Peter Weir: Academic selection safe, and I want to improve it

New Education Minister, Peter Weir pictured with Elizabeth Huddleson, principal of Bangor Grammar School and pupils Ewan McKenzie (left) and Conor Lusty (right) during a visit to the school. Picture: Michael Cooper

New Education Minister, Peter Weir pictured with Elizabeth Huddleson, principal of Bangor Grammar School and pupils Ewan McKenzie (left) and Conor Lusty (right) during a visit to the school. Picture: Michael Cooper

The DUP’s new Education Minister Peter Weir has told the News Letter he will look at ways to make the use of academic selection across Northern Ireland easier for pupils, parents and schools.

Sinn Fein has held the post since 1999, abolishing the department’s 11-plus exam in 2008.

Grammar schools across Northern Ireland quickly set up their own independent tests, but under Sinn Fein the department wrote to schools warning them against helping children prepare for the new tests during school hours.

On Thursday the DUP’s new minister in the position, North Down MLA Peter Weir, hinted that he would be willing to undo some of the steps taken by Sinn Fein.

“We have made it clear that as far as we in the DUP are concerned that academic selection is here to stay,” he told the News Letter. “It is a settled issue.

“However, there is no compulsion on schools, parents or schools to operate transfer tests if they don’t wish to.”

Asked if he had any plans to make changes on the transfer tests he replied: “If there are ways we can improve that and get agreement on this we will do that.

“At the minute there are different bodies and different tests.”

If there are proposals on how this can be improved “I will be willing to explore them,” he said.

He rejected pre-election proposals by Mike Nesbitt for transfer tests to be replaced by continual assessment at primary school, describing them as a “non-runner”. Unions had not backed the UUP idea either, he said.

Although Sinn Fein abolished the 11-plus the DUP passed a law through the St Andrew’s deal to give schools the option of selection, he added.

At present the department requires schools not to do transfer test preparation outside school hours, causing headaches for many schools. He said he may review this.

“Clearly there is a strong desire for transfer tests. If the process can be in any way improved I will be very happy. I will want to look at that.

“Any artificial obstacles that are simply creating problems for parents and schools and which don’t change overall policy, I will want to examine such specific arrangements.”

He is “content” with the Dickson Plan operating in central Armagh and has no immediate plans for integrated education, pending the outcome of a departmental report on the matter.

The previous minister, John O’Dowd, had agreed to look at barriers to employment for teachers trying to enter the maintained sector.

“At present there is an exemption in fair employment legislation which allows the maintained education sector to give preference to teachers with specifically Catholic qualifications.”

He indicated he will look into the issue, adding: “I believe in equality.”

As outgoing chair of the Stormont education committee, he championed new anti-bullying legislation through the Assembly, which includes common definitions of bullying, reporting procedures and places direct responsibility on governors to have an anti-bullying policy.

Work now will proceed on completing the framework for it to be implemented in schools.

“I hope to play a central role in this,” he added.