How children deal with the 11-plus is lesson for us all
Michael Hewitt of DoubleBand Films describes the experience of making The School Report, a documentary for BBC Northern Ireland on the rights and wrongs of academic selection
It was February 7, 2009 and a long day's filming as we made our way to the homes of four of the young children who had just received their results from the 11-plus exam.
For Aaron, Amy, Bronte and Liz, and the 15,000 other primary school children who had sat the final transfer test in Northern Ireland, it was the end of what had probably been the most worrying time in their young lives — one that many, if not most, of us have gone through in the 60 years since the 11-plus was introduced here.
As we entered each of the children's homes, not knowing if the post had brought them joy or heartache, I was struck by how brave it was of each of them — and their parents — to share this experience with us and the viewers of our documentary for BBC Northern Ireland, The School Report.
We had been filming with the children over the preceding three months, trying to capture the experience of sitting the 11-plus from the point of view of the children and their families.
Over that time we encountered many different emotions. Some of the children were more confident of success than the others. One was afraid of “being left behind in education”.
For another the biggest worry was being separated from friends going to different ‘big schools’. But what all four children shared was the hope of getting a top grade and into one of Northern Ireland's grammar schools.
At DoubleBand we wanted to bring these hopes, fears and emotions to the screen so that we could get a better understanding of what the 11-plus meant to families across Northern Ireland. At the same time we also wanted to bring a fresh perspective to the issue of academic selection.
Undoubtedly the decision to abolish the transfer test in |Northern Ireland provoked one of the fiercest debates here in |recent years. But it seemed to us that the debate had become |heavily politicised.
What we wanted to do in The School Report was strip away the party politics and look at the issue from a purely educational point of view. To do this we invited Chris Woodhead and Fiona Millar — education experts with strong but differing opinions on academic selection — to come to Northern Ireland and assess the best |way forward for our children's |education.
Chris Woodhead is best known as the former Chief Inspector of Schools in England, a post he held under both John Major and Tony Blair. Outspoken and often controversial, Chris is a passionate defender of academic selection.
Fiona Millar is a former adviser to Cherie Blair. As an education journalist and campaigner she is a staunch supporter of the |comprehensive system and a |determined critic of selection tests such as the 11-plus.
Chris and Fiona were keen to visit Northern Ireland, to find out more about how our education system works and to consider what the future could — or should — hold for the classrooms of tomorrow. From the outset we were left in no doubt about the strength of Chris and Fiona's views on academic selection.
While Chris derided the decision to scrap the 11-plus as “an act of madness”, Fiona fully supported it, arguing that academic selection was unnecessary, socially divisive and stressful for young children. It was obvious that we — and the viewers of The School Report — were going to enjoy a lively, no-holds-barred journey with Chris and Fiona.
For Chris, filming began at Glenlola Collegiate, the girls' grammar in Bangor. There he was hugely impressed by the standard of education on offer and by the admirable results the girls achieve in their A-levels.
Likewise Fiona was impressed with what she saw at Kilkeel High School, one of the few all-ability, or comprehensive, schools in Northern Ireland and one in which most of the pupils never even sat the 11-plus exam.
For Fiona, Kilkeel High offered a perfect example of how a local school can be inclusive while still delivering a high quality education for all of its pupils. We knew, however, that to get to the heart of the matter we needed to take Chris and Fiona out of their comfort zones — to schools such as St Louis Grammar School in |Ballymena and Edenbrooke Primary School on Belfast's Shankill Road, where they might be surprised and where teachers and pupils might challenge their points of view.
We were not to be disappointed in this — as viewers will see, some of our local schoolchildren were not behind the door when it came to expressing their strong opinions to Chris and Fiona.
Likewise, neither Chris or Fiona were slow in putting across their points of view when it came to the final meeting of their visit to Northern Ireland — with the Minister for Education, Catriona Ruane, in her office at Stormont.
Chris, in particular, was extremely clear about his opinion on the minister's reforms and the abolition of the transfer test — the “act of vandalism” that he refers to at the beginning of the programme. It makes for a robust encounter between Chris and the minister — one that was intriguing to film and which, I believe, will fascinate viewers of The School Report.
Ultimately, however, for me the heart of this documentary was about the experiences of the four young children we followed — Amy, Aaron, Liz and Bronte — as they waited for their results from the last 11-plus.
It was, as I have said, extraordinarily brave for these 11-year-olds to share these experiences with us, not knowing whether their results would bring them delight or disappointment.
I admire them for doing so and as we finished filming I was reminded of the words spoken by the mother of one of the girls: “Any school would be proud to have her.”
I have to agree.
The School Report, tonight, BBC ONE NI at 9pm