That is the question.
Peter Weir has faced criticism in recent months due to a lack of action regarding the Transfer Test. Public opinion has caused Post-Primary entrance exams to be cancelled in Grammar Schools across the six counties, with some Exam companies attempting to wait out in the hopes of being able to hold their exams. At the time of writing AQE have agreed to cancel their examinations alongside other exam companies.
This year the exams could not be held due to a variety of reasons, one of those was due to most students being left unprepared having missed almost half a year of their education in 2020. Some students were not left in the same position, some children had access to much better opportunities in regards to remote learning, whether it was online classes or better online resources. Like every normal year, some students had tutors for months before the exam was set to take place. This is where the class issue arises. Some argue that the transfer test going ahead would leave those without these resources disadvantaged in comparison with their more affluent counterparts. Essentially the rich kids would get better grades because they had private tutoring.
However this divide between those with tutors and those without is not unique to the 2020/21 test, every year some students will have one to one tutoring for months in advance whereas some students simply won’t.
However are grammar schools any better than non-selective schools?
Yes and no. It is true that the top 59 schools in regards to league tables are grammar schools, however that does not exactly suggest that there is a better standard of teaching. If a school is selective and only takes students from those that achieve the top transfer test grades then naturally they will take the top grades in GCSEs. This allows a student to be surrounded by those of equal ability, which is achievable in a non-grammar through the process of “streaming” classes i.e separating students based on their ability.
However grammar schools are considered ruthless by many pupils and parents. With a heavy focus on academic prestige and sporting success many grammar schools have become notorious for neglecting their students in regards to pastoral care and mental health support. Schools will often turn a blind eye to the mental well-being of a student provided their grades are high. With some of the worst mental health figures in the U.K. with 12.6% of young people in Northern Ireland experiencing anxiety or depression which and 25% more likely to experience these issues than the rest of the U.K. Schools should not be negligent in regards to the mental health of their students no matter how good their grades are.
So why are schools adamant on maintaining selection?
According to some teachers, they enjoy the “prestige” and “cushiness” of a grammar school job, if all the students are considered academically gifted then they have to put in a lot less effort in order to maintain good results, every school wants to be top of the league tables. Or is it the “voluntary contribution” also known as school fees, a yearly payment given to the school from parents to pay for extracurricular activities and facilities. However while it is technically voluntary, the contribution is considered voluntary in the same way the collection plate at mass is voluntary.
To end or not to end?
According to Childline Transfer Test related stress levels are increasing, with experts saying many children are facing so much stress that they face crippling anxiety. Anxiety? In 10 year olds?! Whether you’re pro-academic selection or not, that should be shocking and should evoke horror, however for me it doesn’t. I can easily remember the day I took my entrance exam, 10 years old walking into a big, scary secondary school, a far cry from my class of seven pupils. I remember how scared I was about failing despite not really having much pressure from parents. I remember the kids who ended up being sick or crying because they didn’t know the answers. Looking back it opens my eyes to how difficult it must have been for the kids who didn’t get the results they wanted. So the figures of 125 calls to Childline about transfer stress in 2016 disgusts me but it doesn’t shock me. If academic selection is to be continued then work must be done to remove the fear from it, to remove the stigma of failure. It isn’t a formal qualification it isn’t really worth anything after 1st year so if the test is to continue after 2021 then we need to make it less daunting for children. Because they are children, it’s not an A level, they’re kids.
Or we can scrap it altogether, the stress goes away and it would allow us to further level the playing field for our students, an A in the transfer is simply a way to inflate the ego of a 10 year old for a while before they go to secondary school and see that it doesn’t really mean that much. Yes it’s a great achievement to score so highly at such a young age but it’s not healthy to create division so early and to create 2 tiers of students, those who passed and those who didn’t.