Stormont’s new Education Minister has insisted that scrapping academic selection would increase social inequality rather than reduce it.
In his first appearance before his Assembly scrutiny committee, the DUP’s Peter Weir acknowledged there would not be a meeting of minds between the critics and advocates of post-primary selection.
Mr Weir has taken control of the department after a long Sinn Fein tenure, during which the 11-plus transfer test was axed.
Many schools have retained the right to use academic selection, but children now have to undergo different unregulated tests depending on what school they want to attend.
On coming to office, Mr Weir made clear he would support schools that wished to select on the basis of academic ability and pledged to examine how to make the current testing system less complicated.
In the education committee’s first meeting of the new term, Sinn Fein chairman Barry McElduff asked the minister to clarify his position on selection.
Mr McElduff described the policy as a “crude instrument for social selection” and said some within the education sector had raised concern that it would continue.
Mr Weir responded: “I support the right of schools to use academic selection – it will not be for everyone.”
He said people on both sides of the debate had a “tendency to retreat into our respective trenches”.
“There are very well-defined and well-worn paths that all of us have on that but I appreciate the concerns that have been raised on the social impact on that side of things,” he added.
“I would simply say from my own observations and my concern that if you didn’t have any form of academic selection there would be a danger that Northern Ireland would move much more to a situation that would happen, and it does happen in England, where it’s a more crude form of social selection, where essentially you would have a series of very expensive private schools and everyone else would be left in comprehensive schools and that sort of division.
“I think, from the point of view of the social impact, I think the alternative is worse.”
Committee member and former Sinn Fein education minister Caitriona Ruane said she was very proud of her contribution to end the 11-plus.
“I don’t support selection,” she said.
“I think it is outdated, unnecessary and discriminatory and we are one of the few parts of the world where it happens.
“It doesn’t happen in the rest of Ireland, it doesn’t happen, by and large, in England, Scotland and Wales and actually if you look at the best achieving countries in the world – Finland, it certainly doesn’t have it there.”
However, DUP member Lord Morrow branded Sinn Fein’s handling of the issue “irresponsible”.
“I welcome your early statement in relation to the transfer test,” he told the minister.
“That’s not because I think the transfer system is perfect, we don’t live in a perfect world, but I think it was a very irresponsible thing to do to remove the 11-plus at that time, with no replacement, and just leave everything hanging there, and it did bring into our whole education system a degree of chaos.
“I think you will now be charged with sorting out the mess you have inherited. I feel you are up to it.”