Weir should explain why he thinks multiple choice beats AQE model

Morning View
Morning View

It was good news for Northern Ireland when Peter Weir took office as the education secretary last year.

Mr Weir is an able member of the DUP Stormont team and it was surprising that he had been overlooked for ministerial office, on occasion losing out to less impressive colleagues.

A reported reason for the delay was that he was important to the party as a backroom figure.

In his new post, Mr Weir immediately made clear that “academic selection is here to stay”. This was a statement of huge significance, coming 18 years after Martin McGuinness was made education minister.

Sinn Fein was determined to abolish grammar schools and it failed in its ultimate objective, but it did undermine academic selection in oblique ways.

It would have been disastrous for the Northern Ireland education system if republicans had had their way. Comprehensive education in Great Britain has merely replaced selection based on ability with selection based on wealth.

People who emerge from state schools find it harder to match the achievements their counterparts from private schools, which unashamedly use traditional and first class teaching. Social mobility in England has declined since the 1960s.

In Northern Ireland there is an understandable push for a single grammar transfer test, rather than two separate systems. Now this is said to be on track via a mooted test that seems to follow the GL model (used mainly by Catholic schools) of multiple choice questions. This appears to jettison the rival AQE test.

It is important that Mr Weir fulfils the spirit of what he said on taking office, by doing what is best for selection.

If a new test diverges from AQE, then he should address critics who say AQE is better at identifying able pupils who are entitled to free school meals. Given the problems in getting poorer children into grammars, particularly in Protestant areas, he could explain why he does not think AQE is best for such kids.

The DUP could also pledge that a single test will not be shaped by any influences who are quietly determined to undermine grammars and who might otherwise seize an opportunity to advance a less rigorous testing system.