Northern Ireland Education Minister Caitriona Ruane has been urged to listen to the message from our children over the schools transfer debacle.
More than 1,000 pupils who went through the first year of unregulated transfer last year have demanded that the minister and and the Stormont Executive address the issue of transfer arrangements as a matter of urgency. They also say children should be consulted on any future changes.
The schoolchildren — now in Year 8 — took part in a landmark consultation led by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (Niccy) during their P7 year.
They are also calling on politicians and others to recognise and take steps to reduce the stress and pressure experienced by P7 pupils going through the current unregulated system which can see some children sit multiple transfer tests.
Niccy Commissioner Patricia Lewsley initiated the consultation after politicians failed to agree on a new transfer system and unregulated tests were introduced by 67 schools — mainly grammars. Her team reviewed the 2010 transfer process and documented the views of P7 pupils.
The consultation was carried out between November 2009 and May 2010 and involved 964 pupils (most in Primary 7), 42 principals and teachers and 23 parents.
The Niccy report, Talking Transfer, includes findings from the Kids’ Life and Times 2010 Survey administered by Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster and included questions to more than 5,100 P7 pupils from 321 primary schools on transfer.
There were around 13,700 pupil registrations for the two testing systems run by AQE and GL Assessment last year.
Just over 60% of the children who responded to the Life survey said they sat the tests, with 72% of these pupils from families categorised as “high affluence”.
Some pupils coped well with the additional work required in preparation for entrance tests and navigated their way through the year with relative ease.
The Niccy report’s authors state: “For many more pupils however, the transfer process was difficult, unsettling and nerve- racking.”
Parents spoke of children having sleepless nights and pupils said they felt nervous and anxious and, in some cases, under “intense pressure”.
The report notes that some of the pupils’ views may have equally applied to the former 11-plus tests.
But added pressures under the current system include uncertainty, the two testing systems operating and some pupils sitting multiple tests, taking tests in an unfamiliar school and varied preparation within primary schools.
Primary teachers also said they found the transfer arrangements last year difficult. Many felt torn between their desire to support pupils in advance of the tests with department guidance which directed them not to prepare pupils.
They reported that more pupils appeared to be stressed about the process than in previous years.
One said: “It was the worst ever term of teaching.
“I felt it was unfair to the children if you weren’t preparing them well enough.”
Pupils in a third of the schools reported attending extra classes to prepare for the tests — held before or after school or on Saturdays.
The survey found that 96% of pupils sitting entrance tests completed practice papers in school or at home and 45% also had tutors.
Sitting the test on Saturday mornings in post-primary schools was an unsettling experience for some pupils, who commented on strange buildings and fear of the unknown.
In the Life and Times survey, 40% of pupils thought that the tests should be retained. Of these, 71% sat tests. Some 26% of pupils (41% of whom had sat the tests) opted to “get rid of them”.
Some teachers were adamant that academic selection should end — while others said the current system was not ready for the immediate removal of tests.
Pupils felt strongly that they should be consulted about transfer procedures and they also highlighted the stress and pressure experienced by children.
One said: “Give children a chance to speak their opinions instead of changing the test without even asking us.”
If the tests had to be retained, the pupils recommended changes including just the one test, a review of the scoring systems, and doing the tests on a weekday.
The Commissioner’s report concludes: “NICCY is concerned that children’s wellbeing and best interests have not been key considerations in the debates and decisions concerning the transfer process, or in the implementation of the new arrangements.
“Linked to this is the need to recognise the difficult position in which many primary teachers and principals found themselves during the 2009/10 academic year.
“NICCY therefore urges the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that every child’s wellbeing and interests are placed at the centre of their debates and decisions.”