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Testing times: Our writers on sitting their first big exam

Ahead of the Belfast Telegraph’s transfer test practice papers giveaway this week, three of our writers relive sitting the 11-Plus… and reveal how they got on.

'The nerve-racking part was waiting for the results letter'

I was surprised when we started doing our 11-Plus practice tests in primary school. They were surprisingly fun for something that was supposed to change the course of your whole life.

When I was 11, the 11-Plus consisted of two verbal reasoning tests, which we sat in the assembly hall of Olderfleet Primary School in Larne on Saturdays several months apart. You know the kind of thing - here is the code for "dog" and "cat", so what is the code for "puppy"? You'd be given a couple of numbers and have to figure out the rest of the sequence.

Or you would be asked to find the hidden four-letter word running from the end of one word to the start of another in the same sentence.

All you had to do was search for it.

There wasn't the same sense of pressure that there seems to be today.

In the run-up to the big day, our school ran regular practice tests and sent me and my best friend, Naomi, home with verbal reasoning homework.

Meanwhile, my mum would drive us up to Belfast to stock up on practice tests at Edco before nipping across the road to Leisureworld, so I could buy a bag of googly eyes to stick on my pencil case.

Mum still swears by the New First Aid to English as her grammar bible. At the time - this was in the early-1980s - there was no such thing as private tuition. The schools gave us plenty of opportunity to do the practice tests and I completed one at home every Saturday.

My mum even had to ration them, because I thought they were quite fun - like doing the quizzes in the dusty old Reader's Digests piled at my grandpa's house.

I even remember sitting at the fold-up table in our caravan, working away at the tests, when we were on holiday in France. My brother found them more of an ordeal, but working at them in a class setting made a big difference.

Meanwhile, my husband, Lee, says he wasn't much interested in sitting the 11-Plus, as he planned to go to the same school as his mates, anyway, but he was talked into it and found it okay.

As the pupils all queued up to sit the test, everyone was devouring Mars bars in the firm belief that it would help them to concentrate.

After Lee passed, his mum and dad rewarded him with £40, which he splurged on Tailspin, an "awful" Jungle Book spin-off game for the Sega Megadrive.

For me, the most nerve-racking part of the whole process was waiting for the results letter.

Because I was a year young for the test, I had to get an A to be accepted into Larne Grammar School.

There was such a sense of relief when I got what I needed - and I was straight on the phone to Naomi, only to discover that she had missed out.

I didn't know what to say and it was the beginning of the end - the last summer we would spend running around together."

  • Linda Stewart is the Belfast Telegraph's environment correspondent

'Second chance at 11-Plus started me on the road to Queen's'

In a country primary school in the mid-1970s, a small collection of bumpkins waited casually in the only corridor, none of us overly concerned about the big 11-Plus exam we were about to sit. Some of us had scooted ahead of P4 and P5; some of us hadn't, but that didn't matter.

We had a much-liked headmaster, the patient and charismatic Michael O'Kane, who had faith in us all.

So, I went into the exam confidently, happy in the knowledge that I was well-prepared by his weekly drills and his unfailing encouragement.

What I was not prepared for was a giant migraine crashing into my frontal lobe, making logical thought impossible.

It happened the morning of the second part of the exam. I'd been having bad headaches on and off for a couple of years and had been diagnosed in the Royal Victoria Hospital as having a form of childhood migraine, which the doctor hoped I would "grow out of".

I remember feeling slightly nauseous the previous night, but this one came without any real warning. Although I knew the 11-Plus was a big deal, I wasn't in the least bit stressed about it and had thought the first paper was easy. But, in the white heat of the searing pain in my head, part two was double Dutch.

Anyway, I hoped I'd done enough in the first paper to get through. I'll never forget the slim, brown envelope containing the dreaded news of failure dropping through the letterbox on a sunny Saturday morning a few months later.

But there was hope - the headmaster said I should have passed and helped my mother get me into Rathmore Grammar School in Finaghy, where I sat what was called a "review" exam.

It was a second chance at the 11-Plus and, this time, I did sail through, scoring 94 out of 100, much to my astonishment and delight.

I'd got into the school my parents had wished for me and it had given me a chance to prove myself - and a fine secondary-level education that got me into Queen's University in Belfast.

As the doctor hoped, the migraines abated in my teens and, when I look back, preparing for the 11-Plus and the review exam was great training for third-level exams - and for life's challenges in general. It taught me discipline and tenacity and gave me a sense of ambition.

Priceless lessons, way beyond the sums and ABCs."

  • Una Brankin is a freelance journalist

'I didn't have any nightmares about sitting the examination'

I did my 11-Plus in November 1966. I don't remember having any nightmares, or stress, about it. I didn't have a tutor. My primary school didn't spend from September to November doing one practice paper after another.

We had one rehearsal the week before the first paper and that was it. There were two papers and, at the end of each one, we were given a glass of orange juice, a Wagon Wheel the size of a tyre and a paperback book.

I didn't spend the next few months fretting about it, either. Life went on pretty much as usual until a Saturday morning in February 1967, when my dad opened a letter and told me I had passed "that test you did a few weeks ago" and that I'd be going to the Royal School, Armagh.

There was no sense of triumph or superiority. There was no shiny bike, or card, or postal order. There was certainly no crowing from my parents about me being better than any of my friends who hadn't passed.

I did well at the Royal School, but I was aware that others were struggling. The school streamed all the way through to O-Level, because it knew that pupils were struggling and it also entered the lower streams for different examination boards, knowing that some of them were "easier" to pass than others.

That struck me as wrong at the time and it still strikes me as wrong. Making exams easier to pass undermines standards.

A test around 11 - irrespective of what you call it - tells you nothing more than how that pupil is performing at that particular time. It sets nothing in stone. And its critics are right: the result shouldn't define you.

That said, I'm not opposed to testing; although I'd rather it was done all the way through school. And I'd like to see the introduction of a process that allows children to move through the system depending on test results at 11, 13 and 15.

A significant section of children in non-grammar schools here are underachieving, because the system works against them. But there are also too many children in the so-called "better" schools who, as a result of modules and "easier" boards, are being pushed towards universities for careers that don't actually require a university education.

When I got the A-Levels I needed to go to university, I remember the parents of my friends shaking my hand and wishing me well. And that's because, when I went, only about 12% did. Today it's around 43% and rising.

In my day, you earned the right, worked for the right, to go to university: today it's an expectation and for huge numbers of people it's an "any course will do" approach. And then they have the brass neck to complain about having to pay fees.

Academic selection is important. We need to identify and encourage our brightest and best: and we also need to make sure that doors are kept open after 11. The purpose of an education system is to give every child the ongoing opportunity to progress, or to be reassessed if the going gets tough. Talent at every level should be celebrated and encouraged.

Yet the relentless criticism of academic selection seems to go hand-in-hand with the increasing tendency to celebrate mediocrity.

It's a tough world out there, so let's ensure that our children are capable of handling some brutal realities when they're out there and on their own.

  • Alex Kane is a political commentator and writer

Don't miss your free transfer test practice papers

Schools are already hard at work preparing children for this year's transfer tests and parents will also want to do everything they can to ensure their children perform to the best of their ability.

Starting this week, the Belfast Telegraph will be giving away free Transfer Test practice booklets to help parents build up their child's confidence and skill ahead of the exams in November and December. There will be six booklets to collect in total - this Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and again from Wednesday, April 22 to Friday, April 24. As well as invaluable advice for parents, each booklet contains practice questions on literacy and numeracy for both the AQE/CEA and multiple choice GL exams.

The six booklets will allow children to become familiar with the type of questions they are likely to face during assessment and will enable them to complete tests without pressure and in the comfort of the home environment.

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