Education Minister Peter Weir has responded to angry parents and principals over comments he made on the transfer test.
On Twitter on Wednesday evening, Mr Weir said that the decision taken by the AQE to cancel the transfer test scheduled for February 27 ‘limits children’s opportunities’.
In a thread, he said: “AQE have decided, due to COVID-19, that the transfer tests cannot proceed this year. This severely limits parental choice & children’s opportunities, with disappointment for many children & parents. I will continue to work with all stakeholders in these difficult circumstances.”
This caused an uproar among parents and other users, along with one secondary school principal in Co Derry.
Principal of St Cecilia’s College Martine Mulhern hit back on Twitter.
She said: “This year we were named ‘UK Secondary School of the Year’ but here in N Ireland our education system will always deem us ‘second class’ because we are a secondary school and not grammar! Described by our own Education Minister as ‘limiting children’s opportunities’ – HOW DARE HE!”
He later tweeted that “great opportunities exist throughout our education system, through both selective and non selective schools, all of which have produced the best of Northern Ireland.”
The Education Minister told Good Morning Ulster on Thursday that he “apologises if there is a level of misunderstanding” by these comments.
Mr Weir told GMU: “The message I was trying to get across in relation to that is, there are opportunities to apply and indeed gain entry for a range of schools, once that level of parental choice is reduced for any school – because I think both selective and non-selective schools have got excellent records in Northern Ireland – Martine is right in terms of the great work that has been done at St Cecilia’s and across the board – but once the opportunities for entry to any school is reduced, then that is a reduction of opportunities for all, whether that would be a reduction in St Cecilia’s or in a grammar school, I think that is something where the opportunities for that family have been reduced.
“I apologise if I was clumsy in my language – I apologise for that and there was no adverse intention meant towards non-selective schools.
“What is the case, as I said, is where any family has reduced opportunities in terms of getting to the entry point for any school or their chances of getting into a particular school, then that is a reduction of opportunities for that families. That is irrespective of what school it is within the sector, indeed if it is primary or post-primary.”
Peter Weir also responded on GMU to comments that he had “let children down” and that he along with AQE “have handled the situation terribly”.
He said: “I don’t accept that I have let children down but I entirely understand, I think this is a very disappointing day for many families. I think that the transfer test, while it is never been about being compulsory for either a school or an individual parent, does enable a level of parental choice and that has been dramatically reduced as a result of that.
“I don’t think that in terms of the in and out sort of route that has been pursued over the last couple of weeks by AQE has been particularly helpful in relation to that. It is entirely understandable that many families would be deeply disappointed.
“I think that in trying to ensure the widest range of choice that was available to parents was maintained, I think was the right thing, but sadly we have seen for this year, the pandemic has prevented those transfer tests taking place.
“I am very disappointed.”
On Tuesday the AQE had issued a statement saying the transfer test would go ahead.
Mr Weir told GMU he has been in touch with a “wide range of stakeholders”, but in terms of the cancellation, he was informed shortly after lunchtime on Wednesday for the first time.
He added: “I don’t think the way things have worked out from AQE’s point of view, particularly over the last couple of weeks, have been particularly helpful. I think there has been a lack of consistency there.”
Schools are now to set the criteria for entry themselves, and the Education Minister said they were told before Christmas to give consideration to the Covid circumstances in terms of criteria and to look at what actions would be needed if the test was cancelled.
“Clearly for lots of schools they would be in the position were they have looked to AQE in support in terms of setting that test, have been in a situation were it is pulled from them aswell.
“It is right they are given a bit of extra time to ensure that the criteria that is put in place is right for that particular school”, he added.