Mental Health champion for Northern Ireland, Siobhan O’Neill, has said that using 11-plus exams to assess children at an early age, “not only can affect their mental health but also that of the whole family”.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph she said, “It’s a terrible system and it needs to change.” She also described the selective system as “unethical and harmful” via social media.

“There is an independent review currently ongoing on the evolution of the transfer test which recognizes how difficult it is for children at this age. Selection by testing is just not appropriate because of the extreme pressure on our young people, and the stakes are just so high.  The implications as such are huge; adults have said how detrimental a similar process had been on their own mental health and wellbeing.

“So many teachers say that they have to use this time after receiving their results to build back the self-esteem of the children who didn’t get the result they wanted or get into the school they hoped for. This isn’t about blaming the pupils or the teachers or the parents for that matter — it’s the entire system needs a rethink.”

Siobhan proposed that instead of testing children with an exam “pupil profiling” might be used to determine what school each child should attend.

“This is about understanding each child’s strengths and selecting the right school based on that to help them to flourish. It’s unclear what exactly this testing exactly achieves, and parents spend a fortune on tutoring and all sorts of extra-curricular help for their child. More emphasis needs put on the mental health implications of this and measuring something that can’t be measured is just a very harmful message to send out, especially to those children with additional mental health needs. Having such high stakes testing at the age of ten is quite brutal to put it frankly, quite unnecessary.”

Siobhan pointed out some of the stressful elements of the 11-plus exam. “It can be difficult for example if siblings attend another school and a child doesn’t get into the same school. Having to deal with such huge disappointment can be difficult and the child can sometimes feel it’s all their fault, but it’s important to reassure them at this time.

“And if it’s important to the child to pass the exam, for example, and you say something like ‘it doesn’t matter, it will all be OK’ it can sometimes be the worst thing to say because you’re invalidating their feelings. It’s important to spend time listening and connecting with them so that they feel loved,” she said. “It will be difficult for them to understand their feelings on this, but they will show you in other ways.”

It is refreshing to see the mental health problems of the 11-plus discussed so candidly by an expert of such standing. Sadly, in the UK, the 11-plus exam tests around 100,000 pupils each year and no one in authority says a word.