Transfer tests to be put back to January 2021, High Court hears

Legal challenges mounted by the parents of two children due to set the tests have now ended following the development.

Post-primary transfer tests in Northern Ireland are set to be put back to January next year, the High Court has heard.

The further postponements were agreed following extensive discussions involving Education Minister Peter Weir, a judge was told.

The development brought an end to legal challenges mounted by the parents of two children due to sit the tests.

They claimed an initial decision to delay this year's exams by at least two weeks because of the Covid-19 pandemic would further discriminate against disadvantaged families.

Judicial review proceedings had been issued against the Association for Quality Education (AQE), and the Post-Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC).

Each autumn the two bodies provide tests used by most grammar schools in Northern Ireland to select their intake.

Lawyers representing the pupils contended that the decision to delay by a matter of weeks amid so much disruption to their education is unlawful.

They alleged a failure to properly consult, as well as arguing that moving to new dates in November and December is unfair and in breach of human rights.

Both children were granted anonymity in the joint case.

The court heard one of them is currently being educated in Irish, with neither of her parents fluent enough in the language to help her study.

The other child faces separate issues in preparing for the transfer test due to a diagnosis of autism.

A further delay was needed to allow the children enough time in a classroom setting to prepare for the tests, lawyers argued.

The challenge had been resisted on a number of grounds, including claims that the testing organisations are private companies exempt from judicial review.

But in court on Wednesday, counsel for Mr Weir said he is now satisfied the admissions process can operate under "a more compressed timetable" which would involve shifting the tests back to January.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan welcomed the "positive" development.

"It's clear that the Minister has taken very careful consideration of the issue and worked hard to achieve a resolution of the issue," he said.

With both test providers confirming they will move to the new dates, the necessary arrangements will be made with the Education Authority .

Counsel for AQE indicated its preferred course had always been putting the exam process back to January.

And David Scoffield QC, for PPTC, added: "We think it's in the best interests of children to keep all the tests together in a coordinated approach."

Following the resolution reached, a solicitor for one of the pupils stressed valuable teaching time to prepare for this year's transfer tests has already been missed.

Speaking outside court, Ciaran Toner of Finucane Toner said: "It is paramount that children are afforded the time to complete the Key Stage 2 curriculum in a classroom setting and have the appropriate preparation time in advance of sitting the tests.

"I would appeal to Education Minister Peter Weir and the exam bodies to keep the transfer tests under review as my client has concerns about the impact further Covid-19 related school closures may have on her child's access to education, and to a post-primary school place of choice."

The mother of the other pupil involved in the case said they were delighted with the outcome.

"We hope that this will go some way to address the educational disadvantages experienced by some children during lockdown," she added.

"We are both frustrated and disappointed that it took to the very last minute for this decision to be made and that we had to take legal action in the first place."

Her solicitor, Ciaran Moynagh of Phoenix Law, said: "The global pandemic has brought about unprecedented change to the way of living.

"Such unprecedented change must be mirrored by the Department of Education in ensuring children's interests are protected.

"Making children undertake life changing exams during such turbulent times would be most unfair. The right decision has been made this morning."