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Children's chief blasts transfer tests, but admits her own kids took them

By Rebecca Black

Children's Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma has launched an attack on unofficial transfer tests used by grammar schools - yet admitted her own children sat them.

She described it as a "traumatic experience", but conceded that it was "what was best" for her children.

However, Ms Yiasouma said she felt academic selection was "working against children's human rights", and "not in the best interests of all our children".

She became Northern Ireland's Commissioner for Children and Young People in January, taking over from Patricia Lewsley-Mooney.

Thousands of children in Northern Ireland sat up to five tests last year in a bid to gain entrance to a grammar school.

Some 7,285 pupils undertook the AQE test (organised principally for the controlled sector), and 7,255 sat GL Assessment (mainly for the Catholic maintained sector).

The 2014-15 academic year was the sixth year the unregulated tests have been run and both exam bodies reported an increase on the number of children opting to take their tests.

Former Education Minister Caitriona Ruane ended the official transfer tests in 2008.

In an interview with news and investigations website The Detail, Ms Yiasouma has called for academic selection to be replaced with an all-ability integrated education system.

"We have yet to move on integrating on ability. It's a gap that's too huge and I can't sit by and see our education system failing so many children. It's just not right in this day and age," she said.

The Children's Commissioner welcomed efforts to integrate children currently separated by religion, but she said our society needed a new debate on how to tackle social divisions to allow all children to fulfil their potential.

However, when asked whether her children had undertaken transfer tests, she said they had.

"Regrettably my children did do transfer tests. They both did very well and both went to grammar schools but the system forced us to make a choice. It was a traumatic experience," she said.

"We cannot have a system that puts our 11-year-olds through that. But we do, and I had to do what's best as a parent. But don't for a minute think that my husband and I did not think about this and did not worry about this, but that's the system we had to play with.

"It was inappropriate and it wasn't right but it was what was best for our children and it was what met their educational needs."

The Children's Commissioner said she believed that if her children's education had been fully integrated on ability, their education would not have suffered.

"I am very confident that if we removed academic selection and we had a good integrated system on the basis of ability that my children would have got just as good an education as they are getting now," she said.

"So, yes, my girls did transfer exams and, yes, they both go to grammar schools. Am I sorry that happened? No, I'm not, because they have had a very good education, but I wish it had been different, not just for them, but for all the children in Northern Ireland. And that's what I have to be concerned about."

Ms Yiasouma said she was aware of criticism her office had received in the past about its goals being too broad and was determined to change this perception.

"When I speak to people about the issues our children and young people are facing my heart breaks and I want to do as much as I can. So I can see why there's been criticism of previous Children's Commissioners in Northern Ireland, but also of commissioners generally. You try to do too much and you don't focus. And I'm determined to focus," she said.

"Children's rights is not some wishy‑washy liberal woolly thing. It's about achieving the best for our children and young people."

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