The perils of being born in May or June: The Transfer Test

Tomorrow morning, thousands of children will open envelopes to discover how they have performed in one (or both) of the unregulated transfer tests sat by Primary 7 pupils in November/ December of 2012. The arguments concerning the merits or otherwise of the test and academic selection at age 11 are well rehearsed and are not the subject of this particular thread.

Rather, it is my intention to illustrate how the failure to appropriately address the issue of difficulties facing young to year pupils in our schools manifests itself in a disproportionately low number of these young to year pupils gaining access to grammar schools when compared with their older year cohorts.

The table below shows the percentage of the total number of current Year 8-10 pupils born in the four key months of May/ June and July/ August who are enrolled in a grammar school.

% of all pupils born in a given month enrolled in grammar school 



Year 8 

Year 9

Year 10 

KS3 Total





























The figures clearly indicate that older pupils fare much better consistently in terms of their ability to gain access to a grammar school, with some 40% of all KS3 pupils (Year 8-10) born in July/ August being enrolled in grammar schools, with only 35% of pupils born in May/ June enrolled in grammar schools.

I touched on this subject in a previous thread, where I cited my own school-based research, as well as international research, which pointed to the age factor being a hindrance for young to year pupils throughout their schooling experience. These statistics suggest that the pattern identified of young to year pupils struggling to match the academic performance of their elder cohort peers is continued throughout primary school and, due to our system of academic selection at eleven, results in older pupils having a considerable advantage when it comes to gaining access to grammar schools.

The marked difference in pupil performance at GCSE and A Level between grammar and non-grammar schools suggests that the pattern of young to year pupils failing to match the academic prowess of their elder peers in primary schools continues into post-primary level, where age standardised testing ceases but where young to year pupils are under-represented in the grammar sector whilst their elder peers are over-represented.

What needs to be remembered is that both existing transfer tests- GL Assessment and the AQE papers- are standardised, meaning that they are designed to compensate for the age factor.

The fact that, even when standardised scores are used, there remains a significant difference in the prospect of July/ August children gaining grammar school access when compared with May/ June children means that the raw score differential must be even more pronounced. Interestingly, this also has obvious repercussions for the Key Stage data collected in schools from mid-March and reported to parents of Primary 4 and Primary 7 pupils at the end of June. These figures are often cited to gauge progress in literacy and numeracy, yet at no stage are teachers instructed to consider the age factor when assessing pupils and determining the appropriate levels.

These figures confirm once again that the young to year pupils continue to face an additional inhibiting obstacle when seeking to realise their academic potential, and the peculiarities of our own primary to post-primary system of transfer means that the hurdle to be jumped for many young to year pupils is that bit higher.

Both GL Assessment and AQE could seek to address this by increasing the additional points allocated to young to year pupils when standardising the tests, but that alone clearly won’t deal with a problem which still has yet to be officially recognised by education authorities and which clearly continues throughout the education system.

I participated in a discussion on this subject in today’s BBC Radio Ulster Talkback programme (approx 47 mins in), and the story also featured in The Irish News yesterday.


  • Chris,

    On your previous thread I asked if there were significant differences between boys and girls. Is that information collated?

  • willieric

    Nothing new about these calculations. This type of awareness sometimes led to transfer between classes, in my experience. Perhaps if the school year was jan-december, with main exams at xmas, the ill-effects of the horribly wasteful summer holidays would be lessened.

    Further, I know of one survey comparing the heights of year 10 pupils in adjacent grammar/non-grammar schools which graded the grammar boys on average 4cms taller. Even more disturbing was the 6cm difference between the grammar schoolboys and the boys in the three less-academic classes of the non-grammar school.

    Even more disturbing was the discovery that the total weights of the pupils of the top four classes in each year ten were almost identical. Points to obesity in the non-grammar school.

  • Chris Donnelly

    As far as I know, there is a difference, with girls outperforming boys right up to A Level. I can vaguely recall this being mentioned during the publication of the league tables by both the Tele and Irish News, though I don’t have such stats to hand.

    It would be interesting to note if young to year girls outperform the young to year boys. Thanks for the idea….;)

  • Zig70

    The way to address it is to decrease the significance of the transfer test. No system will be perfect, my kid who is young for his year seemed to have a good day, best result he got all year. The most important thing is to instil in the kids that their life is completely in their own hands. We need to make sure that attitude and how well they apply themselves is far more important than this line in the sand. If my kid had ‘failed’ I wouldn’t have fretted as the local secondary school is excellent. Just handy to have both kids getting the same bus as his older brother is already at the local grammar.

  • Zig70

    This year the school open days were like holiday timeshares. 2-3hrs of hard selling that left me wary of school ethics as even timeshare salesmen don’t use kids. Spurred by a low intake year I hear though haven’t heard any data to back it up.

  • Starviking

    Jumping in late here.

    If the problem is with students who are youngest for the school year, then a possible solution would be to stream the early years of primary education. That way the teaching can focus directly on the different level of ability of many young-for-year students, so helping them up – not leaving them behind.

    Also, are there any stats for the youngest-of-year students, i.e. those born in October, November and December?

  • Chris – Noticing a post by the BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum about the month of birth and the chances of being accepted into Oxbridge