Human Rights Commission slammed in academic selection row

Two private tests for grammar school selection have emerged despite opposition from the Department of Education
Two private tests for grammar school selection have emerged despite opposition from the Department of Education

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) has been accused of “straying outside its remit” to launch an “ideological” attack on academic selection.

The commission on Wednesday published its submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, timed to coincide with International Youth Day.

Its wide-ranging report carried a section in which it slammed the ongoing practice of academic selection of children at age 11 in Northern Ireland.

The commission noted that the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended the abolition of Northern Ireland’s state-sanctioned 11-plus test in 2008, but that despite the best efforts of the Department of Education, two private tests have arisen to replace it; most grammars here still use one of the tests, against departmental advice, to select children.

“The use of privately funded tutoring is extremely prevalent and is connected to the evidence that continues to point towards the fact that children from poor socio-economic backgrounds do not do as well [in the private tests],” the commission said.

It added that there is “significant concern that the current practice of two sets of private tests puts undue stress on children and is not always a good determinant of ability.

“In research conducted by the Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), children raised a variety of concerns in relation to the uncertainty of sitting unregulated tests and the unsettling process of taking tests on Saturday mornings in unfamiliar school settings.”

The NIHRC added that the UN committee “may wish to ask” the Northern Ireland authorities what measures it will take to effectively “put an end to the two-tier culture in Northern Ireland”.

But DUP education spokesman Peter Weir hit back.

“The comments from the Human Rights Commission in relation to academic selection are an example of this body straying beyond its remit and a failure of prioritisation,” he said.

“The commission should be focusing on the major problems facing our society rather than riding ideological hobby-horses.

“To have this issue reported to a UN committee alongside issues such as paramilitary attacks on children is somewhat ridiculous.

“Academic selection is protected in law and retains the support of a huge number of people in Northern Ireland, including the DUP.

“It is very unfortunate that it is continually held up as an educational ‘bogey man’ with the impact of its removal conveniently ignored.”