the motivations of people saying that 10-year-olds don’t need to be tested during a global pandemic. In which case, they are being very kind to themselves.
Momentum has built over the course of long and increasingly bitter arguments about the tests. Arguments that would not have taken place had the minister either been more decisive earlier. Arguments that would, at the very least, been quieter had he even drafted a Plan B.
Instead, over the past few months the transfer tests have been as big a political football as Brexit. However, any argument about NI’s post-primary transfer tests is hampered by a lack of information.
There is no significant, evidence-based study dedicated specifically to Northern Ireland about the effects of the tests (good, bad, and everything in between).
The minister has continually made the argument that tests are a more equitable pathway to school entry than a system based on postcodes or old school ties. This argument is plausible. But, what if the opposite is true?
Brandon Hamber is a Professor at Ulster University. Originally from South Africa, on January 5 he wrote on social media: “For anyone not from Northern Ireland let me tell you how it rolls here. Kids are streamed in schools at the age of 10 or 11. This is done through exams. Research consistently shows that it favours privileged kids unquestionably. The exams were cancelled in November due to Covid, then moved to January.
“After an outcry they announced today it's not going ahead on Saturday. Now they are saying they will do the exams the end of February, leaving kids hanging again. This must feel like torture to a 10 year old.
“Basically, the authorities and certainly [sic] political parties are determined to stress children out to maintain social privilege. It is a disgrace. I am tired of politicians talking about the mental health of children while presiding over a system that utterly undermines it. As a psychologist I cannot stay quiet.”
These comments make clear Mr Weir’s self-sabotage. Of course, with the wider debate now very much alive, those who believe in selection and NI’s grammar school system are also having their say.
Dr William Kitchen, a lecturer at Stranmillis College, wrote in the News Letter about a study showing that comprehensive education has not been proven to reduce inequalities when compared with selective systems.
Elsewhere the debate has moved from one about the pandemic to something wider. Prof. Siobhan O’Neill is the interim NI Mental Health Champion. On January 6 she was calling for tests to be cancelled “this year”. On January 14 she was pointing out that in NI pupils were never selected “on their own merit”.
Of course, this is not all on the shoulders of the Education Minister. The pandemic left him in an incredibly difficult position.
Furthermore, academic selection is one of the major controversies of Northern Irish education, on a par with segregation. At some point, the argument was always going move somewhere more material – away from slogans and towards evidence and analysis.
The Independent Review of Education is due to begin this year. It is meant to be a comprehensive examination of all education in Northern Ireland.
That is a mammoth project, a remarkable thing to commit to, and this is why it might not reach a proper resolution on an issue as large and divisive as the transfer test (see also: segregation).
It would be unfortunate if the breadth of the task left it unable to examine certain major sticking points in proper depth. However, that is a plausible outcome. It is easy to imagine the review panel’s recommendations including a call for a full, evidence-based analysis of selection – rather than a determination that academic selection is great or requires significant, specified reforms or should be scrapped.
That won’t be good enough. Not now. In truth, it wouldn’t have been good enough, in any case. It is an absurdity that NI has continued a major policy, in divergence with most modern thinking, without an evidence base.
Rather than shut the door on debate about selection, the Education Minister has helped open the door. He might not like it, but – however everything shakes out - this is a good thing.
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