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.