Academic Selection: To end or not to end?

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?

Reputation? Money?

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.


In Conversation with Gregory Campbell

Our first interview with an MP here at the Youth Voice and certainly an interesting one. Gregory Campbell of the DUP, MP for East Londonderry since 2001. We discussed votes at 16, mandatory coalition, a border poll and whether the DUP needs to modernise.

The DUP haven’t been particularly vocal about votes at 16, in Ireland both North and South it isn’t an issue that seems to be particularly important to any of the major parties however as a young person it’s an issue that is very important to me. According to Mr Campbell the DUP will certainly engage in the discussion however would rather focus on increasing turnout amongst the 18-21 age group who are notorious for a low voter turnout. The DUP fear that allowing votes at 16 may make turnout percentages even worse however the DUP will engage in the debate and will consider both arguments.

This lead to a discussion about political education in schools, Mr Campbell agreed that we need to start considering reforming political education in schools. He went on to say that there historically appeared to be an unwillingness amongst teachers to discuss politics within the classroom however times have changed and it’s time to start getting people educated and involved. At the minute politics is not part of the syllabus other than for A level and GCSE politics however these subjects are not offered in many schools.

Our next topic was about the modernisation of the DUP, I put forward the idea that in recent elections the DUP saw significant losses due to their conservative position on social issues. Mr Campbell disagreed, he believed that those losses were possibly due to the lack of a Stormont Assembly when the election took place as both Sinn Féin and the DUP saw losses. However Gregory understood the importance of the DUP being aware of the social changes around issues like Same-Sex Marriage and Abortion Rights. He understands that if a party does not change with the times and buries its head in the sand eventually it will get left behind or drowned in the tide.

Another topic of discussion was mandatory coalition, with parties like Alliance supporting a transition to voluntary coalition in Stormont. We discussed how mandatory coalition inhibits change and allows the big 5 to remain relatively complacent in regards to their position in the Executive due to the 5 party coalition. A move to a voluntary system would force the larger parties to engage properly with their electorate and to gain public support.

We also discussed the idea of a border poll and the factors that would decide the result. We agreed that a poll on the constitutional position of NI is almost inevitable, and that it would be decided by the economic situation for example the Brexit situation alongside social issues. Mr Campbell raised the idea about accommodation of British and Irish identity, in his opinion the U.K. is a lot more accommodating of Irish identity in comparison with Irish accommodation of British identity. We also discussed the importance of the campaigning in the event of a border poll, there must be a degree of respect and political toxicity should be avoided in order to protect the people of NI having had to deal with the controversy of Brexit NI is in a period of uncertainty and in the event of a border poll it must be done to protect people’s peace of mind.

This was one of the more interesting interviews that I’ve done so far. Going into it I undoubtedly had built an opinion on Mr Campbell simply from watching debates and his controversial “curry my yoghurt” moment in the assembly. However I was pleasantly surprised, Mr Campbell was far from the aggressive unionist figure as portrayed in the media but was rather a politician who believes not only in looking after his constituency but what he feels is best for NI. He was our first unionist politician to take part in an interview and I hope to have many more in order to encourage dialogue and diversity of opinion.

By Dermot Hamill