Jonathan Craig further added that the criteria being used by secondary schools to select pupils is likely to disproportionately hurt bright working-class students.
He was speaking to the News Letter in the wake of wave of complaints from parents of children who have not been able to attain a place in their preferred school this year (or, in some especially unlucky cases, a place in any school).
Since the transfer test was not run this year, instead of selecting pupils based on results, secondary schools have used other criteria such as whether a potential new arrival had a parent working at the school, or whether they went to a prep school or to another preferred feeder school, or whether they already have siblings at the school.
Some schools also base their decision on where the applicant child is living.
He said: “Academic selection, due to Covid, has been taken out of the picture.
“Now that means sadly that young people with huge academic ability, coming from working-class backgrounds, unfortunately do not have the same opportunity to get into grammar schools as they would have normally – mainly when they’re the first person in the family to get in.
“If they had a sibling in the grammar school prior to that under the entrance criteria they would get in.
“I’ve always believed that if you come from a disadvantaged background, and your child has great academic ability, the one way of getting into some of the best schools in the country was the academic test. It proved their ability, and they did get in through that.”
However, this avenue was closed off to such pupils this year, and he likened their chances of getting into a preferred school to a “lottery”.
“I think it’s had a devastating effect on the children involved. A lot of them had, clearly, ambitions to go to certain schools and had built up expectations...
“And it’s been huge devastation for them not to get where they wanted.
“In past years they’d at least have had the chance or the ability to try and attain from those schools. This year unfortunately that’s not possible because of the Covid situation.”
The new term will begin in September. Yesterday, the incoming education minister Michelle McIlveen said the number of pupils without any school to go to had fallen to about 150, and was continuing to “dwindle”.
Sammy Wilson, DUP MP and former schoolteacher, had told the News Letter that his preference had always been for the transfer tests to proceed, adding that the current selection criteria had led to a “record” number of complaints to his constituency office.
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