Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Why new tests are just not the right answer to transfer puzzle

I remember the day I sat the first part of my 11-plus. I was thinking about it at the weekend watching TV footage of the class of 2009 exit their exam halls.

Like many of them I sat the exam in a different school a few miles away from my own.

Our wee school had been deemed too out of the way and insignificant to host the test so my uncle Norman chauffeured me to the nearest venue.

I don’t remember pressure or unbearable stress or even what the paper itself was like. But to this day I could still give you a precise rundown of the décor of that cavernous (to me) and exciting classroom where we sat the test.

I came home and told my mother all about it. I remember I was especially taken with the model thatched cottage made entirely from lollipop sticks and roofed with moss.

How come we never got to make things like that at our school? My mother rolled her eyes. You did actually get round to doing the test she asked bleakly.

I’m sure for many of those children last Saturday — and for those who will sit their tests this Saturday coming — a strange new classroom is also a bit of a distraction.

But that’s the least of their worries. Whatever the faults of the exam system when I was sitting the 11-plus, at least back then there was a sense that the process itself had been tried and tested.

Chaotic just about sums up what’s happening now.

Chaotic and shameful.

Those who worked themselves into a tizzy a couple of years back about what they regarded as the indefensible pressure put on children by the old style 11-plus will have to concede that — even at its worst — the pressure then was a walk in the playground compared to what’s been happening this year.

For the record I support selection. I don’t think 11 is too young, either. I think it is totally sensible to try to identify the academically able in the same way as it is to identify those who may have a talent for, say, sport or music.

This isn’t about labelling some children as failures. That particularly nasty bit of branding actually comes from the anti-selection lobby who in churning it out regularly, write off the brilliant work of our secondary schools. Schools whose success has been one of the glories of our education system.

And no, I’m not arguing that everything about the old system was perfect.

But as someone who came from a poor background, I believe passionately that at least it gave poorer kids a better chance all round than what’s facing them now.

All that money that‘s been pumped into producing the current chaos could and should have been channelled into schools — particularly primary schools — in more deprived areas.

The current appalling mess is unfair to all pupils, parents and teachers involved.

But in a system that farcically is supposed to be about “equality”, it’s the children of the less well-off who are really being sold short.

In my day we, the working class, took it for granted having to go that bit further to even get to the exam venue.

These days the poorest kids don’t even get in the door.

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