Academic selection is under the microscope again
This year’s transfer tests finished last weekend.
For the children taking part, any stress about sitting the exams will now abate, to be replaced by hopes for Christmas and stress about results.
Are the tests a true measure of ability, a fast lane for bright kids, an opportunity for those who come from poorer backgrounds to get a social-mobility boost? A hopeful path forward that allows all children to compete on equal terms.
Or are they just a couple of tests of limited value, a snapshot of individual children on a couple of random Saturday mornings in late autumn and early winter? Immense pressure placed on pre-teen boys and girls for a dubious process, the consequences of which vastly outstrip the worth of the system itself.
Perhaps they are a mixture of all these things – and, if so, the merits of academic selection come down to balance. Are the tests, overall, worth all the stress, headaches and heartbreak.
This should be one of the big questions for the Independent Review of Education, the ongoing comprehensive look at education in NI. Put in motion by former Education Minister Peter Weir, the review began in October 2021 and is due to finish next April.
What might it say about the system of academic selection?
Academic selection has been in place in Northern Ireland for a long time. Attempts to get rid of it thus far have, quite clearly, failed. Statutory testing was abolished over a decade ago. However, the process itself was not banned and the single set of government-run tests was replaced by two sets of tests run by private companies.
Unsurprisingly, an issue as tumultuous and controversial and important as this has been subject to plenty of academic attention over the years.
This week Pivotal, Northern Ireland’s independent think tank, released a short report it was commissioned to prepare by the Independent Review. The research itself was a literature review, meaning it provides an overview of all the research, analysis and thinking about academic selection.
Pivotal found that there is little evidence that selection helps children from poorer backgrounds – in fact, the opposite appears to be true.
While some children from more disadvantaged backgrounds will do well in transfer tests, data shows that children from such backgrounds are hugely under-represented in grammar schools.
Per Pivotal’s report: “In contrast to the argument that selection enables social mobility, evidence shows that the selective system prevents children from different socio-economic backgrounds and different academic abilities learning together. Academic selection may act as a structural barrier to equity… with the transfer tests acting as a social sorting mechanism…
“Furthermore, evidence shows that increasing the social mix of students within schools can increase the relative performance of disadvantaged students, without any apparent negative effects on overall performance… This suggests that distributing students more evenly across schools might benefit low performers without disadvantaging better performing students.”
Pivotal cited research saying that “students with parental support, strong community and parental links and high quality learning environments were more likely to meet their potential than if these factors were weak.”
The paper continues: “Low expectations and poor home-school relationships, school absenteeism and inadequacy of support for those with SEN were found to inhibit attainment. If we apply these findings to academic selection, this study would suggest that children from more disadvantaged family and community backgrounds are less likely to be successful in the transfer tests.
“Children from less privileged backgrounds may be already educationally disadvantaged prior to sitting the transfer tests due to the increased likelihood of historical exposure to adversity, reduced opportunities for learning and other social factors.
“The role of academic tuition is another factor that may explain the differences in transfer test success between families of different backgrounds. Those with more privilege and disposable income may have the capacity to utilise private tutoring to prepare their child for the transfer test… Although there is little published evidence on the impact of tuition on transfer test success [research shows that] 80% of those receiving tuition subsequently attended a grammar school, compared to 40% of those who were not tutored.”
The report also found that a focus on preparing children for the transfer tests impacts on their general learning in the last two years of primary school. The focus for teachers shifts from general, rounded development towards getting kids ready to sit the selection exams.
Since Pivotal’s report was completed, further research has been published which points in the same direction. Last month, A Queen’s University study found that academic selection perpetuates social divisions and that the grammar school system “disadvantages the already most disadvantaged.”
The first thing to ask for is evidence in the other direction. What are the compelling arguments for academic selection? Where is the data that supports those arguments? Does such data exist?
In the face of all existing research – which, on balance, strongly suggests that selection is poor policy – the time is now for anyone who believes in selection to put their best foot forward, to make their best case, and to go beyond rhetoric and into detail. Let’s see some numbers, hard facts and clear-eyed, measure rationale.
The Independent Review of Education will say something about academic selection, the question is what. If the evidence indicates that selection is an overall good, the panel’s job will be easy. Present that evidence that supports the status quo, alongside any recommendations for improvements.
If the evidence points the other way, the panel’s job is much tougher.
Given that this is supposed to be a comprehensive and fundamental review, hopefully they have the courage of their convictions. If selection should go, say so.
On the other hand, the people preparing this review are not in their first rodeo. They are likely to have a huge number of recommendations covering many areas. They may not want all of these to be drowned out by a handful of statements on the most contentious issues (selection and segregation being the areas of contention that first come to mind).
Concluding that the available evidence supports ending academic selection and recommending that a specific review take place to examine this position further and provide details about possible alternatives might be the preferred approach, if that’s where the evidence leads.
After the review
Political positions are not decided only by facts and reason. Academic selection conjures strong feelings, on both sides of the debate. Whether the review comes out in favour of or against selection, don’t expect the political arguments to end there.
In particular, if the call is for change, don’t expect that to simply happen.
External reviews commissioned by the Department of Education in both 2001 and 2003 both gave clear recommendations that selection be abolished. Two decades later, it’s still here.
Nonetheless, for now the evidence seems clear. If academic selection harms rather than boosts social mobility, most of the arguments for its existence melt away.
This year, however, selection remains in place. So, as Christmas approaches, spare a thought for all those 10- and 11-year-olds whose festive season will be spent with one eye on January.
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