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How practice papers got us through those testing times

By Kerry McKittrick

The transfer tests are looming for many Primary Seven pupils across Northern Ireland but three personalities reveal how the right preparation can deliver results.

Many children here are now buckling down to extra study before they sit their transfer tests in November, and to give them some extra support, the Belfast Telegraph will be giving away a set of practice papers each day this week. Since the days of the 11-plus, transfer tests have been a rite of passage for many 11-year-olds here, and have become an important milestone during their school years.

Building confidence is key to preparing a child for transfer tests and working through practice papers is perfect for helping to make the exams less daunting. The free test papers will enable primary school children to put what they have learned in the classroom into practice before the tests, so it is a less daunting prospect.

Rebecca Maguire (22), a former Miss Ireland and judge for the Miss Ireland pageant, lives in Belfast and works as a pharmacist. She says:

About 12 years ago I did the 11-plus, and I don't remember being given the choice not to do it. For me, it was a positive thing. I've been tested continuously throughout my life and the transfer tests were the beginning of that - it's a part of life these days.

It wasn't life or death, though. While I was expected to pass, I didn't feel any pressure to do so. My mum obviously wanted me to get the best grade I could.

Fortunately, I got a Grade A and went to my chosen school, St Dominic's in Belfast, I reckoned I did well because I worked hard but my little brother didn't do any work at all and ended up with the same grade.

The subjects covered were Maths, English and Science - and we would go over and over them in practice papers, so it was the first time I really had to study. That was a good thing because it was my first glimpse into what education would be like in the future.

I got the grade I wanted, thought some of my cousins didn't, and it's really not the end of the world. There are all sorts of opportunities in whatever school you end up in."

Pete Snodden (35) is a Cool FM DJ and lives in Bangor with his wife, Julia, and their two daughters, Ivanna (3) and  Elayna (9 months). He says:

When I took the 11-plus I actually got a Grade Two. On the day of the exam, my teacher said to my mum that he had never seen a child as nervous as me - I was physically shaking before going into the classroom. The problem was that I had put myself under so much pressure.

My Grade Two still got me into my chosen school, Inst, so I was very happy with that. My parents never put any pressure on me at all. They told me as long as I did my best that was the important thing. On the day of the results they brought me into the garage and gave me a new mountain bike.

They knew I had worked hard and were happy with that. I think you were told on the same day as your results what school you were going to so I was over the moon to get the school I wanted.

You can never tell about those results. A girl in my class who was always in the top three got a Grade Three, while a boy who was always bottom ended up with a Grade One."

Emma-Louise Johnston (36) is a presenter and broadcaster. She lives in Maghera with her husband, Jonathan, and their children, Emily (3) and JJ (1). She says:

I couldn't actually understand the letter they sent with my 11-plus results. In my day you either passed or failed so the letter just said I was eligible for a place in Belfast Royal Academy. My mum had to explain to me that I had passed. I got into the school I wanted which was the main thing.

I never felt any pressure for the 11-plus - I always just assumed that I would get it. The questions covered maths and English, so over the summer mum would bring me into the dining room to go through some past tests.

My parents ensured I was prepared, and that was it. I had heard stories of very clever people who did very badly and vice-versa. They might have gone to a school that they didn't want to for a while but then they would move somewhere else. If you didn't do well it wasn't a disaster, it just meant that you would have to look at a different path.

I think a lot of concern around the test is down to the parents and how much pressure they put on their children."

Our writer Kerry McKittrick on how plenty of practice papers delivered the right result:

Back then, I remember preparing for the 11-plus being a tough old slog. For a full year we did transfer test papers at school during the day, then in the evening my dad and I would retreat to the dining table for more practice.

I struggled at first - it was the methodology I couldn't get my head around. However, my dad started working with me and I began to improve. He still has a collection of old papers of mine that he's kept because of the marked improvement in my scores week on week - at the beginning it was around 50%, eventually ending up around 90%.

There was pressure, of course. We all wanted high scores but a place in our chosen grammar school could depend on the result as well. As with all exams when you look back it seems like such a small thing but at the time it felt like life or death.

Our result - a grade of between one and four with one being the highest - depended not on our actual test score but in which percentile we fell.

The exams were two sessions of 50 minutes each and I remember leaving with a spring in my step, quietly confident with my performance. My granny warned me to reserve judgment - just in case I didn't do as well as expected. I'm pleased to say, though, my instincts were right.

Results day produced the coveted Grade One - and a place at my chosen school, Methodist College Belfast."

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