Post-primary Transfer Contingency Plans

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 21st September 2021.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 2:00 pm, 21st September 2021

1. Mr Beggs asked the Minister of Education what contingency plans are in place for P7 transfer tests should disruption continue into the autumn as a result of a spike in COVID-19 cases. (AQO 2437/17-22)

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

6. Mr Muir asked the Minister of Education to outline contingency plans for post-primary transfer in 2021-22 should disruption occur due to COVID-19. (AQO 2442/17-22)

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 1 and 6 together.

The post-primary transfer tests are organised and operated by two private operators, the Association for Quality Education Limited (AQE) and the Post Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC). I have no role to play in their operation or timing. However, I have highlighted to the test providers the importance of ensuring that they comply with health protection legislation and of communicating clearly and early to parents, pupils and schools if contingency plans are being considered, should the tests not proceed or pupils are not able to take any of the tests.

If the tests are cancelled, it will be a matter for individual boards of governors to decide and publish the alternative admissions criteria that they will apply for admitting pupils to their post-primary school in September 2022. My Department publishes guidance annually on the post-primary admissions process. The guidance includes recommendations on the admissions criteria that post-primary schools should and should not use and a timetable for the process.

Now that Transfer 2021 has concluded, my Department will undertake a "lessons learned" exercise with the Education Authority (EA) and key stakeholders in advance of the issue of guidance for Transfer 2022. The exercise will examine issues such as the process for schools submitting their admissions criteria, the use of the new online admissions portal and the operation of the admissions appeals process, including, on the basis of appeal outcomes, the robustness of schools’ admissions criteria. Once that process is complete, it will inform the issue of revised guidance to schools on the process this autumn. As I have noted, the setting and application of admissions criteria remains a matter for school boards of governors.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I thank the Minister for her answer. Whilst the test is operated by outside bodies, is the Minister willing to facilitate testing in local primary schools? The young people would be in their protective bubbles and would have the advantage of a familiar background.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. As he will be aware, there is no bar to prevent primary schools from hosting the test. However, it is a matter for individual schools. In 2016, my Department removed the instruction that had prevented that. Recently, I met the Bring it Back to Primary campaign and teacher representatives to explore the issue. Teacher representatives were opposed in principle to it, as were the majority of the small number of school leaders who were at the meeting. While there would obviously be benefits for pupils, the proposal is not without difficulties, and they were highlighted at the meeting. They include logistical issues such as the security of papers and school premises being used on Saturday mornings, often by community groups and other organisations. There are also workload issues for staff, who, in some cases, may have to be available on up to five successive Saturdays in November and December.

Any move away from the current arrangements would require the consent of all primary schools and teacher representatives. I certainly cannot compel them to agree to it. Unless the schools agree, there is a risk of creating an inequality, in that some pupils would be given the opportunity to sit the test in their school while others would not. Certainly, from an individual perspective, I would welcome such a move, but I cannot compel schools to do that.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Minister for her response. Does the Minister accept that the absence of common contingency criteria for post-primary admissions last year caused immense harm and distress to children? Will she commit to putting in place common contingency criteria for this year in order to avoid that distress to children, who should be the focus of everything that we do?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I do not disagree with the Member. As he will know, test providers have reviewed and modified the content of this year's tests to take into account any disruption that has taken place over the past 18 months, and the full details of that are available on their websites. The Member will also appreciate that the transfer tests will compare only the pupils who have chosen to take tests in November and December, so they will all have experienced similar issues. Again, the decision to move forward with the tests lies very much with the operators and the schools that use them as an admissions criterion. Certainly, moving forward, there will be lessons learned from last year's experience if we have to go through the same thing again. That will be communicated in correspondence and guidance to schools for their preparation.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

With regard to lessons learned from last year, does the Minister agree that it is important to resolve that there will be no rush to delay or cancel tests? As it turned out, tests probably could have been held last November. Parents want certainty. Can they have the Minister's assurance that everything possible will be done to ensure that the tests take place in November?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. As he will know, over the past number of months, I have tried to ensure that our young people remain in school for as long as is possible. The intervention of the Public Health Agency (PHA) with regard to close contacts will aid that to ensure that P7 pupils will not be disrupted to the level that, perhaps, they were. Again, how the tests are coordinated and timetabled is very much up to the providers. Currently, AQE has set out a timetable of 20 November, 27 November and 4 December. PPTC has set out 13 November, with a supplementary assessment on 11 December. I would like to think that our P7s who have opted to take the tests will be able to do so in the timetable that has been outlined by both providers.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

As a result of the disruption caused by COVID-19, we have found alternative ways to award qualifications to young people, including children moving from primary school to post-primary school. With disruption to individual learning likely to continue through the year, will the Minister put children first, scrap transfer tests and find a method of post-primary transfer that allows all children to reach their full potential?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for her question. I appreciate that there are diverse views on academic selection. Certainly, my view is that academic selection will be maintained. If there is to be any change to that, it will require agreement in the Executive and the Assembly. As the Member will be aware, a significant number of parents have chosen to enter their children in the transfer tests in order to obtain a place in a grammar school of their choice. I support the right of parents to make that decision. Equally, that is what they choose to do.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I declare an interest as the parent of a P7 child. While I appreciate that boards of governors set the criteria for admissions to year 8, will the Department provide more explicit guidance to boards of governors in order to provide uniformity across schools or at least to ensure that the eldest child is not discriminated against?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. The setting of admissions criteria is by law a matter for schools' boards of governors. The Department issues advice on the transfer process, including the criteria that it is recommended that schools should use. However, while schools must by law have regard to that guidance, the setting of admissions criteria remains very much a matter for schools. Even if my Department could compel schools to use a uniform set of admissions criteria, that would be less desirable than the current position, because, essentially, in many instances, it could mean that the same children are prioritised at all schools. Schools' boards of governors are better placed to set admissions criteria that meet the needs of the communities that they serve.

On ensuring that eldest children are not unfairly treated, the guidance advises schools not to use family criteria beyond a sibling currently attending the school. An example would be a parent's attendance, which is a type of criterion with the potential to disadvantage eldest children or newcomer applicants. The Department recommends that sibling connection is prioritised. Unfortunately, we had instances in Transfer 2021 of the separation of twins as the result of some schools' admission criteria.

All of that will be part of the review that will be undertaken and the further advice that will be given to schools if we fall into the same circumstances as last year.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will the Minister provide an assessment of the magnitude of appeals in the allocation of places in 2021-22? Will she agree that putting in place a robust and efficient appeals process for parents, carers and guardians is important?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question about appeals. As he is aware, it was a difficult year for parents and young people, with 280 young people unplaced in June. I found that distressing, and I know that there is a very small number, about five, who are still unplaced, and that needs to be addressed.

As the Member knows, additional money — £130,000 — was put into appeals. Over 120 appeals in respect of post-primary admission were upheld. I am concerned about that, and I think it is important to ensure that schools operate a robust admissions process that minimises unnecessary stress on children and families. It is also important to ensure that all schools can plan for an academic year with certainty and without having to worry about increases or drops in their intake.

My Department will engage in a "lessons learned" exercise, as I indicated, but we will also talk to a number of schools in the coming weeks to ensure that the reason for lost appeals has been identified and that remedial action is put in place to avoid that situation in future. I absolutely agree on the need for a robust process, and I am disappointed in the outcome of this.