Time to make academic selection History

Writing in last Friday’s Guardian on the 75th anniversary of VE Day , and seeking possible parallels between the social changes that followed the war and those which might ensue from the Covid pandemic, Dame Joan Bakewell singled out the significance of the introduction of the 11-plus examinations in 1944, which she credited with having ‘completely transformed schooling in Britain’.

While most of the welfare state provisions that followed the war were piloted through by Clement Atlee’s post-war Labour government, the Education Act was a legacy of the outgoing Conservative president of the Board of Education, R.A. ‘Rab’ Butler. The Butler Act applied to England and Wales while similar legislation was introduced in Scotland in 1945 and here in Northern Ireland by the unionist Education Minister, Samuel Hall-Thompson, in 1947.

As Professor Graham Walker of QUB has shown, the latter act goes against the grain of a narrative of discriminatory unionist rule in Northern Ireland and provided the foundations for greater social mobility among Catholics, which in turn influenced their politicisation during the 1960s and the rise of the civil rights movement.

The 11-plus system is generally seen in a positive light as enhancing post-war social mobility throughout the UK and offering greater educational opportunity to children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, such as Joan Bakewell, ‘the granddaughter of factory workers’, for whom it led to a grammar school education. By the 1970s, no longer seen as suitable for educational assessment or required for the purpose for which it was intended, the 11-plus was phased out in many parts of the UK, except Northern Ireland where it was retained largely in its original form for over sixty years.

The elder of my two primary school-aged children was born in 2008, the year in which the then Sinn Féin Minister for Education, Caitriona Ruane, abolished the old 11-plus. In my house we laughingly hoped the system would be fixed before the new arrival would need to worry about it eleven years down the line … how wrong we were.

No legislative provision was made for a replacement for the 11-plus and a period of political social distancing within the Executive ensued for much of 2008. As a result, the vacuum left by the abolition of the 11-plus has been filled by two different consortia offering their own transfer tests. The GL exam offered by the Post Primary Transfer Consortium is favoured by Catholic Grammar Schools, while the AQE-operated tests are used by most other schools. In effect this has created a system of ‘Catholic’ and a ‘Protestant’ transfer tests; at least in the old 11-plus system everyone sat the same test. I remain bewildered as to how, in the context of our ‘peace process’ – problematic as it can be – we managed to make a bad system worse and to sectarianise it.

The AQE comprises three one-hour tests containing 64 questions, 32 each in numerical and verbal reasoning. These take place usually on three separate Saturdays in November. On the fourth Saturday GL students sit a three-hour multi-choice exam based on similar content. Therefore, the many students who keep their options open and sit both exams are faced with 6 hours of examination on four consecutive Saturday mornings in November, when they should be having a lie-in, playing sports or attending artistic classes. The students in question are 10 and 11 years old. I teach in a university where my students are at least ten years older, and we do not impose such a rigorous assessment procedure on them.

Among the many social problems that remain unsolved in our society, educational under-achievement is a serious one. If the old 11-plus was designed to rectify this in its time, the current transfer test serves only to accentuate it and to expose, entrench and extend class divisions. There is a thriving market in private tutors preparing students for these tests. The children of affluent families often enjoy a head-start on their contemporaries whose family budgets might not stretch to financing such extra-curricular tuition, especially if they have also had to pay the £50 fee for sitting the AQE.

The tests, and the many practice and sample tests set as homework by schools in the run-up to the real thing, are text heavy and those children whose parents or guardians might not be native English-speakers must surely be at a considerable disadvantage in seeking to help their children with such homework. The text-heavy nature is also problematic for students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia or dyscalculia. While they can benefit from an additional time allocation of fifteen minutes, this is a meagre adaptation.

The tests take place in large grammar schools. This requires a means of transport to the test centre for 10am on Saturday mornings. Public transport often operates reduced schedules on weekends and might not be as plentiful in rural as in urban centres. Again, those who have access to a car are at an advantage. Children sitting the transfer tests often have siblings who, because the tests now take place on Saturdays rather than during school hours, will require a carer to be at home while one adult accompanies the child sitting the test to the test centre. Single-parent/guardian families, those where one parent/guardian might work shifts on a Saturday morning, or those with no extended family to call upon are further disadvantaged by the timing and location of the tests.

Taking children at such a young age out of a familiar school environment and piling them into a grammar school gym set up as a test centre, probably the first time in their lives they will have experienced such a strange setting, can also be an extremely un-nerving experience, even if grammar schools do their best to invite them to a familiarisation session some weeks ahead of the tests. The emotional toll that this process takes on students is exacerbated by waiting for results (late January), the disappointment of possibly not attaining the marks hoped for (especially if most of their friends have done so), and the eternally long wait to hear about a school place (this year’s cohort will not now learn this until 4 June).

Much of Primary 6 and Primary 7 is dedicated to preparing for these tests, so that the children are tested rather than educated for much of their last 2 (or even 4) years of primary school. The second half of Primary 7 subsequently turns into glorified childcare, as teachers try to find a means of occupying their time. Regrettably for this year’s Primary 7s many of the fun activities that follow as a reward for their efforts – such as school trips and plays or musicals – have been cancelled due to Covid.

If the process as described above wasn’t bad enough, the content of these tests is woefully outdated. It reflects a very old-fashioned ‘reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic’ approach to education that was popular around the time that the 11-plus was introduced in the 1940s. As an historian I was astounded to see an excerpt from the work of the nineteenth-century naval historian, James Anthony Froude, set as a comprehension passage on a practice paper. While a university historian might assign Froude to a module on historiography, his suitability for primary school comprehension is questionable. Literacy questions often ask the reader to identify the rhyming words in a set poem; of course those well-tutored in the technique of answering these questions will know that all they need to do is to scan down the final word of each line to identify these, with the result that they come away from the exercise with little or no sense of the content or context of the passage.

Primary schools here closed in mid-March and are unlikely to re-open until September, and then possibly not even at full capacity. In effect, Primary 6 students will have missed out on at least three months of essential preparation for these tests, that no amount of online instruction will compensate for. Yet, these students are only being offered a delay of a mere two weeks in the timetable for the exams. Parents are understandably concerned about the potentially detrimental impact of this time lag on their children’s ability to perform to the best of their ability in the transfer tests. If social distancing is still in place will the tests even be able to proceed?

We no longer live in the 1940s. A system designed to enhance social mobility and educational attainment is now so structurally unequal that it has precisely the opposite impact – students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds are being left further behind by those whose parents can afford private tutors, who have the means to pay for the test fee, and who have the time, home support and transport to ensure their child can attend on the days of the exams. The questions over the format and timing of this year’s transfer test offer an opportunity, that was not grasped back in 2008, to explore alternatives to a system that is no longer fit for the purpose for which it was intended originally. The time has come to abolish the transfer test and find a new school selection process that educates rather than tests students, reduces the emotional stress on them and their families, and fulfils the original purpose of the 11-plus of closing rather than widening the gulf in educational attainment.

Dr Marie Coleman is a Reader in History at Queen’s University Belfast and the parent of two primary-school-aged children. The views expressed her are her own personal ones.