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Transfer test is traumatic but right preparation makes big difference

Ahead of the Belfast Telegraph's practice papers giveaway, which starts tomorrow, Stephanie Bell hears how three pupils coped

In just a few weeks' time thousands of 10 and 11-year-olds will face a series of stressful Saturdays as they sit as many as five exams for the chance to go to grammar school.

Three AQE/CEA and two GL exams will be held throughout November and early December.

Most of the children have been preparing for the past year for the tests which will determine their future and many will have given up a large chunk of what should have been carefree summer school holidays to work on past papers.

Those fortunate families who can afford tutors will also be giving their children additional help outside of school in the run up to the tests.

It's a period of great pressure for parents and schools as they put their children through a system which many argue is too much too soon.

Two families today give us an insight into the strain the academic selection process puts on parents and children, both in the build up to the tests and the sitting of the exams themselves.

'There was a lot of pressure, but Dan handled it very well'

Dr Roger Brown (51), a GP at Kingsbridge Private Hospital in Belfast, returned home to Northern Ireland with his wife Sandra (51) and family last summer after living in Scotland for 20 years. The couple's eldest children Julia (21), Ben (19) and Caris (16) went through the comprehensive education system in Scotland where there is no academic selection. Their youngest Dan (11) was the first of their children to face transfer tests on their return to the province and had just two months to prepare at Damhill Primary School in Coleraine. Roger says:

Julia and Ben are at university in Scotland and they, along with Caris, came through the Scottish education system where there is no selection process and every child goes to comprehensive school at 11.

"When we came home to Coleraine in August last year, Dan faced three tests on three different Saturdays to get into the school of his choice which was Coleraine Academical Institution.

"He had just two months to prepare, whereas all of his classmates had been preparing throughout primary six.

"We really felt sorry for Dan. It was tough to come in so late and face such big tests. He was thrown in at the deep end and had a lot of catching up to do.

"My wife Sandra had been online and got past AQE papers which she worked on with him over the summer.

"We didn't push him too hard until the school term started and a friend of the family who was a primary school teacher gave him some tutoring as Dan hadn't covered some of the curriculum in Scotland.

"We knew how important it was. It certainly is a lot of pressure and we felt it as we were worried about our wee boy, although he did handle it very well and was smart enough to catch up and do well.

"I do see an advantage in our boy getting into grammar school where he is guaranteed to get a better education.

"With teachers restricted on school discipline now, in comprehensive schools they have no choice but to spend more time trying to keep order than teach pupils.

"I think that's where it differs at grammar school where it is more likely that the focus is on education rather than a rabble to keep order, so in that respect I can see the tests are a necessary evil.

"His primary school was great at helping Dan to prepare. Of course, it was also tough for him going into a new school.

"I believe that where the system falls down is that it is not an even playing field.

"Not everybody is getting the same chance – for example, some schools don't prepare the children for it because they are not supposed to.

"Principals and parents are caught in the middle.

"Not everyone can pay for private tuition which means some children are more prepared than others.

"I'm thankful that we were able to pay for Dan to have extra help so that he could catch up and do well.

"All children should be able to get the same preparation."

Dan's mum Sandra worked as a primary school classroom assistant in Scotland. She says:

In Scotland, primary seven is the best year of all in school. The children are seniors in the school and while they do work, they have a lot of school trips and outings, and there is no pressure at all; it's about having fun and going out with a bang.

When we came back home last August, Dan was straight into having to work extra hard for the transfer tests and there was no fun whatsoever. It was a bit of a shock to the system.

"We had some insight into what to expect and even though we knew what would be happening, it was still difficult. We tried to get the balance between making Dan aware it was not just a silly wee test and at the same time trying to keep the stress off him. We didn't want him being really uptight.

"We just wanted him to do as well as he could and we were very conscious of not pressurising him.

"The other children had a year of preparation ahead of him so he had a lot of catching up to do.

"The tests were covering some things which weren't on the curriculum in Scotland so there were gaps in his knowledge and topics he had no experience of.

"He did absolutely brilliantly, though, and we were thrilled for him when he scored 102 and got into Coleraine Inst which was the school he wanted to go to.

"I was shocked that he had to sit three exams on three Saturdays in one month. I did think it was a lot for a child of that age.

"We would have been very disappointed if he hadn't got in after all the hard work and fortunately ours was a happy ending. We know a lot of children go through it and then are disappointed.

"You can understand how they would be scarred by that and feel they are second class citizens, which isn't right."

Dan is delighted with his new school where he is settling well. He said of the test:

It was really hard work and so much stress. My friends in Scotland just thought it was crazy what I had to do. The day of my results was pretty crazy, too, because the postman was very late and we just sat all day waiting at home for him to come.

"I was so happy I had passed and I called everyone I knew to tell them. My new school is really fun and I have made a lot of friends."

'Losing his mum just before tests made it tough for Jordan'

Gareth Murphy (41) runs the indoor alpine-themed adventure centre We Are Vertigo in Belfast with his second wife Lorna (44), whom he married two years ago. Tragically his first wife Linda died from a brain haemorrhage, aged 41, in March 2010, just a few months before his eldest son Jordan faced the transfer tests. Jordan, now 14, is a boarder at Campbell College. Belfast, along with his brother Nathan (11), who is in first year. He says:

The boys' mother passed away in March in the year that Jordan was in P6 and was preparing to do the transfer tests. He sat four different tests in three different schools.

"As you can imagine it was a tough time anyway for him without the pressure of the tests.

"As we were preparing for the tests a friend had mentioned to me about boarding the boys at Campbell which was the school Jordan wanted to go to.

"I looked into it and because of the level of care my boys would get there after losing their mother, I decided that boarding would be best for them.

"It wasn't anything to do with not doing the transfer test because we went ahead and did it anyway.

"I was running a business in London at the time and was away from Monday to Friday. It felt like the best thing for the boys.

"It should have taken the pressure off Jordan as his place was more or less guaranteed but it didn't.

"I couldn't imagine the stress of going through it when your future education depended on those few days doing tests.

"It was a terrible time. Jordan had to sit the four tests on four different Saturdays when he should have been playing rugby.

"Instead rugby was cancelled and he had to sit in a strange room in a strange school doing a strange test.

"Even though they would be getting in by proxy as I had paid fees for them to board and their choice of school had been selected for them, my boys sat the tests because all of their school friends were.

"I didn't exude any stress, I put out nothing, but they still picked up on the pressure from the other children.

"In preparing Jordan we did about 10 past papers during the summer and definitely it helped to do all that preparation work.

"He did say going into the exams 'Dad, I'm nervous' and I told him not to be as the outcome was more or less guaranteed.

"But he had picked up on the nerves of everyone else. The pressure of the transfer process is everywhere; there is no hiding place from it, so no wonder the kids are nervous.

"It was awful seeing all their wee faces as they lined up outside the exam room and how nervous they were waiting to go in.

"My two boys were nervous the night before and not able to sleep, and that shouldn't be happening to 10-year-olds.

"When Nathan did it last year he was a boarder so the school put him through the paper each night and he didn't have the same pressure.

"I think the system puts the pressure on the parents and takes the responsibility out of the school, and there is no wonder that more kids are being tutored every year. I think the children are grasping the stress being exuded by their parents.

"It's a worrying and anxious time for parents and the kids pick up on that.

"At 10 years of age they shouldn't be worrying about things that their parents are worried about.

"It's really unfair to have such an important decision for kids at that age. The anxiety in the house filters into the other kids and the whole family dynamic is affected.

"Kids are being put in a position where they have to perform at their best to get the best school to go to the best universities and get the best job – and they are only 10 and shouldn't be put in that position.

"I didn't put my kids in Campbell to board just to get them into the school, but because of the unfortunate circumstances at home.

"I wanted them to be settled and they both have enjoyed a really good balance between education, sport and other things. And the support of the school has been brilliant."

Get your free transfer test papers

  • From tomorrow the Belfast Telegraph will be helping children as they prepare for this year's transfer tests by once again giving away free practice booklets
  • There will be six booklets in total to collect on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this week and also next week from September 17-19
  • The booklets are designed to help parents build up their child's confidence and skill ahead of the tests in November and December
  • As well as invaluable advice for parents, each booklet contains practice questions 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 in the comfort of a home environment

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