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Transfer 2010: Nuala McKeever and Mark Langhammer put to the test

Their exam style was very different.

Mark was quiet and thoughtful, worked with his sleeves rolled up and chewed gum. This was in stark contrast to the noisier Nuala who talked to herself as she answered the questions, crunched through a bag of crisps and regularly asked questions.

Both released the odd bout of nervous laughter as they came across tricky questions in the ‘examination room’ in the Telegraph’s Royal Avenue building.

“Metres? We didn’t do metres,” was one comment from Nuala. And Mark, the NI Director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “I’ve forgotten what an adverb is.”

Forty minutes and 67 maths and English questions later, Mark managed to come top of the class with an admirable 89%. Nuala was very close behind with 88% — eight questions wrong compared with Mark’s seven-and-a-half.

The questions included a comprehension passage, a pie chart, angles, spelling mistakes, fractions and graphs.

Both were stumped by the question: “What is the product of 34.6 and 9” — which meant the numbers should be multiplied together.

Nuala said afterwards: “I found some questions tricky enough and my brain felt a bit slow when it came to the mental arithmetic.

“At least with the multiple choice you can see the answers. There was one question I realised I had made a mistake with because the answer I had was one digit out.

“The English section was easy enough but the maths was more tricky.”

Nuala said it was “crazy” to be testing children at the age of 10 or 11.

“I do not see the problem with children just moving on to their next school and this is what happens in many other places.

“The whole thing around the 11-plus is that children end up going to different schools and the rot in the system is that there is a stigma attached to going to one school or another.

“I do not have children but if I did I would be completely loath to put them through tests in P7.

“I think the exciting thing is that we have a chance in Northern Ireland to look at how we can do things better. The current system is out of date and irrelevant to the world we live in.”

Mark said: “I’d forgotten about the technique involved in all of this. I also found the grammar sections quite difficult. I did the ‘Qualifying’ in 1970 and just remember that it fractured our group of friends when some went on to one school and the rest to another school. We just drifted apart.

“I don’t think that is socially good for children who are just starting to get a sense of themselves and their peers.

“There is also an environmental cost with many children being bussed to schools outside of their own community.”

When it came to his own children, Mark admits he “worked the system like everyone else”.

“It is a lot to do with exam technique. Parental help and involvement does make a difference when it comes to children sitting tests.” He described the 11-plus debate as “the Achilles’ heel of our institutions”.

“Politics has failed,” he said.

“It is not an easy issue but there were fairly sensible proposals that came from some people in the Governing Bodies Association (which represents grammar schools) and some secondary school heads which were backed by the churches and our union. It retained an element of academic selection but moved away from the age of 10 or 11 to 14.

“There was compromise in it and I expect we will come back to something like that.”

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph