Suspension Of The Transfer Tests, A Problem Or An Opportunity?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 5 June 2020
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Education; AQE; GL; Transfer Tests

As we move into the month of June the debate about the possible suspension of transfer tests for the coming academic year has moved centre stage. Looking back over the management of this pandemic, many difficult decisions have already had to be taken and changes made to accepted norms in schools. We continue to be pleasantly surprised at our own adaptability and pragmatism about these changes to previously untouchable elements of our status quo list. So should we think too, “outside the box” about transfer?

Education Minister Peter Weir has so far resisted calls to intervene, insisting that those asking for a suspension of the transfer process have not offered workable alternatives.

Northern Ireland Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma on the other hand has called on schools to display innovative thinking to resolve the issue;

"It cannot be considered appropriate to add further stress to some children by expecting them to take a test that will decide the future of their educational career," she said.

"I do not underestimate the challenges of doing this but am confident that by undertaking a collaborative piece of work with your education colleagues and parents, you will find an innovative and creative solution which is in the best interests of children.”

This latest dilemma which the pandemic has presented has many features in common with the problems which have already arisen with A Level and GCSE examinations and similar assessment plans in other countries.

Firstly because the pupils have not been in school to have the normal preparation and coaching in the run up to the examinations there have been issues about whether pupils would do themselves justice and cope adequately with examinations which will profoundly affect their future education and careers.  Secondly because the risk of infection is still an ever-present danger, actually organising examination sittings in schools has not been possible.

As we then consider the situation re the forthcoming AQE and GL tests the first of the two problems is already with us, namely that children are physically not in school and therefore cannot have the planned preparation and practice necessary to allow them to perform to the best of their ability. The second aspect relating to organising testing sessions in schools remains an unknown. It could be that the infection rates will have subsided sufficiently to allow more normal school attendance and large gatherings indoors to happen safely.

A more likely scenario however is that we will still be on the journey back to “normal schooling” and that social distancing measures will be a feature of everyday life well into the Autumn term. It seems therefore that we are in a very similar position to the one which prompted a change to A levels and GCSEs. One difference however is that with a longer timescale, we have more time to plan a sensible way forward. Surely it is time for these conversations to begin, if they have not already started? There are obvious complexities and problems but recent experience in other countries and indeed at home have shown that compromises can be made in the best interests of children.

For schools that have been using transfer test scores as their main admission criteria it does present a particular problem. The Minister has pointed out that moving a previously secondary criteria like “sibling already attending” to the top of the list carries its own implicit unfairness and using distance of home address from the school could be equally unworkable given that many bigger grammar schools have existing admission catchments of up to 40 miles in diameter. One possibility would be to prioritise pupils from primary schools which already transfer pupils regularly to a grammar school and revisit the concept of “informed election”. This idea was discussed first when Minister of Education Martin McGuiness announced the scrapping the official 11+ in 2002, to take effect from 2010. Discussions between schools and Education Minister Caitriona Ruane then unfortunately failed to find agreement on an informed election compromise to the 11+ where existing achievement data would be used as a guide to parental choice of future school. In the absence of an agreed process the current AQE and GL tests quickly followed to fill the vacuum.

Five Catholic grammar schools in Newry and Kilkeel initially said that they will suspend the use of the test for one year and not use academic selection admission criteria. They have been followed by Northern Ireland's biggest integrated post-primary, Lagan College in Belfast and Enniskillen schools Mount Lourdes Grammar and St Michael's College who have all said they had taken the same decision "in light of the current circumstances." The Enniskillen schools have added a reassuring note by saying that;

“Those who would normally apply to be admitted to each individual school are encouraged to continue to do so."

There are serious problems in the primary sector too. BBC N Ireland Education Correspondent Robbie Meredith reported that 24 primary principals from North Down schools have called for transfer tests to be suspended in 2020, including heads from Bangor, Holywood, Millisle, Ballywalter, Donaghadee, Carrowdore and Portavogie. These concerns are certainly widely shared among primary school leaders everywhere.

In an open letter they have said "we do not think that the normal academic tests should be carried out in these abnormal circumstances".

They argue powerfully that from mid-March P6 pupils have been at home and in a lockdown, which is likely to continue into June. It is an unprecedented period of isolation and they point to the unknown quality and effectiveness of home-school learning from pupil to pupil. Added to this, safeguarding pupil's emotional and mental well being is vitally important. The added pressure of sitting academic selection tests in November and December is increasing the stress normally associated with these tests. They also said that the normal teaching that pupils would have had before the tests would be "impossible" as they had been out of school since March and would face a "phased" return in September. They also point to the fact that many pupils returning from this extended absence will need additional personal and emotional support.

 The possibility of a second wave of Covid-19 during the Autumn could potentially close schools again and they feel that the normal academic tests cannot be carried out in such abnormal circumstances.

Finally, they express concerns about primary school teachers and leaders being asked to advise parents about transfer and are understandably resistant to the idea of making judgements on which pupils should or should not be admitted to a grammar school.

It is clear that very difficult discussions and compromises are necessary – but the inescapable reality presented by the pandemic makes finding a resolution essential.




This article is correct at 05/06/2020

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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