by Michael McHugh, PA
Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin has said the post-primary transfer test should be suspended this year in Northern Ireland for the good of pupils.
Anxiety is building over the prospect of academic selection next year amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Catholic church leader said.
Organisers of the assessments plan to hold them two weeks later than normal next autumn following severe disruption to the school calendar caused by the lockdown.
Archbishop Martin said: "These are extremely difficult times for all of us.
"Many families have been struggling to cope with lockdown, with financial responsibilities and with concerns about elderly or sick relatives. There is apprehension about what the future will bring."
Schools closed in March to all except the children of essential workers, and many parents have been home tutoring.
A phased return of schools is extremely likely in September, Stormont education minister Peter Weir has said.
Mr Martin wrote to 165 school principals in Armagh and Dromore dioceses.
He said: "I have become aware of the anxiety that is already building over the prospect of primary seven transfer tests in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"In recent weeks parents and teachers have spoken to me of their disquiet and about the uncertainty that is already upsetting some children."
He said some pupils were responding well to home schooling but others were struggling without ready access to technology or one-to-one assistance from teachers.
"A school principal observed to me that he anticipates educational disadvantage will be exacerbated given this year's special circumstances."
He said teachers would face huge resource challenges from September and pupils may require additional personal and emotional support after such a long and stressful break from classrooms.
"With all this in mind, and in the best interests of our children and schools, I appeal to the whole educational community in the Archdiocese of Armagh to support a suspension of the use of academic selection for entrance to post-primary schools in September 2021.
"I urge the boards of governors of our grammar schools to publish admissions criteria which do not rely upon the use of transfer tests carried out under such uncertain and challenging circumstances."
One school principal told the archbishop his appeal was timely and necessary.
The principal said: "Throughout this extraordinary time we, as teachers, realise all that our children are missing out on, over and above learning and teaching.
"We are conscious that all homes are different and that the availability of support, both personal and electronic, varies greatly.
"We are also acutely aware that emotions and anxieties are running high and we have received reports from parents of the unhappiness and distress currently experienced by our children and especially those children in our year six class.
"To this end, it is a blessing that you have shown great leadership and called for the suspension of academic selection.
"We pray, in union with you, that the principals and governors of our Catholic schools make the right decisions for the good of our children."