Education Minister Peter Weir has become the first holder of his Stormont portfolio since power sharing resumed in 1998 to back academic selection. (Belfast Telegraph 7/09/2016)
Writing exclusively for today's Belfast Telegraph, Mr Weir revealed he had reversed department guidance issued to Northern Ireland's primary schools, allowing them for the first time the freedom to choose whether they prepare their pupils to sit unofficial transfer tests.
Around 14,000 children sat the tests set by organisations AQE and GL last year. The minister also accused his predecessor, Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd, of making our primary schools the "victims of outdated dogma" by banning them from being able to help pupils
through the tests to gain a place at a grammar school.
Stormont's first Education Minister, Martin McGuinness, announced in 2002 that the official 11-plus transfer test would be abolished. The final department-set test was sat in 2008.
Since then, unofficial tests have been set by groups in the private sector.
AQE set tests which are mainly used by grammar schools in the state-controlled sector to determine most of their Year 8 intake, while GL set tests which are mainly used by schools in the Catholic-maintained sector, although some schools accept either.
There have been attempts to create a single, unofficial exam, and more talks towards that end are understood to be taking place.
The DUP pledged support for finding a single test system. But Mr O'Dowd consistently spoke out against the tests and opposed academic selection.
In January 2015, the Belfast Telegraph reported how Mr O'Dowd's then department sent letters to 11 primary schools "to offer it the opportunity to comment" on reports they had been "involved in coaching pupils for the unregulated tests during core teaching hours".
Today Mr Weir announced that new guidance will be issued to schools which will allow them the option of preparing P6 and P7 children for transfer tests within class hours.
This will include facilitating test arrangements by supplying support materials, preparation during core teaching hours, coaching in exam techniques and providing familiarisation with the testing environment.
However, Mr Weir clarified no school will be forced to take part in preparing pupils for the tests.
"While I believe strongly in the merits of academic selection, this is not about compelling any school to take a particular course of action, rather the reverse," he said.
"The guidance that I am issuing today sets out the department's support for academic selection, but more importantly removes any perceived threat to schools.
"It accepts that it is in the best interest of pupils to be supported by their primary schools through the process of transfer. Where it is in line with the wishes of parents, schools have a role to play in helping prepare pupils for the tests to enable them to achieve their very best."
This is the fourth Department of Education policy Mr Weir has changed since taking office May and becoming the DUP's first Education Minister.
In June he enabled pupils here to receive GCSE grades from English exam boards who give results using numbers from 9-1, he announced an expanded Investing in the Teacher Workforce scheme and he has also reformed rules governing class sizes.
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