Education Minister Peter Weir has overturned a Sinn Fein policy which forbade primary schools from training pupils for academic selection.
The DUP MLA has issued new guidance to primary schools telling them that they can coach children for grammar school entrance tests during normal teaching hours.
Sinn Fein abolished the department’s official transfer test – the 11-plus – in 2008, having held the education ministry since the Assembly began in 1998.
After that several private tests were set up by grammars – the AGE and GL – but the department strongly warned primary schools not to facilitate the “unregulated” exams.
However, after elections this year the DUP chose to take the education post, with Mr Weir now lifting the official ban. Many primary schools had been coaching their pupils regardless.
The minister said: “The guidance which has been sent to schools today allows primary schools to respond to parental demand to prepare children for the transfer tests. Importantly, it removes any perceived threat to primary schools involved in supporting children through the process of transfer.”
He added that every child, regardless of background, has the opportunity to get into a grammar school, which can secure impressive outcomes “by setting demanding standards”.
This in no way diminishes the excellent work by non-selective secondary schools, he said, while those who did not attend grammar schools have gone on to make “very significant” contributions to Northern Ireland, he added.
Koulla Yiasouma, Commissioner for Children and Young People, said she was “deeply disappointed” at the news, which she said “will do very little to reduce the gap between richer and poorer students”.
But DUP Stormont education committee member Lord Morrow said the change would “reduce the need for private tuition, creating fairness in the classroom”.
UUP education spokeswoman Sandra Overend said the change “recognises the reality” of private tests but fails to resolve the transfer test issue.
Chair of the education committee, Sinn Fein’s Barry McElduff, said the move is out of step with international best practice and will “deprive the majority of children” of valuable time learning the curriculum.
SDLP education spokesman Colin McGrath MLA said many children will lose a “broad and rich education” in favour of tests, as a result.