Should Northern Irish children sit transfer tests this year?

21 Jul 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 22 Jul 2020

Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash
Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash

Covid-19 has left children out of school. Parents are petitioning for academic selection to be significantly delayed - or simply cancelled - for the coming year.


Academic selection is a long-running controversy in Northern Ireland.

People are passioned in their defence of it, others are just as passionate in their opposition, and the debate about its merit has run for decades.

However, 2020 is different. Covid-19 has left many children out of school for months. While the intention is that schools will return in September, the feasibility of this is unclear.

Schools have been told to adapt to social distancing as best they can. That is a sensible approach, but it means that the experiences of individual children could vary wildly from school to school. Some might be back five full days a week. Others could have a handful of half days – or less – supplemented by remote learning.

In particular, children who are due to start P7 in the autumn face exams that are said to be very important (otherwise, why do they exist?) at the end of a calendar year of world-changing disruption.

As things stand, the exams have been pushed back to provide extra time – but only for a couple of weeks.

A judicial review is underway challenging the validity of this year’s process. Expectations are that a hearing could take place in August. The Committee for Education has produced a survey, asking stakeholders their views about the test this year.

There are also currently at least two petitions circulating online, one approaching 1,000 signatures and the other approaching 500, calling for the Education Minister to suspend the tests (in the former) or either suspend or significantly delay them (the latter).

The organiser of the former petition, Alisha Briggs, spoke with media about how Education Minister Peter Weir has declined to meet with her or other parents, and described how her own child feels under immense pressure having missed so much school.

The organiser of the latter spoke with Scope last week about her frustration that, so far, the minister is only entertaining an insignificant delay in the selection process.

Calling for change

Carla Rollock-Kieran says pursuing the test, as planned, is going to see results skewed along lines of various inequalities that children can do nothing about.

Many children have missed lots of school, and some more than others. Most of Northern Ireland’s children have been home schooled over recent months but, again, this is a lottery.

Some parents – and Ms Rollock-Kieran says she is fortunate enough to be in this position herself – will be able to help their children a lot. Others will not be, for manifold reasons. Some are still working, some might have health problems, some might lack the capability to teach their kids effectively.

The economic background of children is likely to be a bigger factor in attainment than ever. Better-off parents can afford tutors, might have better digital connectivity, and other resources to supplement learning at home.

Giving laptops to kids could be a huge help for some, but only when this is the only significant barrier to remote learning.

And, of course, there are children with extra needs. Some children get support in school settings that helps facilitate their general education. At home, this may be impossible.

Ms Rollock-Kieran says this means that transfer tests in November and December will be hugely unfair, and cause massive anxiety for parents and children.

Her petition is calling for either the suspension or a more significant delay in the testing process and she says it has been signed by people who are against academic selection in general, but also people who are strongly in favour in normal circumstances. All of them, however, view 2020 in a similar way.

In addition, she says that the huge gaps in schooling mean teachers and children should have other priorities.

“We don’t have a fixed solution because really we’re trying to get across the point that whenever kids have been off for this long, a couple of weeks delay does not compensate for that.

“Going back to school should be about getting children in and assessing what each of their individual learning needs are after such a long break – which applies to all year groups, including P7.

“The real work of school is educational, it’s not about training children to pass tests, and I just think they should be getting on with that.”

Ministerial view

The Minister takes a different view. The short delay is his accommodation and he does not want to shift the tests further. He is an ironclad advocate of selection and has no desire to cancel them completely.

Cancellation would leave selective schools using other criteria to choose their 2021-22 intake.

In a conversation with Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, who is chair of the Education Committee and said it is hugely unfair to pursue selection this year, the minister said other criteria – such as proximity – are even worse.

“There will always be some levels of inequality in society. I have taken whatever action I can to try and create a level playing field as much as possible.

“There are inequalities within the current system, if you want to exacerbate those, move to a system in which selection happens by way of the ability of people to pay for places, or alternatively where schools select on the basis of proximity, where there is a premium price to get a house close to that particular highly regarded school, or indeed in England where certain schools that are church-based will require particular levels of attendance at church services.”

Ms Rollock-Kieran said that, on a one-off basis, objecting to proximity makes no sense, because there will not be a flight of house purchases near the best schools.

“Also, while somewhere like Methody may have Stranmillis and the Malone Road, it also has the Village. And if Inst was accepting children based on proximity, it would be drawing from the Shankhill Road and the Falls Road.”

These are not the only reasons the minister has put forward in defence of continuing with selection, in general and specifically for this year.

At the end of June, the minister told the Assembly: “Ultimately, it is within schools' powers and constraints to apply their own admissions criteria. I have raised concern about some of the schools that are seeking to move away from academic selection for next year.

“At present, what they suggest as the most likely route is one that seems to be based on the pupil's connections with the school. For example, a sibling at the school, their mother or father went to the school or a staff member at the school is a parent. That runs the danger of places at those schools being selected, effectively, by the old school tie, a hereditary grammar school place.

“Anyone making an argument that that is a fairer system to the complexities or constraints of a test is not providing a sensible solution… I support the right of schools to use academic selection when they are oversubscribed, and I also believe that the use of academic selection has, overall, worked well for our society and our school system.”

Mr Weir has also objected to longer delays in the test because, he says, it would push the whole process back too far for schools to properly place pupils ahead of 2021-22.

Marking takes time, notifying children and parents of scores takes time, as does the wider bureaucracy of admissions. This is an argument against further delay but not against a one-off cancellation.

Schools’ choice

As the minister says, schools set their own admissions criteria – and some selective schools have said they will ignore the test this year, others have indicated no change.

Many have stayed silent so far - but all this is happening at a certain distance. Schools still have time to make up their minds.

Political opinion has varied. Mr Weir is a senior figure in the DUP. The UUP’s Robbie Butler has suggested tests should be delayed till after Christmas.

As per, Alliance’s Chris Lyttle says academic selection in a pandemic is absurd, the SDLP’s Daniel McCrossan says the current situation will benefit wealthier families and Sinn Fein’s Karen Mullan says they should be cancelled (and this should be a springboard to their elimination more generally).

Wider pressure is being placed on schools to abandon the tests for this year. The Bishop of Derry accused Catholic grammar schools who intend to proceed with selection of self-interest, saying their decision will create “educational poverty and poverty of hope”.

The Children’s Commissioner restated her opposition to selection, per se, but expressed “deep disappointment” that the only extra accommodation being made this year was a short delay, calling on schools to rethink their criteria.

And, above all this, is an incredibly strange fact: we don’t know whether academic selection is a good thing or bad thing.

For such a persistent policy issue in Northern Ireland, it is remarkable that we have so little data about its impact on local children and on NI as a whole.

As an issue, transfer tests during the pandemic has not caught fire quite yet - but 2020 has done strange things with our perceptions of time.

September, and the return of schools, seems a long time away. November and December much further still. Discussions about selection in the pandemic will get louder as the year goes on.

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