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Revealed: Transfer test grade intake for Northern Ireland schools 2017

11-plus may be history, but tests to get into college of choice are as popular as ever

By Rebecca Black

Unofficial transfer tests are still growing in popularity - 10 years after the abolition of the 11-plus.

Just over half of P7 pupils in Northern Ireland sit tests each year in the hope of attaining a place at an academically selective grammar school. In the 2016/17 academic year 11,570 applications were made for the 8,743 available places at our 63 selective grammars.

>>NI Transfer Tests: 2017 Grammar Schools’ intake and grade information<<

This is out of a total of 21,763 pupils who obtained Year 8 places at Northern Ireland's 199 post-primary schools in September 2017.

Today the Belfast Telegraph can reveal what grades or scores it took to get into each of our selective grammars last year.

This exclusive data was obtained over several months by sending Freedom of Information Act requests to each of the selective grammars.

Currently there are no official figures provided by the Department of Education, because both the Post Primary Transfer Consortium's GL assessment and the Association of Quality Education's (AQE) Common Entrance Assessment are unofficial tests.

Our data for tests sat in the 2016/17 academic year reveal:

  • Five schools which use the AQE system did not accept a score below 100 in September 2017.
  • Five schools which use the GL system did not accept a grade below an A in September 2017.
  • 30 schools accepted AQE scores, while 26 accepted GL scores, and seven took either.
  • Lagan College, which is partially selective, was the most popular first choice by far, with 456 applications for 200 places.
  • Friends School Lisburn was one of the toughest schools to get into last September - the lowest score it accepted was 106 (AQE).
  • Three of the 63 selective grammar schools were not oversubscribed.
  • The AQE and GL tests received a total number of 14,491 entries in the 2016/17 academic year - 7,725 sat the AQEs and 6,766 sat the GL tests. An unknown number of pupils sat both tests.
  • There are 199 post-primary schools in Northern Ireland, of which 63 are grammars that use academic selection for all or some of their Year 8 intake.

Leaders in the AQE and GL organisations told the Belfast Telegraph that their entry rates have been steadily increasing over the last decade following the abolition of the old Department of Education-administered 11-plus by former Education Minister Caitriona Ruane in 2008.

AQE chief executive Stephen Connolly said the number of entrants to the test is continuing to rise, with 8,169 pupils registered for the 2017 AQE tests, a rise of almost 6% on 2016 (7,725).

Mr Connolly said he can only speculate on the increase, but said he believed it may partly follow a decision by former Education Minister Peter Weir to allow primary schools to prepare pupils to sit transfer tests. That reversed a ruling by his predecessor John O'Dowd, which saw schools receive warning letters from the department over preparing pupils for tests within school hours.

"That reflects a number of things, that is the steadily increasing primary school age population, also a backwash from the former minister taking the shackles off primary schools and allowing them to openly prepare pupils for transfer tests, and also word of mouth from parent to parent," he said. There was also an increase in the number of pupils who sat the PPTC's GL test, from 6,766 in the 2016/17 academic year to 7,150 in 2017/18.

Carol McCann from the PPTC said parents remained very supportive of the tests.

"More than 30 schools use the GL test and it is used by a variety of types of school, including grammar and bilateral," she said.

"A number of PPTC schools also register pupils for the AQE test. Regarding the increase in the number of pupils sitting the test in 2017 for entry to post-primary in 2018, it is most likely as a result of a rising primary school population in a number of areas.

"It is very evident that the transfer test continues to be supported by parents in Northern Ireland who believe in educational choice."

Meanwhile, talks between the two transfer test providers to create a single system of assessment remain "ongoing and positive".

The AQE and PPTC aim to have a common test in place by November 2019. Mr Connolly said that talks are continuing but the end goal is very complex, and they want to ensure any new single system is robust, will have the confidence of parents, and is of an international standard.

"The two negotiating teams made a very good decision at the outset to keep it confidential to not raise expectation or increase pressures and making sure the goodwill between us in this difficult process is maintained," he said. "Trying to put together a single system is very difficult.

"I think it is very important that both groups think it is a matter of principle there should be one system.

"That principle has been agreed, but getting there is tricky simply because of the complexity of the two systems. People need to have confidence in schools, but also in the testing system.

"It needs to be reliable, robust and meet international standards. It isn't just a race to cobble together any old compromise, we are engaging in careful negotiation." Results for both tests are due to be released to pupils this Saturday.

How the figures are compiled

Under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) legislation we asked the grammar schools in Northern Ireland which use academic selection to determine their Year 8 intake to provide the breakdown of the AQE/GL grades/scores achieved by the pupils they admitted in September 2017.

The data gives schools’ name, location, the highest grade/score/quintile/band it accepted and the lowest grade/score/quintile/band it accepted.

Other information included is the number of first preference choices it received and total applications (which includes first, second, third choices etc).

Several schools have provided bands for the lowest and highest scores they accepted, as this is the method they used to select pupils. Some schools accept both AQE and GL scores.

Not all schools use academic selection to determine their entire intake. Wallace High School in Lisburn admits around 90% of its Year 8 intake on test results; Campbell College in Belfast admits 70%, while Lagan College in Belfast and Slemish College in Ballymena select 35% of their pupils using test scores. Some other schools also use additional criteria to separate students with the same score vying for the final places. Two voluntary grammar schools, Loreto College in Coleraine and St Patrick’s Grammar in Armagh, no longer use academic selection.

Total pupil figures do not tally for a number of reasons, which can include pupils with a statement of special educational needs not being included in enrolment figures, and some pupils being accepted through special circumstances or on appeal.

In some schools pupils were admitted without using academic selection and some schools were undersubscribed.

When comparing schools, the size should be taken into account. For example Glenlola Collegiate in Bangor has an annual Year 8 intake of 157 pupils. Its principal Mr W E Thompson pointed out that the 157th pupil they accepted in September 2017 scored 85 in the AQE test, but in the North Down area there are smaller selective grammars which accepted only 100 pupils.

He has asked us to point out that the 100th pupil Glenlola accepted scored 98 in the AQE tests.

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