Were you one of the hundreds of parents on the last Saturday in January waiting anxiously with your P7 child for the post to arrive?
For the pupils who decided to sit the AQE or GL tests in November and December last year, the results in those envelopes hold the key to where they could go to school for up to seven years – a pretty long time to contemplate when you’re only 11.
The months of December and January would also have included a flurry of school open day visits for families, evenings and weekends spent trying to decide which school is the best fit for your child. But what if after one of these visits – which can take place only a few days prior to results day – your child then has their hopes shattered as the long-awaited-for envelope reveals their score is unlikely to open the door to a future at the school they have their heart set on? Responding to demand from our readers, the question we are asking this issue is: “Should high/grammar school open days and evenings take place in February, after the AQE and GL results are announced, in order to make the process less stressful for P7 pupils?”
Firstly, we wanted to know why the current timeline is the way it is. Facebooker Cl Ruth explained: ‘The reason for early open evenings is that transfer results come out on January 28 and school application form has to be in by February 10. It would be impossible for schools to have their open days in that short time frame and allow people to make their decision and submit forms. In order to facilitate open days after transfer results, either results would need to be available earlier, or applications submitted later.’
We also contacted the Department of Education for a comment where a spokesperson responded: ‘The timing of school open days/evenings is a matter for individual schools. As the deadline for the submission of completed transfer forms to the Education Authority (the application form to post-primary schools) is in mid-February each year, schools tend to hold open days in December/January. This year the deadline for forms is Friday February 10.’
However, Kelly McBrearty is just one of the many commentators to Ni4kids who was in agreement that the current system can be unnecessarily stressful for children. She replied to our question: ‘I definitely think the whole process should be rethought. I agree that open days should be after results and that way parents know which schools would be out of their child's reach. What about changing the test so they have to sit just one (not five!) in say October, with the results published in December and then open days in January would still work?’
Gemma Finlay is also convinced that: ‘School open days need to change until after results come out. Kids are falling for a school they might not even get enough points to go to. Also, I think the test should be set in their own primary school. It’s a more relaxed atmosphere for the child.’
Heather Kirk agreed too commenting: ‘I absolutely think the open days should be after the results! It would mean the parents and children can make informed decisions about which schools to visit. They would have a better idea of which schools are suitable for their child and it would help alleviate tension regarding false hopes and expectations,’ and mum Karla Phillips was concerned that her daughter would be ‘worried sick’ visiting the school of her choice on open night just days before the results, ‘thinking the entire time – will I get in here?’
One local parent, Olga Lynch feels so passionately that the current timeline should change, she has set up a petition and is asking like-minded parents to get behind her campaign. She told Ni4kids: ‘The current process and timetable depicted by the Education Authority (EA) does not allow enough time for the big schools to comfortably hold their open nights AFTER the results. But the good news is that this is just an EA admin, timetable issue and this could be changed for next year – so let’s get behind this campaign, even if you are not directly affected.’
She continued: ‘We shouldn't just accept things because that's the way it has always been. We should be driving for things to be different and making sure that the EA truly understands the impact on our children with the current system. I am passionate about this change, and on a personal level I never did the open nights with my four children for fear that my child would be left distraught and upset with a feeling of failure. It should not be this way!’
Mum Suzanne Armstrong knows firsthand what it’s like for your child to experience that kind of disappointment. She firmly believes: ‘Yes! Definitely for future children. My child did her transfer test last year and didn't do as well as had been expected. Bringing them round various grammar schools gives the child a false sense of security that they are going to go there. My daughter was devastated when her results came through however she's now at local secondary school and doing fantastic.’
Parent Louise Parkhill also would like to see a change in the timeline and proposed another solution. She wrote, ‘I do think the Open Days for P7s should be post results – the child then knows exactly which school is an option. Perhaps the P6 pupils could go in January and then the P7s could go in February? Every school would then be less crowded and the whole experience would be less overwhelming for pupils... especially children who do not handle large crowds well.’
Going to open days or evenings while your child is in P6 was something many of the parents we heard from recommended. Mum Karen S Hughes advised: ‘We looked around in P6 so that my children could see both grammar and high and choose whether to sit the transfer test. I do think it's silly having the open evenings before results as children can be looking at a desired school one week and have their hopes dashed the next.’
‘It's a good idea to go in P6 to give them something to work towards,’ was also the advice from Joanna Fyffe. She added: ‘In P7 you can then look for a back-up plan before the results come out. That way you are covered for any eventuality! Looking at them all [schools] after the results would feel a bit panicked.’
And Kristine Hill agreed completely saying: ‘I personally feel looking round schools whilst the child is in P6 is a great idea. It gives them options and an incentive to work for a place in the school of their choice. However, once the child is in P7 and the AQE has been completed – and their fate is sealed already – I don't see the point. I honestly feel it is almost cruel to show them round a school that they maybe have their hearts set on, but by the end of the week that might not even be an option for them! Why not wait, results in hand, then spend time looking round the schools that are only relevant to their score. There must be a reason for it, I can only assume it's down to timing etc. Either way I strongly feel the whole AQE system needs changed.’
There was also certainly parental support though for the current system too. Cathy Hunter believes: ‘You need to be open-minded about the process and be honest with your child. You should let your child go to two or three schools and also have a back-up plan so if they don't get what they need, then they know where they are going. I think they [open days] are at the right time.’
Parent Catherine Caldwell disagrees with open days being held later, citing the reason as; ‘It’s too late considering the form has to be in by early February. We went in P6 to the schools my son really wants to go to, and then this year (P7) went to see some back-up options to show him that even if he doesn't get where he wants, there are still excellent schools out there that he will enjoy just as much!’
And mum Sara Smallwoods emailed us to say: ‘Being the parent of a P7 pupil, I personally think that my son has benefited from seeing his potential secondary schools already. He sat the AQE test and received his results in January, but still wouldn't know until the local grammar school sets its cut off marks if this school will be an option. We are quite easy going about the whole thing and thankfully he likes both the local grammar and high school. He is actually swaying towards the high school (nothing to do with the fact that they play more football – promise). We know he will do well, no matter what school he attends, and will be proud of his result no matter what it is. He has done his best… and that's all any of us can do.’
Many would reasonably point out that taking the AQE or GL tests are a choice, and if you and your child decide that is the right path to take, you must also then be prepared for the final outcome – whatever that may be. The current timeline seems to be driven by the final submission date of the post-primary school application forms in February, and until that changes schools will have no other option than to hold their open days and evenings in December and January, to allow time for families to make their important decision. Getting ahead of the game in P6, and putting some distant between visits and results day, seems like a good idea to us. For those children who do get the result they want it’s a fabulous sense of achievement, but if they don’t – teaching children to cope with disappointment is also a very important life lesson. After all, we’re not always going to get that dream job or the object of our affections every time either. As parents however, our overwhelming instinct is always to soften the blow and avoid any unnecessary pain. So, if there could be a better way… shouldn’t it at least be considered?
You can find the campaign: School Open Nights Should Happen After AQE/ GL Results (Northern Ireland) online at change.org