Thursday, 22 March 2018
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Winter 2017

Parents’ Opinion: Put To The Test

This November and early December, thousands of P7 schoolchildren across NI will be taking The Association of Quality Education (AQE) and the Post-Primary Consortium (PPTC) grammar school assessment entrance tests.

The BBC reported in October that there has been a five per cent rise in the number of children opting to take the tests this year, resulting in the highest numbers ever since the tests began. The AQE have said that they have 8,100 entrants and the PPTC said that 7,255 pupils have applied to sit the GL Assessment in 2017. It is estimated that approximately 2,000 children will sit both.

Since children sat the last 11-plus transfer tests in November 2008, continued academic selection by grammar schools has been a contentious issue although efforts have, and are being made to try and simplify the process and make it less stressful for all. In September 2016, then Education Minister Peter Weir reversed a long-standing departmental policy removing any prohibition on using academic selection to decide what post-primary school pupils transfer to, resulting in primary schools now being able to help pupils prepare for the tests during normal class time. While Mr Weir said no school would be “compelled” to carry out preparation, teachers now have the freedom to choose as opposed to the previous departmental guidance that primary schools, “should not facilitate unregulated entrance test arrangements in any way.”

In February this year, the two organisations which run the transfer tests said that they wanted to produce a common test. Currently, there are significant differences between the two. Parents pay a fee (£46) to enter their child for the AQE tests unless they are eligible for free school meals, whereas PPTC do not charge a fee for their entrance test. The AQE tests are based on a series of maths and English questions and are taken over three Saturdays with an overall final score calculated from the highest marks from two. The PPTC test is two multiple choice papers taken on one day. The AQE serves non-denominational grammars while the PPTC is providing tests mainly for Catholic grammars, along with some integrated colleges and non-denominational schools. 

In a joint statement early this year, the two groups said that “in the best interest of pupils, parents and schools” the aim was to have a common test in place by November 2019. The move will no doubt be very much welcomed by the parents of future children opting in, however as anxiety levels rise in so many households across NI once again this month, we wanted to give local parents a chance to have their voices heard on how their children are coping with the pressure.

Mum Gillian Cunningham got in touch with us to say, ‘My son is doing the AQE this year and he is coping fine with the pressure, although as a family we are keeping it quite low key anyway. He is our third child to sit the exams and this has always been our approach. I do think the best way forward would be for children to sit it in the familiar surroundings of their own school. In terms of pressure and stress I think it is us the parents that are to blame for this.’ And although Gillian’s son is taking the test she was keen to emphasis, ‘I have also made it very clear to my children that their whole life is not defined by the outcome of these exams. I passed and went to grammar school and have done okay, their aunt “failed” went to a high school and now has a Masters and is CEO of a company, my husband went to a high school and did an apprenticeship and now has a great career with plenty of opportunities. Nothing is set in stone at the age of 11.’

Déarbhla O’Rourke however is a parent who feels that the current system puts much more pressure on children than the old 11-plus style test. She told Ni4kids, ‘I completed my 11-plus twenty years ago and as far as I remember it didn't take much out of me. The studying didn't seem anything out of the ordinary from what we were already doing in P6/P7. On the days of the tests we were in our own school surrounded by people we knew. As my son was approaching the tests I thought well, there have been a few changes but he will be fine. He is a smart boy and has never had any academic problems. However, the closer we are getting to the tests he has confided to us he is very worried and feels under a lot of pressure. We repeatedly tell him that it doesn't matter what result he gets as we know he will be great no matter what school he goes to. The 11-plus was abolished to stop pressure at such a young age, but if a transfer procedure is to remain then the original way should be reinstated.’ 

Mum Louise Barnes would much rather see a new system for selection based on schoolwork completed throughout the year commenting, ‘My son was diagnosed with ASD when he was five years old and he chose to do the exams himself due to the schools he has chosen. The only problem is that his first choice is an AQE school and the second is a GL school. In all he has to sit five exams over four Saturdays. He is one of the youngest in his year at school, so he'll be completing these exams less than six months after turning 10. It's so much pressure and I can see it in his face, sense it in his voice and I see the disappointment when he does his practice tests and gets an answer wrong. I don't feel that two different examination boards is fair and a lot of kids, although highly intelligent, don't test well.’

Of course, many families decide not to take part and their view was reflected by parent Linda McGibbon who wrote, ‘I refused to let my son take the tests. He is a very clever and hard-working child and we both favoured the local integrated school. We are all led to believe that a grammar school education is somehow better however in my opinion that is simply not the case. My son couldn't be happier and he's doing very well.’

Ni4kids View

Exams of any sort, at any age, aren’t something the majority of us look forward to, but it is also a reality of life that at times we will be put to the test and have to cope with added pressure. The positives about the current system is that it is voluntary and parents have the choice of deciding, with their child, on the best path forward for them. Any while for many the introduction of a single test cannot come quickly enough, at least the signs are encouraging that this may soon be a reality.

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