The headline looks great, but it’s too early to tell whether Northern Ireland’s Transfer Test has been cancelled for good, or whether it’s only for this pandemic year.

In England, most grammar schools offered an 11-plus in late October 2020, with DfE guidance  in late July suggesting ‘no child is “likely to perform to their utmost ability in a test at the beginning of September.’  In Northern Ireland, around a dozen grammar schools had already abandoned plans to use an admission test by this point. Eleven Catholic grammar schools, and one partially selective school announced that they would use distance or other criteria to admit pupils to join the school in September 2021.

There was a strong campaign by the Catholic heads and church leaders to avoid using an 11-plus. Dr Dónal McKeown, the Bishop of Derry, noted, “Transfer is a once-only-in-a-lifetime, unrepeatable test and to base major decisions on something that is so flawed in the current circumstances seems to me to be educationally very, very hard to justify as most schools have recognised“. He later suggested AQE, one of the companies operating the Transfer Test, was motivated by business interests not the welfare of children. A group of more than 200 Catholic heads highlighted, “the inevitable emotional distress of primary school children during this pandemic” and called for the test to be cancelled.

While 11 of Northern Ireland’s 67 grammar schools announced they would abandon selection in July, the remaining grammars planned to go ahead with the Transfer Test as usual in November 2020. A decision was made to delay the test by two weeks but this minimal change was widely criticised. A Judicial Review was launched with lawyers representing two disadvantaged pupils who were due to sit the tests, with the test date decision challenged in the High Court. The children were granted anonymity, with a lawyer representing the families saying, ‘”Making children undertake life-changing exams during such turbulent times would be most unfair.”

The legal arguments centred around an alleged failure to properly consult, as well as arguing that moving to new dates in November and December was unfair and in breach of human rights. The case put Education Minister Peter Weir, plus the two Transfer Test companies, the Association for Quality Education (AQE), and the Post-Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC), under pressure. They promptly announced that the test dates would be moved to January 2021.

In early 2021 a surge in Covid cases led to school closures and a new lockdown in Northern Ireland. On January 5th, just days before the Transfer Test was due to be held, both 11-plus test companies were forced to cancel their tests.  Grammar schools were asked to set new admission criteria, with most opting for distance or feeder schools, with some operating a lottery among all pupils who applied to sit a test at the school. Two schools caused controversy by attempting to use academic criteria based on primary tests taken when children were just 9 years old. Some disappointed families criticised rules that prioritised places for those with siblings or parents previously attending the grammar school, pointing out that these rules discriminated against immigrants to Northern Ireland. While a few grammar schools appear to be trying to manipulate their intake to admit high attainers, many more seem to be simply preparing for a change to comprehensive education. It is possible that some of the more unusual admission rules will face a legal challenge.

Sadly, Peter Weir, the Education Minister, appears to support academic selection. He was criticised for a tweet  suggesting, the cancellation of the 11-plus, “severely limits parental choice and children’s opportunities”. He later apologised and admitted that children could also thrive in non-selective schools!

Many grammar schools have said they plan to return to academic selection. However, Peter Weir appears not to be getting involved in the debate. He has claimed it is not a government decision but instead is up to the board of governors at each school whether academic selection should return.

The next Transfer Test is due to take place in November 2021. It seems likely that more than a few selective schools will continue with comprehensive admissions. The 12 schools who abandoned selection last summer did so based on the very sensible position that no test could  judge children fairly when their experiences of schooling were so unequal. With pupils missing schools for many months this argument still stands.

It seems bizarre to think that any school could admit pupils of all attainment levels, welcome them to the school, teach them successfully, and then the very next year suggest that these kinds of pupils do not fit. What message does that send to a year group that are part of a school, yet clearly not wanted? Let’s hope that the governors of Northern Ireland grammar schools will do the right thing and drop the awful Transfer Test for good.



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