Covid-19: Post-primary transfer tests cancelled in Northern Ireland

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

Published
image copyrightnoipornpan
image captionTransfer tests are used to select pupils by the majority of NI grammar schools

Post-primary transfer tests have been cancelled in Northern Ireland amid a Covid-19 surge.

The decision was announced just four days before thousands of pupils were due to sit the first of a series of exams on Saturday.

The tests are used to select pupils by the majority of NI grammar schools.

It comes as schools are likely to shut until after the half-term break in mid-February as part of efforts to stem the soaring number of coronavirus cases.

Northern Ireland is in the second week of a six-week lockdown in which non-essential retail is closed.

With more than 12,000 new cases of Covid-19 over the last seven days, further restrictions are coming and Stormont ministers are meeting later to discuss them.

On Tuesday, the Department of Health reported a further 1,378 people had tested positive for the virus in the past 24 hours.

There have also been 18 more Covid-19 related deaths.

The number of new daily confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK has topped 60,000 for the first time since the pandemic started.

According to government figures on Tuesday, the number of people who have tested positive reached 60,916.

COVIDCare NI Mobile App is now providing daily updates of the latest statistics related to coronavirus.

'Should have been sorted'

The transfer tests are run by the Association for Quality Education (AQE) and the Post Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC).

The AQE tests were due to go ahead on 9, 16 and 23 January.

The PPTC test was due to take place on Saturday 30 January with a supplementary test on Saturday 6 February.

In a statement to BBC News NI, AQE said the tests would not take place in January due to the executive's decision to close schools.

It said it would now consult with the 34 grammar schools that use its tests about a way forward.

image copyrightPA Media
image captionSchools in England, Scotland and Wales have also been closed to most pupils

The PPTC said an expected announcement by the executive that schools would move to remote learning for many pupils until late February meant their tests would not proceed.

"If no pupils are able to sit the Entrance Assessment on 30 January 2021 because of Covid restrictions, and these restrictions would not have ended before 6 February 2021 then PPTC will be unable to provide an assessment for any pupils," said a PPTC statement.

"The responsibility falls on PPTC schools to ensure that their admissions criteria cover this contingency.

"PPTC accept that this decision may be disappointing to many children who would have welcomed the opportunity to take the assessment."

Some grammar schools had already outlined how they would admit pupils using "Covid-19 criteria" if transfer tests were cancelled.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, whose party Sinn Féin is opposed to the transfer test, was among those who had been calling for the exams to be cancelled.

She tweeted: "The decision to cancel transfer tests due to take place this week is welcome.

"This year has been emotionally and mentally challenging enough for children without the burden of these exams.

"DUP minister now needs to provide clarity on other exams."

Colin Torrens, principal of Lisnagelvin Primary School in Londonderry, said the decision to cancel at such a late stage was "shocking" but it was the right decision.

"Children have been put through 12 months of all that hard work only to have it all called off at the last minute," he said.

"They have worked over Christmas, they have worked over holidays and this really should have all been sorted in May."

Executive meeting

The Department for Education (DE) is proposing many pupils should switch to remote learning for a prolonged period.

But schools will be expected to remain open to admit vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

It is also likely that nursery schools and pre-school settings will close although they are likely also to be asked to admit vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

But whether special schools should remain open to all pupils is among the measures as yet undecided, BBC News NI understands.

Ms O'Neill said details of what the executive agreed on Monday would be formalised at an executive meeting on Tuesday, where the health and education ministers will bring separate papers.

Ministers are then due to brief the Northern Ireland Assembly on Wednesday.

Northern Ireland's Education Minister Peter Weir had previously announced a staggered return to school for pupils during the month of January.

Schools in England, Scotland and Wales are closed to most pupils, and the government in the Republic of Ireland is considering a proposal to close schools for the rest of January.

Will this year's GCSEs and A-levels go ahead?

Alternative arrangements for GCSE, AS, A-level and vocational exams will also be discussed by the executive on Tuesday.

There have already been a number of changes, including fewer exams and reduced content in many courses.

However, the government in England announced on Tuesday that GCSE and A-level exams would be cancelled there.

It is not yet clear what alternative arrangements will be put in place in England, with the Education Minister Gavin Williamson to make an announcement on that on Wednesday.

The Scottish and Welsh governments announced last month that they would scrap the exams in 2021.

Justin McCamphill, of teachers' union the NASUWT, said the education minister should scrap GCSEs and A-level exams in Northern Ireland.

"If GCSEs and A-levels can't run in England I really don't see why they would continue to run here," said Mr McCamphill.

"We are not going to be looking at a level playing field and it would not be good for our young people if they were being judged by a different system than children across the rest of UK."

More on this story