Transfer tests headed for crunch time
Doggedness is a virtue. Intransigence is not.
These are different words for the same thing. The truth is that inflexibility is only as good or bad as the position being maintained.
Education Minister Peter Weir is standing his ground on two related issues in the face of criticism – and more - from many quarters.
First and foremost are this year’s post-primary transfer tests. The tests, from the two private providers AQE and PPTC, are due to take place on several consecutive Saturdays in January.
This represents a couple of months delay (which contains the Christmas holidays) compared with the usual placement of the tests in the school year.
Otherwise – and in spite of much opposition – the minister wants the testing system to continue with as few changes as possible, regardless of the topsy-turvy experience that has been the year 2020.
This opposition has come from parents, teachers, and even Northern Ireland’s new mental health champion.
Secondly, there is the mooted early closure of schools ahead of the Christmas holidays.
There are suggestions that some schools are planning to close their doors on December 11 and, parallel to this, that many parents will be removing their children from school on the same date regardless of any closures.
The reason for this is that it is exactly two weeks before Christmas day. If any child (or teacher) is exposed to Covid-19 in school after that date, rules state they will have to isolate over Christmas. Not attending school after December 11 eliminates this threat.
Methody sent 500 Sixth Formers home until new year just last week after 35 positive tests among pupils. If that had happened next week, isolation periods would run over the Christmas period.
This is related to the transfer tests for an obvious reason. The spine of opposition to testing this year concerns the amount of school missed by children, and the fact that this amount of lost learning can vary hugely from child to child.
Removing children from school in what is effectively the couple of weeks leading into the testing period only exacerbates this concern.
Professor Siobhan O’Neill, who works in Mental Health Sciences at Ulster University, became in the summer the first ever Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland, when she accepted the role on an interim basis (ahead of a mooted permanent appointment by next Easter).
This is an important position for NI policy development. One part of the role is integrating health and wellbeing as a priority across government in NI.
Health Minister Robin Swann said: “Since I became Health Minister I have identified mental health as a significant priority. The Covid-19 pandemic has underlined the need for this area of health care to be given the priority it deserves.
“An integral element of bringing that required focus is the appointment of a Mental Health Champion. I am confident that Professor O’Neill will bring the needs of this sector to the very top of the policy agenda.”
Prof O’Neill has come out swinging against this year’s transfer tests. This is another headache for the Education Minister.
On November 24 she said: “How, in all conscience, can we justify putting 10 & 11 year old children through this unnecessary stress & pressure in the time of a pandemic? The schools who plan to use these tests should make alternative arrangements urgently.”
Last week, she spoke with Belfast Live and said continuing with the transfer tests was “shameful” and that data she has seen indicates primary school children’s mental health has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
“I think they need to be cancelled... It's appalling that these organisations and schools claim to prioritise pupils' wellbeing and mental health but they are going ahead with this.
“When 12 schools can scrap them and use alternative criteria, there's no reason the others can't too. The mental health of the children must come first.”
Similar criticisms have been put forward by teachers and their representatives. Dr Graham Gault is the President of the National Association of Head Teachers Northern Ireland (NAHT NI). He said: “This isn’t selection/rejection for a football team or a choir. For 10/11 year old children, it feels like their entire futures are on the line. Those responsible for this have had 9 months to come up with a Plan B.”
Dr Gault has also recently raised concerns about the absence of any contingency plan from Mr Weir, should the tests be unable to go ahead or significantly impaired. Last month an Assembly motion calling for the minister to produce and publish such plans passed with all party support.
Critics have opposed this year’s tests on several grounds. The first is on fairness – some P7 children will have missed much more school than others, putting them at a possibly large disadvantage compared to peers with whom they are competing.
The second is also about fairness. Schools are about the educational and social development of children, not about simply learning to pass exams.
With classroom time so limited and precious this year, some people think the time that children do get in a room with their teachers could be spent in more productive ways than prepping for transfer tests – especially as many children may have faced significant difficulties at home during Covid-19, for all manner of reasons.
The third relates to public health. Although children taking the tests are apparently set to sit in class bubbles, there are major concerns that proper social distancing and isolating different bubbles will be all but impossible and the tests could become spreader events that damage public health.
A lot of school has already been lost. Now, with just a few weeks in the classroom before the tests take place, more could follow.
Mr Weir said: “I will once again stress that there are no plans to extend the Christmas holidays for schools. I believe this would only cause further disruption to children’s education and lead to an increase in levels of stress and anxiety.”
Unfortunately for the minister, his second statement in a couple of weeks did nothing to quell the murmurs that some schools – and some parents – will allow children to take an early cut this term.
Justin McCamphill, a spokesperson for teachers’ union NASUWT, said yesterday: “Closing schools within the week is under consideration for many. We’ve heard that a number of schools may decide to close the doors on Friday and revert to home learning and we know teachers are keen to ensure classes hit the ground running in January.”
If this happens with significant numbers of P7 pupils, it is yet another issue – in a long list of issues – calling into question the veracity of this year’s transfer process.
Hindsight will decide whether Mr Weir is perceived as dogged or intransigent.
If infection rates are low over the next few weeks, testing proceeds in relative normality for the vast majority of pupils, and the tests themselves are not superspreader events, the minister will be happy.
He will still face some criticisms for proceeding – rather than allowing schools to focus on re-engagement with learning and on pastoral care - but he will say there were never going to be any perfect solutions during the time of Covid-19 and his direction has overseen a normal process that proceeded as smoothly as possible.
However, what if that doesn’t happen? What if, by the end of January, rates are soaring? What if large numbers of pupils are unable to sit some or all of the tests? What if the complaints of parents about lost learning continue, and even grow, when the tests are happening?
What if, instead of everything going as well as possible, several things go wrong at once?
The minister did not ask for Covid-19 to sweep across the world and truly his is an unenviable job, filled with lots of choices where all options are troublesome.
However, to date he has declined to even offer up significant contingency plans (bear in mind that contingency plans, by their very nature, are not actually the thing you want or even expect to happen, they are just a back up).
If he presides over a circus, the fact that his job is difficult will not matter.
No-one expects perfection in a pandemic. They do expect some mitigations, and some solutions, even if they are patchwork or temporary or extraordinary.
If the tests – either in their operation, or in their validity – become a joke then Mr Weir will be the minister who, entirely by design, made as few adjustments as possible and created a catastrophe.
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