What Happens If There Is No Transfer Test in 2020?

Like so many others, I heard (and shared) the announcement from the Newry & Kilkeel Consortium (5 grammar schools) that they would no longer accept the GL result and also from Lagan College that they will no longer be accepting the AQE/GL result for their normal 35% grammar stream intake.

Of course, grammar schools are free to do this and in particular, I understood this decision from Lagan College as they’re already very well equipped to manage mixed-ability (with 65% of their annual intake through this route) but I’ve noticed a general momentum building in support to remove the transfer test this year, perhaps from people who don’t have the insight to understand the realistic alternatives so let’s explore what we know, the educational processes that are in place with the current timescales and what we can perhaps assume. 

This blog is not written to persuade you that the test going ahead is the best option, but merely to inform you of the choices that grammar schools are faced with, if it does not.

How Students Will Be Accepted Into Grammars In The Newry & Kilkeel Consortium

The Newry and Kilkeel Consortium have stated that the academic admissions criteria in each of the five schools will not be used for the academic year 2021-22.

The explained in writing that “aside from some minor amendments at an individual school level, the Admissions Criteria for the 2021- 22 academic year will largely be based on each school’s sub-criteria.”

A full exploration of each sub criteria can be found here: Blog Exploring Sub Criteria Of Newry & Kilkeel Consortium Schools but basically it is:

  • Parent / guardian working in the school
  • Sibling currently at the school
  • Sibling at the school previously
  • Parent attended the school
  • First born / eldest / only child
  • Free School Meals
  • Rated in order (with youngest first)

Therefore, with all siblings (over 7 year groups) being admitted without the test result, it’s conceivable they will be absorbing the vast majority of the spaces and many families who don’t have this benefit, but have a very able P6 child, will now miss out.

Giving due consideration (perhaps hope from many) about the ‘minor amendments‘ referred to in the letter, this could be the simple reference to the school choice level (that is whether you put the school first or second on the post-primary transfer form).

When their letter stated, ‘Careful consideration was given to this decision to temporarily remove the academically selective element of each school’s admission criteria for one year only…”, there is no doubt in my mind that they will not be using any form of academic selection, i.e. based on your child’s performance.

You can read the full letter below:

Announcement From Lagan College

In the letter from Lagan College (31st May 2020) they explained that the decision to remove AQE/GL as part of the admission criteria was made after careful deliberation with the Board Of Governors and Principal and they sincerely apologised for any concern this may cause P6 families.

The letter (which can be found on their social media), explained that their admission policy for 2021 will be published with the Education Authority in Autumn and it will make no reference to academic selection and the policy will be based on the existing Stage 2 All Ability Entry criteria.

So How Could Other Grammars Decide If They Don’t Use The Transfer Test Result?

Within the news reports, I regularly hear the appeal to grammar schools to be innovative and creative to come up with an alternative solution to the test, but let’s be realistic, the options are limited and are not endless.

However, following social media conversations, luckily there appear to be many people with easy solutions as to how grammar schools can suddenly change their approach in the short run (just before the summer holidays), so let’s step back and explore these options more fully in turn.

Option 1: Teacher Can Make Recommendations / Advise On Child’s Academic Ability?

This is fraught with issues and in many ways would be putting teachers in a very difficult position to effectively determine who will or won’t gain a grammar school place.

It’s not likely the teachers’ union would allow this to happen as it could cause a high level of stress and the open letter from the 20 Primary School Principals in North Down backs this up as not being a realistic option when they stated, “Primary school teachers and leaders are not in a position to make judgements on which pupils should or should not be admitted to a grammar school.” The full letter can be read in the BBC News Report – ‘Over 20 primary principals call for transfer test suspension’

Option 2: Use The Standardised Tests From Previous Years?

In the perfect world, with the perfect test conditions and tests carried out every year, this would be a viable option, but unfortunately I don’t think we’re there and it would cause more appeals and frustration that I imagine anyone would care to manage.

There are a lot of uncontrollable factors with these tests and a lot of children last sat them in P5 and so are quite out of date. Furthermore, some schools do these on a computer but I’ve also heard of ones being completed on paper, so again we get that element of ‘unfair’ which no-one wants to risk.

Also, CAT scores aren’t meant to change, but every year teachers report that there’s regularly a change in each child’s scores and it’s perhaps more rare that the score is constant rather than varying wildly year on year. So many would argue that this test is not an indication of a child’s academic ability and should not be used as their route into grammar, and it would appear they would have a strong case.

Do I need even to add these these tests are not taken under any strict exam conditions or moderated, or the fact that the child may not have been feeling well that day and yet there was no redress to request special circumstances? All is all, these tests would not stand up to any level of scrutiny.

Option 3: Each Grammar Does Their Own Entrance Test

This is something that happens in some parts of Scotland and England but it would be a greater challenge for a child who has a number of potential, grammar school options, as they then have to do several exams, in different settings, at potentially different levels with no past papers etc. In addition, it would be down to each grammar school to administer and manage the results to support the post-primary transfer process into the Education Authority.

This is not an impossible idea and the grammar schools probably have entrance papers which they currently use for children arriving into NI from abroad (after Yr 8) but it would involve extra effort, would be more unsettling for the child and would not offer any additional value.

Option 4: Remove Academic Selection And Use Other Criteria

Putting aside the obvious problem, that some children will find themselves in a grammar school and may struggle, with others are missing out on the opportunity to prove their ability if their older sibling was not academic, this is exactly what the Newry & Kilkeel Consortium have done, so hopefully by now, you understand exactly what this means.

The other challenge with this is that we don’t know what ‘other criteria‘ (remember non-academic, so NOT option 1, option 2 or option 3) will be used so parents won’t know whether to celebrate, if their child ticks the boxes, or be sad if they don’t.

Other grammar schools could admit children on the basis of:

  • Physical distance from school (closest first)
  • Eldest / Only child first (many feel admitting sibling is unfair)
  • Children at prep school (or parents or siblings beforehand) getting preference
  • Age with youngest being admitted first
  • Random selection with a list of letters in the alphabet being admitted in order of child’s surname e.g. H,G,M,U,L,P (this is in some school’s criteria elements) etc.

Furthermore, take the Newry Schools for example, although they’ve been open on the fact that they will be mainly using sub-criteria in their admission criteria and that is clear, no-one is going to know for certain until November 2020 and everyone can see the finalised admission criteria. However, this has not stopped my inbox being inundated with messages from parents in this area who are now devastated at this news.

November 2020Final Date for Schools to amend admissions criteria to EA

So, if grammars follow this route of non-academic selection with the thinking they’re somehow helping parents, I suspect this might be misplaced as many families will be thrown into an even higher level of uncertainty, stress and confusion, which ironically at a time like this is probably the last thing they actually need.

Parents Are Worried – Not About The Kids Doing The Tests, But About The Uncertainty If There Is None.

Parents are very concerned and these are just two examples of messages I received this morning, which encouraged me to write this blog:

Hello! Just voicing concerns about the whole AQE issue on the news. My daughter asked me what would it mean if the schools she is interested in do the same. I said if they follow the South Down schools it will mean that you would go to a school that your sibling is at or that your parent attended. She burst into tears, she’s a really intelligent child with Progress in English in 130+ and Progress in Maths 120+ I attended a grammar but it’s out of our travel distance, my husband didn’t and my son who is just as intelligent as his sister but who has dyslexia is Year 8 at our local high school. He then bursts into tears and says it’s not fair that his sister might not get a grammar because of his dyslexia….. I am kicking myself for telling her that might be the case now and reassuring her that the school her brother is at is a good school but in my heart I know she would do well at a grammar. When you have a child saying she is praying that they don’t scrap the AQE you know there is something wrong! There will be so many children at grammars who will not be able to cope and yet so many not who should be!
Thanks for all your work incidentally!

I hope you don’t mind me messaging you, it is in a roundabout way for AQE advice, just not probably the usual type of advice asked for.
I am extremely concerned by the whole debacle that is quickly becoming the transfer test and so many people are so blinkered that they cannot understand what this actually means. I have a daughter who is extremely academic and very bright, who based on practice tests she is currently doing at the minute, would get in to a grammar no problem.
I am very concerned for kids like my daughter who would excel at grammar school and who if this all escalated further, could end up not getting a place in one. You cannot just drop academic selection for one year!! How does anyone even think that would work? These schools would still be grammar schools, with one year group non-selective!!
I am a post primary teacher myself and the ludicrousness of this astounds me!!! I am asking you for advice as to what I as a parent could do about this? Who to contact, who to speak to, to get my voice heard and the voices of many many parents who also feel like me? I’m wondering if you have had many other parents contact you with the same concerns?

Is This Simply Anti-Transfer Noise?

For many years the debate in Northern Ireland has been ongoing about the benefits for and against a transfer test, but this is not the time for any point scoring or using COVID19 to build on this case. Parents need to operate in an environment which they are familiar with and not a whole new set of rules that they’ll have to wrap their heads around very quickly to determine if they’ve benefited by default, or lost out on any future aspirations for their child.

As many know in Northern Ireland, parents can be very vocal and not likely to support any systems they don’t agree with, but with more than 2000 people registering for AQE on day one and the numbers are currently up to approximately 5,000 applicants (registration doesn’t close until September 2020) that have registered, this should speak volumes to the grammar schools and be a clear indication as to the actual P6 parents’ feelings (not representative groups) towards this transfer test going ahead.

Am I Biased?

Absolutely! But not for any fickle reason such as App sales – I imagine kids will always be learning English and maths so I’m not worried about that. However, I know I would never have gained a place in a grammar school if it wasn’t for the 11+ and I would never have gone to university or had the career I did. I love voting for the underdog, the naturally, bright child (that was never me by the way, but I was a grafter) and how education can open up doors for everyone irrespective of income. So, yes I’m completely bias and proud of it.

But, don’t read this as some opposition to high schools either. I think they’re great and I moved one of my kids from a great grammar school to a high school as it was the right place for him and he thrived. Each child is different and choosing the right fit for your own child is very important and one size does not fit all.

What P6 Parents Can Do If They The Tests To Go Ahead?

This is a difficult one as there’s not one central group to approach and decisions for all admission criteria lies with the Grammar School and the Board of Governors of each school, so in answer to many parents sending me messages, I think the only, realistic thing you can do is write to the Board Of Governors (maybe email and follow up with letter) and explain your position and your concerns so they understand that any lobbying groups are not fully reflective of everyone’s opinions.

Maybe they need to understand that not everyone simply wants the test to be scrapped in 2020?

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