Schools minister Weir told to give firm grammar entry rules after AQE axed

A barrister specialising in education has said schools minister Peter Weir needs to set down clear, firm criteria for how children can enter grammar schools this year.

The AQE test was due to happen late next month but was cancelled earlier this week

Rachel Hogan made the comments after the AQE test, which would normally provide a basis for deciding which primary children can enter grammars, was cancelled.

Meanwhile, primary school head teachers have spoken to the News Letter of upset, confusion, and frustration among parents, who have been left unsure of how their children can progress to a grammar school of their choice.

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The AQE test (a kind of voluntary 11-plus) is normally used as a selection tool, and had been due to take place on February 27 – but was axed this week.

DUP minister Mr Weir then issued a statement saying: “Schools still have the opportunity to use either non-academically selective criteria or alternative data as a proxy for academic selection.”

Schools now have until January 22 to tell the Education Authority what their final admissions criteria is.

Mrs Hogan, who works for the Childrens’ Law Centre, says the department already has a list of criteria for schools to use – but that it is mere guidance, rather than a full and firm checklist.

That guidance criteria is (in the descending order of importance):

:: Priority should go to applicants entitled to free school meals;

:: Applicants from a feeder/named primary school;

:: Geographic criteria (applicants living in a particular parish or near the school)

:: Applicants who have a sibling currently attending the school;

:: And some unspecified “tie-breaker criteria”.

Ultimately schools “can use any criteria they like”, said Mrs Hogan. But if they do opt for different criteria, they may face legal challenges (and the department would not cover costs if they lost).

“Obviously some parents have called for using the last couple of test results or teacher assessment [instead of the AQE test], but I think the teaching unions aren’t keen to be put in a position of making these decisions on transfer,” she said.

“It’s now time for the department to take this nettle in hand and get it sorted out quickly. People need to be directed in an emergency. Guidance isn’t cutting it. People need to be directed.”

Nuala Hall, principal of Carrickfergus Central Primary School, said: “We’ve got some very anxious children and parents.

“There doesn’t seem to be anything to do with ability.

“That is very disappointing because we have children here who don’t have relatives at grammar school, who maybe [have] parents who never went to grammar school, and would’ve been able to pass this test – and they’re not going to be able to get in.”

Jack Wallace, principal of Stranmillis Primary School in south Belfast, said: “People are simply frustrated and confused and waiting for clarity. In general I’d like more leadership from the minister.”

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