Education Minister, Peter Weir, today (Friday 18 December) said that all schools and other education settings will reopen in the first week of January and said that he would prefer children to be able sit the transfer test in their own primary school setting.
The Minister said: “My main priority has always been to protect our children’s education, mental health and well-being. I believe that this can best be achieved through face-to-face learning and social engagement in schools.
“I am mindful of the impact the pandemic is having on our children and young people, particularly those who are vulnerable and from disadvantaged backgrounds. We have a high number of vulnerable children in Northern Ireland, for many of these pupils school is a safe haven and closing schools will immediately deprive them of this safe space.
“That is why I have decided that it is in the best interests of all pupils for schools to open in the first week of January so that their education is not disrupted any further.
“I want to again thank school leaders, teachers and staff who have done tremendous work, under very difficult circumstances, to keep schools safe.
“I know that they will continue to reinforce departmental guidance, including the appropriate wearing of masks within schools and on school transport.
“For my part, I will consider what further steps can be taken to help and support schools and will continue to seek the views of principals, school staff and pupils on this issue.
“Finally, I want to wish principals, school staff, pupils and everyone who works in education a Happy Christmas. The New Year will bring challenges but by continuing to work together we can get through this.”
The Education Minister has also urged all stakeholders to try to work together to make it a reality that children can sit the transfer test in their own primary school setting.
Peter Weir said: “My Department facilitates the transfer of all pupils every year from primary to post primary, whether they choose to participate in the selection process or not. The tests themselves are organised by private sector providers. I do not have control over them.
“The hosting of selection tests in the pupil’s own primary school is clearly my preferred option for this year and in fact every year. Indeed, when previously Minister, I lifted the longstanding ban on primary schools hosting the test. This would however require the consent of all host primary schools. Whilst I am sure some Principals and Boards of Governors would be willing to compromise to allow this to take place in the pupil’s home school, it has become clear to me over this year that others will not. This is also the position of the Teachers Unions.
“What we do not want to see is ultimately some primary schools hosting the tests and others being unwilling to do so, as the outworking of this would mean that some pupils will have a ‘home school advantage’, leaving others forced to sit their tests in hosting grammar schools.
“I have engaged with stakeholders over the course of this year but finding agreement has proved difficult. It is my firm belief that these tests should be conducted in the pupil’s own primary school and within their existing ‘bubble’. I urge the providers and principals, given the current position regarding the Covid pandemic, to work to reach an urgent agreement to make this a reality.
“I have also instructed both the schools hosting the tests and the test providers, that all exam centres must be risk assessed and both the location and logistics of the tests must be compatible with public health guidance. A wide range of protective measures are being put in place for the tests, including an acknowledgement from the two test providers that, within the host schools, ‘existing primary school bubbles must be maintained within rooms’ (AQE) and ‘our plans include maintaining bubbles including more than one bubble from the same primary school’ (PPTC).
“There cannot and will not be any compromise with ensuring the safety of our children and families.”
One of the two transfer test organisations, AQE has confirmed their tests will not be held in primary schools in January but will take place in “existing venues”.
A copy of the Minister’s letter to schools is available at: https://www.education-ni.gov.uk/publications/january-restrictions-letter-principals