• Abolish the transfer tests and academic selection
  • Fight for free, high-quality education for all

Only six days out from the sitting of a post-primary transfer test – in the context of rising Covid infections and staff threatening to refuse to work in unsafe conditions – the Stormont Executive finally made the decision to close schools until after the February half-term, forcing the postponement of the tests. Remote learning must be made effective for all students through the provision of broadband access and all necessary equipment.

Cancel the transfer tests

This decision should have been made well in advance. The DUP and Education Minister Peter Weir bear particular responsibility for the chaotic, last-minute handling of this situation. Due to their ideological commitment to academic selection, they were determined to allow the exams to proceed, despite the health risk this posed. The distress and anxiety this will have caused children preparing to sit the exams and their families is disgraceful.

Despite this, AQE – a private examining body which facilitates the transfer test, primarily for the controlled sector – has stated its intention to go ahead with the exam in late February. That this decision is allowed to rest with a private body highlights the absurd system which is in place. When a Sinn Féin Education Minister abolished the old 11-plus exam in 2008, they did not abolish academic selection entirely and put in place an education system which works for all. Instead, they simply allowed grammar schools and private bodies to fill the gap.

The Stormont Executive should use emergency powers to cancel the transfer tests entirely, and AQE should be forced to repay the £200,000 they are planning to withhold from the families of the children who were to sit the exams. If the politicians refuse to take this action, parents and trade unions in education should launch a campaign to force them to do so. The fact that action from below has forced the Tories and Peter Weir to cancel other exams and to keep schools shut shows that a fighting approach can win.

Abolish academic selection

Some grammar schools have outlined a set of alternative criteria by which they will decide admittance in the absence of transfer tests. Like the tests themselves, these will tend to discriminate against children from working-class backgrounds. Education unions and parents should also fight for universally-applied criteria to determine school access which minimise discrimination on the basis of class.

Fundamentally, however, the problem is our two-tier education system itself, which is inherently unequal and has a detrimental impact on young people’s lives. The Socialist Party calls for the abolition of academic selection for post-primary transfer and urgent action to provide high-quality, comprehensive, free and integrated education for all. You can read more here.

Demand free third-level education for all who wish to study

Peter Weir has also been forced to cancel this year’s GCSE and A-Level exams. These will likely to be replaced with some form of teacher assessment, reflecting the humiliating U-turns forced upon him and the Tories last year, when outrage from young people and society as a whole forced them to abandon plans to use an algorithm to predict grades which would clearly have disadvantaged students from working-class backgrounds.

Last year, 150,000 university applicants were left out in the cold by a shortage of places. The pandemic and the economic crisis threaten the return of mass youth unemployment. We demand guaranteed, free access to higher education with living grants for all who wish to study. This should be linked to massive public investment to create socially useful jobs with living wages. There is no lack of wealth to fund education or public services in general. Just in the three months following the first lockdown, the UK’s billionaires increased their personal wealth by £25 billion! It is a political choice to allow them to hoard this obscene wealth while young people are denied a decent future.

Fundamental change necessary

This crisis has shown that our education system is flawed to the core. Capitalist policies have created a two-tier model and a chronic lack of resources, which is failing young people. We need to revolutionise our education system. As a starting point, all resources that are required to meet pupils’ needs should be provided. We need the coming together of teachers, students and parents to discuss how exactly education can best be structured to meet the needs of all children and young people, and to fight for the change we need. Education at all levels should be free and accessible to all, liberated from the reins of austerity and commodification.

Socialists demand:

  1. Abolish the transfer tests and academic selection
  2. Free access to higher education for all who wish to study
  3. Effective remote learning – provide free broadband and all necessary equipment
  4. No return until it’s safe: education workers, parents and students should democratically decide when and how schools reopen
  5. Emergency investment to reduce class sizes and make schools safe
  6. Free, high-quality, comprehensive and integrated education for all