There was a sea change in early September when Education Minister Peter Weir issued new guidance to primary schools giving them the freedom to choose if teachers wish to actively help pupils in P6 and P7 prepare to sit a grammar school transfer test.
Mr Weir said his decision reflected widespread public support and parental demand for the current process to be improved. Importantly, it removes any perceived threat to primary schools involved in supporting children through the process of transfer.
Ni4kids was keen to find out what local parents thought about the distinct u-turn in Mr Weir’s position compared to that of his predecessor, – who was completely opposed to academic selection – and took the debate to our Facebook community to find out…
By no means scientific, but in a quick assessment of the comments we received the majority, by approximately 50 per cent of a total of 65 respondents, welcomed the news as a positive step.
Respondent Eileen Russell’s view is, ‘If children are to sit this test at a young age then of course they should be taught exam techniques by teachers.’ Danielle Clarke agreed it was ‘Fantastic news’ and Clare Bosket believes that, ‘common sense has finally prevailed.’
Lindsey Hampson commented, ‘It's about time we went back to traditional grammar schools. We all have something to bring to the table, whilst some students are academically gifted, other kids have other talents such as music, the arts, sport or even drama.’ The reply from Christine Russell was, ‘This has taken far too long to come about!’ While Phyllis Thompson’s remark was, ‘About time!’ and Jean Meek Marshall simply posted, ‘Thank you Peter Weir’.
Karen Carberry McFarlane and Jane Addy also thought it was ‘Great news!’ although Karen added, ‘There’s enough pressure for kids to sit the exam without having to go somewhere strange to do it!’
Along with many other parents, mum Michele Ayhan is hopeful that there will be a return to the tests taking place in the child’s own primary school. She wrote: ‘I hope it is in place for them by next year when my eldest is due to do her transfer tests. To be honest I'm in two minds whether to let her do it, as so many people have said how stressful these tests are, especially as schools weren't supposed to give much help. And then the whole thought of going to a strange school to sit the tests adds so much pressure. If this comes into place then I would definitely let her try for it as I think being able to do it in their own school environment would take a lot of pressure off them.’
However mum Caroline Waring offered a contrasting opinion based on her own experience. She commented: ‘After my son sat the AQE and the GL last November I feel differently about sitting the tests in strange schools instead of their own primary. My son sat all the tests at our local grammar, which he really liked, and luckily he got the score he needed and was accepted. By the time he started at the end of August he had already been in the school both doing the tests, at open nights and an induction day so he felt quite relaxed and the new school didn’t feel quite so alien. As for more coaching in schools, I personally think the kids have enough stress with even minimal practice. Every child is different, as is each parents’ opinion. I look forward to seeing what’s in place for my daughter who is currently in P5.’
Many parents like Alyson Green would also prefer to see just one test citing her reason as, ‘That’s quite enough for children of this age.’
Those who were not enthusiastic about the Minister’s announcement seemed more opposed to the idea of academic testing at all, rather than having a particular view on whether schools should have the choice to spend classroom time preparing children for unofficial tests not regulated by the Department of Education.
Aine Kelly said: ‘I think this is a step backwards and puts more pressure on teachers and kids who will now be coached 24/7. What about those children who are not going to sit or pass these tests? For me, this was sad news this morning.’
Caroline Fillmore believes that age 11 is ‘far too early’ and ‘the pressure is awful’. She added, ‘They should get rid of this test as it doesn't mean much unless you're good at maths and English. Nothing creative about it.’ Caroline Dickson’s view is. ‘An archaic education system, this is a huge step backwards,’ and Lynn April Noble asked. ‘Can we not just scrap the whole thing?’
The final word goes to Christine Davidson Kelly who had concerns beyond the testing process. She wrote: ‘This statement fails to address the fact that regardless, even after the trauma of the transfer test process, there are insufficient post-primary school places available for children, particularly in East Belfast. Therefore the stress that the child and family endures throughout the month of November continues for a further six months until they receive confirmation where – or indeed even IF – their child has been awarded a place.’
According to Department of Education figures, about 44 per cent of post-primary pupils currently go to grammar schools in Northern Ireland. It cannot be denied that parental demand for these tests, and a grammar school education, exists in NI and whether it is official from the DE, or set by the grammar schools, testing is here to stay. We all support the education system and we all have an opinion as to what the best model of that might be. However while as a society we all share resources, as far as possible, whatever path we choose to take in the best interests of our children’s future should be supported.