New Minister: Peter Weir MLA

Peter WeirFollowing his appointment as the DUP’s first Education Minister since the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998, long-serving politician Peter Weir has wasted no time in taking crucial decisions and making changes to the sector.

Academic selection, GCSE grading and revival of the Teacher Workforce Scheme have been amongst the big issues tackled by North Down MLA Peter Weir since his inclusion in the new Northern Ireland power sharing Executive was confirmed in May.

Despite a political career spanning more than two decades, the posting is the first time Weir has been selected by the party hierarchy to head a department, having chaired the Education Committee in the last year of the previous Assembly.

Already his actions have divided opinion. Most notable is his move to remove any hindrance to academic selection processing post-primary destinations for pupils. The decision means that primary schools can now use class time to prepare pupils for the AQE and GL Assessment tests, borne out of the 11-plus scrappage. Although the DUP has always been vocal in their support for academic selection, Weir stopped short of reintroducing a common department regulated test, acknowledging a lack of political support for such a measure.

The steps taken by Weir have attracted criticism from those who claim that academic selection creates a two-tier education system, rewarding those who are ‘better’ placed in society and widening the access gap for disadvantaged pupils. Similarly, under his stewardship, the Department has moved away from a dual-language policy, previously promoted by Sinn Féin. Within hours of Weir’s appointment, it was noted that many Irish language references were removed from the Education website.

Peter Weir has wasted no time in taking crucial decisions and making changes to the education sector.

“Academic selection has the potential to change people’s lives. Every child, regardless of background, postcode, social group, religion or ethnicity, has equal opportunity to get into a grammar school.”

The former barrister rose to prominence while representing the North Down constituency in the Northern Ireland Forum as a member of the UUP. However, vocal opposition towards the Good Friday Agreement and a refusal to support the then UUP leader David Trimble as First Minister eventually led to his expulsion in 2001. After a short spell as an independent, Weir joined the DUP in 2002 stating that he had found his “true home”. He also held a fairly unique position having served as the North Down MLA and at the same time on a local level for the Ballyholme and Groomsport Ward of North Down Borough Council between 2005-2013.

Another swift step taken by Weir in his new appointment was to reverse his predecessor John O’Dowd’s decision, taken in 2015, to allow pupils in Northern Ireland to receive GCSE grades from English exam boards who will give results using numbers from 9-1 from 2017. O’Dowd’s stance had initially led the two largest English GCSE exam boards to say they would not offer GCSE courses in Northern Ireland.

Where there appears to be some common agreement between Weir and his predecessor is a need for new blood within the teaching workforce. O’Dowd previously announced, and then stalled, the Teacher Workforce Scheme which set out spending £33 million to enable 500 teachers to retire and be replaced by newly-qualified teachers. Despite the controversy surrounding the definition of the term “newly-qualified”, Weir moved to approve the scheme, although on a smaller scale. 120 teachers will now be offered retirement for the 2016-17 academic year at a cost of £8 million, with schools being required to replace those staff with a teacher who has qualified since 2012.

Looking ahead, Weir’s biggest challenge will undoubtedly lie in managing the Department’s budget. A reduction in the education budget coupled with rising costs have led school leaders to voice concern over the impact of deficits on staff and subject cuts. He is also faced with the likelihood of having to reduce the number of schools in Northern Ireland, an unpopular decision, often met with deep-rooted opposition.

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