Placing Children In Schools – We Must Do Better

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 2 July 2021
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Education; Post-Primary; Transfer Test

We have all felt huge compassion for the plight of children who have not succeeded in getting into the school of their choice following the release of placements as a result of this year’s amended transfer process. Those involved in schools and education administration will have been well aware of the inevitable consequence of changing entrance criteria to non-academic ones from the existing transfer test system.

The delay in making this decision by schools was caused I feel sure, by the certain knowledge that confusion and heartbreak would result if the familiar transfer tests were not used for admissions.

It must be said however that under the familiar system, disappointments occurred just as much as pupils either underachieved in the transfer tests or the points needed to gain a place in a certain schools varied from year to year.

 On January 5th, 2021 just days before the rescheduled Transfer Test was due to be held, both 11-plus test companies were forced to cancel their tests.  Grammar schools were then asked to set new admission criteria, with most opting for distance, siblings attending or contributing primary schools, with some operating a lottery among all pupils who applied to sit a test at the school.

The news reports and media coverage made the human cost of this dilemma plain for all to see as this example from the online newsfeed Belfast Live demonstrates;

“A devastated Belfast child was left feeling “worthless” after she was not accepted to any of the schools she applied for.

Emily Dempster, 11, applied to go to four different schools next year, choosing them on the advice of a doctor due to her special needs, having been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and ADHD.”

Speaking to Belfast Live, her mum Lynsey said she was “completely heartbroken” for her daughter - who had been excited for the move to secondary school only to be let down without any explanation.

She said: “For the past two years Emily has devoted herself to preparing for the exams in order to get into a school of her choice. She worked so hard and was achieving amazing results in her practice tests, getting scores as high as 97%.

“Then on Saturday she got the devastating news that none of the schools she had chosen had accepted her. She was so distraught she threw herself on the floor crying saying that she felt worthless, it completely broke our hearts.”

Replying, the incoming Education Minister Michelle McIlveen stated that; following Department of Education planning for this year's transfer process which began in 2019, the education authorities have already secured places for almost 99% of children with 85% gaining their first preference.

However, the absence of entrance tests has made this work much more challenging.  Minister McIlveen added that;

"Where there is demand my department will allocate places and in fact have already done so ... a total of 828 additional Year 8 places had been allocated to schools across Northern Ireland to cater for oversubscription and this will continue. My department will continue to consider where places need to be allocated, taking into account the needs of individual children”

Koulla Yiasouma, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, reacting to the transfer issue said the inaction of the Department of Education to develop more workable solutions for the transfer test is part of the reason for the distressing scenes in households across Northern Ireland.

She had previously called for the abandonment of the Transfer Test months before it was finally cancelled and has called for an immediate solution to this issue and a fairer transfer process in the longer term from the incoming Education Minster.

The pro-comprehensive lobby group, Comprehensive Future, campaigns for a national system of comprehensive schools, publicly accountable to parents and their local community. Commenting on the current hiatus in Northern Ireland they point out that the next Transfer Test is due to take place in November 2021 and that it seems likely that some selective schools will continue with comprehensive admissions.

They argue that the 12 schools who abandoned selection last summer did so based on the very sensible position; “that no test could judge children fairly when their experiences of schooling were so unequal”. With pupils missing schools for many months this year too, the same argument still stands going forward into 2021/22.

Writing in The Irish News in February 2021, Rachel Hogan, a special educational needs and disability expert at Children's Law Centre strongly advised the Department of Education to direct boards of governors of all grammar schools on suitable contingency admissions criteria for this academic year to ensure that they did not unlawfully discriminate against any group of children and to consult with relevant stakeholders on what those admissions criteria should have been".

She highlights the fact that despite the attempt of former Education Minister Peter Weir to shift the responsibility on admissions to schools, it is the Department of Education that holds the power to direct a fair and robust solution, in the best interests of children. No doubt because this didn’t happen, legal challenges will now begin. She reminds us that;

 “We cannot lose sight of the stress facing children this year. In my work at the Children's Law Centre, I see every day the disproportionate impact that Covid-19 and policy responses to tackle the pandemic are having on groups of children. The stress and anxiety brought on by post-primary transfer in any normal year has been massively increased in the face of this year's complexities”.

In this column, I have highlighted many times the compelling evidence of the underachievement tsunami among economically disadvantaged pupils during the pandemic and the underwhelming response of government in providing adequate funding to address it. 

Allowing for the fact that our current selective system in Northern Ireland does undoubtedly create pathways for economically disadvantaged pupils to access grammar schools, we still cannot ignore the reality that the “pandemic effect” has further disadvantaged these groups and made a fair test situation in the Autumn perhaps impossible to guarantee.

This article is correct at 02/07/2021

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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