Academic Selection

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:45 pm on 16 February 2021.

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Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance 12:45, 16 February 2021

T3. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of Education, in reference to Dr Aiken’s question and in light of the fact that, in recent years, even pre-COVID, several grammar schools have decided to move away from academic selection, whether he is content with that trend or does he intend to put pressure on those schools to revert to his preferred system. (AQT 1003/17-22)

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

There is a right to academic selection in law. The legal position is that it is the responsibility of boards of governors. I believe in the right of schools to use academic selection, so I will not pressurise them to abandon it. Through no fault of anybody in the system, because the situation has been overtaken by COVID, we are seeing a range of difficulties that will probably be magnified in June when pupils and their families find out the location of their post-primary school. In a system without any alternative and without a transfer test, that creates a lot of problems in itself. The issue is that, while we will recommend in guidance the criteria that we believe to be better than others, almost inevitably, any form of criteria will advantage some over others.

I will work with the sector. Those schools — I cannot speak for all of them — that felt that they were unable to use academic selection this year because of the lack of a transfer test are largely heavily and strongly committed to using academic selection. The choice remains, and boards of governors can choose whether to use it. I know that, in the past, some schools have taken a bilateral approach and used it for particular streams, which is also legally permissible.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I thank the Minister for his answer. I appreciate that these are difficult times and that perhaps this is not the best time to have this discussion. Given that a number of schools — in fact, all the grammar schools this year — have chosen their input without the benefit of academic testing, would the Minister consider studying those schools, particularly the ones that had already decided not to go with selection tests, to see what effect, if any, it has had on their performance?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

If we are looking at the intake in a particular year and its academic record, it would take a number of years to determine performance.

For instance, for those entering year 8 in September, it will simply shift the balance a little in where they show up in GCSE statistics. I believe that we have a system that, across the board, has high levels of success. We have seen that, at primary level and at post-primary level, when we have had comparators, in many cases with other jurisdictions across the world, we have had considerable success, including in reducing underachievement.