The announcement that Northern Ireland’s 11-plus (transfer test) would go ahead, with a minor two week delay, has led to an outcry. Many people feel that the disruption to children’s education caused by the coronavirus pandemic means this test can not be fair this year.
Those calling for the test to be cancelled include the head of the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, who said it would be “cruel” to offer the test in light of the “uncertainty that is already upsetting some children.”
Bishop Donal McKeown joined the call for the test to be abandoned and said that socially disadvantaged pupils would be “seriously disadvantaged” in the transfer tests as they would have been out of school for almost six months.
The NI Children’s Commissioner, Koulla Yiasouma, is yet another voice calling for the test to be called off. She addressed a letter to boards of governors of grammar schools, saying she was “deeply concerned” that academic selection was being maintained for the new term in August.
Dr Marie Hill, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Branch of The BPS Division of Education and Child Psychology also called for the test to be scrapped.
The Catholic Principals Association also oppose the test, saying it was “unbelievable” it would take place this year. Primary heads from 24 schools in north Down wrote an open letter saying, “we do not think that the normal academic tests should be carried out in these abnormal circumstances”.
Many grammar schools have agreed to abandon the test. Five catholic grammar schools in County Down were the first to say they’d admit a comprehensive intake this year, using their secondary admission rules of faith and distance from school. Lagan College in Belfast has also said it will not use an 11-plus. The integrated (non-faith) secondary school usually admits 35% of pupils on the basis of a transfer test pass. There are more schools declaring they will abandon selective admissions each week and we understand twelve schools in Northern Ireland are turning comprehensive this year.
Sinn Féin MP for North Belfast John Finucane has urged the remaining grammar schools to suspend academic selection. He said, “No child or parent should have the additional worry of these exams as schools struggle to return to a new normal. Academic selection is wrong, unnecessary and places pressure on young children. There is growing evidence that academic selection has a detrimental impact on the development of young pupils.
“The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Equality Commission, Human Rights Commission, Children’s Commissioner, OECD, the trade union movement and the Catholic Church hierarchy have all called for an end to academic selection.”
In England grammar schools are still considering how to manage selective admissions, and the fact grammar schools in Northern Ireland feel they can do without a test must put pressure on them to do the same.
A statement from Kent County Council, who administer an 11-plus test for more than 14,000 children each year, says, “We are currently unable to tell you exactly how we will assess children for grammar school in the new academic year. We can confirm, however, that we will need some way to identify which children are eligible. Testing has the benefit of being available to the thousands of grammar school applicants we normally assess every year, however recently they have arrived in Kent and wherever they usually study, even if they are home educated, so it would be the most straightforward option if it is possible.”
The council plays down the problems with how unfair the test will be, they say, “We appreciate that everyone of school age is missing classroom teaching, but it is fortunate that there are many excellent resources available through schools and education sites for children.”
This statement seems to assume that all children have equal opportunity to access online resources, plus keen parental support to help them find such sites. We all know motivated parents will be paying for online 11-plus tuition. The poorest children are always disadvantaged by this unfair test, but this year it seems obvious that the inequality will be worst than ever.