Academic selection test called off in Northern Ireland

Michael McHugh, David Young and Rebecca Black, PA
·4-min read

An academic selection test for primary school pupils in Northern Ireland has been cancelled to end weeks of uncertainty caused by coronavirus restrictions.

The assessment run by a private company was due to be held on February 27 but soaring numbers of hospital admissions have forced a tough lockdown and disrupted lessons.

Health chiefs have warned the measures could continue well into next month.

The joint chief executive of transfer test organiser AQE, Darrin Barr, apologised to pupils.

He said: “We are sorry for the distress caused.

“Everyone is working with the uncertainty of Covid as restrictions change very quickly and we have been reacting.”

He told the BBC’s Evening Extra programme: “Of course we do not want to cause uncertainty and that is why we have come out with this announcement today.”

Sinn Fein, which is an opponent of academic selection, had called for the test’s immediate cancellation while the DUP, a supporter, accused its rivals of using the pandemic as a way to attack the process.

AQE and another private company, PPTC, run several tests each year to facilitate grammar schools in selecting their intake of primary school pupils on the basis of academic performance.

Earlier this month both providers announced the scrapping of tests scheduled in January due to the Covid-19 crisis, having already postponed the exams from their traditional November slot.

Ulster Assembly election 2017
AQE’s subsequent decision to reschedule a single exam for February 27 divided parties in the Stormont executive (Niall Carson/PA)

AQE’s subsequent decision to reschedule a single exam for February 27 had created a storm of controversy, dividing parties in the Stormont executive.

Following its board meeting on Wednesday the AQE said: “The test scheduled for Saturday 27th February will therefore not take place.

“The health and safety of the children due to sit the exams is our top priority.”

AQE operates on behalf of 34 grammar schools in Northern Ireland.

DUP Education Minister Peter Weir said he was disappointed since the assessments had provided parental choice and opportunity for children to gain a place at a post-primary school of their choosing.

“Today’s announcement diminishes that choice significantly,” he said.

Coronavirus – Tue Nov 17, 2020
DUP Education Minister Peter Weir said he was disappointed (Education Department/PA)

Contingency criteria should be finalised soon by schools and will be published by Northern Ireland’s Education Authority on February 2.

The country is the middle of a strict six-week lockdown as hospital admission numbers continue to surge.

The deaths of an additional 19 people with Covid-19 were announced on Wednesday, along with another 1,145 positive cases of the virus.

The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service became the latest emergency service to warn of the impact of the pandemic on its members.

It said: “Like many organisations we are beginning to feel the impact on our ability to deliver our service.

“However, coping mechanisms have been put in place and are working well thanks to the resilience and hard work of our people.”

It expressed confidence it could continue to deliver emergency response to all parts of the country.

The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) has also experienced reduced numbers of staff.

Non-emergency staff have been drafted in to help on the front line but partners from other emergency services have been asked for help.

An NIAS spokesman said: “Even with these additional resources, challenges remain and we are extremely grateful to our colleagues in the other emergency services who have made available a number of staff to assist us at this difficult time.”

He added: “These actions will ensure that the clinical expertise of our own frontline staff is optimised in the most effective manner.”

More than 100,000 coronavirus vaccinations have been administered.

The programme is being stepped up but is dependent on the availability of supplies.

Chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young said the average number of new cases of coronavirus per day in the region had risen to more than 2,000 a day.

He said that while the number of cases is falling, they remain at a “very high level”.

A new rapid test for Covid-19 can return results in just 12 minutes, Health Minister Robin Swann said.

The test could speed the passage of patients through hospital emergency departments.