We should not be surprised when some kids give up and achieve lower results than those children not damaged by the transfer test labelling system… 

Do you believe that intelligence is fixed, that you are born clever, or not clever?  If so, you are in agreement with many 11-year-old boys. Some girls share this belief as well, but boys in particular are keen to find out where they rank in comparison with others. It helps them decide whether or not more effort is worthwhile.  They believe that if you are intelligent then more effort might possibly mean higher achievement, but if you are not intelligent then more effort will just bring humiliation. Trying hard and failing is much more embarrassing than making no effort and pretending not to care. There is a danger that by pushing academic selection at 11 we are feeding the myth that if you haven’t got the hang of school by P7, you have somehow failed & have to be sectioned off, your future now set in stone.

Even though testing can be stressful for pupils (and the marking workload for teachers is significant) I am very much in favour of giving pupils the opportunity to show what they have learned and what parts of the course they need further work on. Handled correctly (avoiding comparison between pupils) testing can be positive but the 11-Plus is not that sort of test. It is a high stakes, high stress competition between children.

Early in February our P7 children will receive a message about their supposed ability that will affect them for life. After a full year of effort, following hours of after school coaching, having completed two special, highly publicized tests they will be told whether they are ‘good enough’ to be allowed into grammar school.  For over half of them the message will be negative and being ‘turned-off’ education is a real danger.  Why work at Maths or English when your education system has already told you that you are ‘not clever’?

Schools like the one I taught at until retirement, spend much of a child’s first year at their new school rebuilding their confidence and persuading pupils that they are in fact “clever”, that the 11-Plus should not define them. Some pupils are reassured and keep working at school, but some will have accepted the message that they will always be underachievers and believe therefore there is no point in working hard. We should not be surprised when some give up and achieve lower results than those children not damaged by the 11-Plus labelling system.

Why do some think we need a Transfer Test?

Those who argue in favour of a Transfer Tests at 11 are not being perverse or deliberately cruel to children. There is some apparent logic on their side. It can feel almost obvious that if you put kids with the same level of ability together that is innately fair; but this is based on the fallacy that an arbitrary test at 11 can truly assess any child’s innate ability. Psychological research on child cognitive ability accepts that children will develop at very different rates and that reliable testing will allocate them within bands, with clear standard deviations, rather than allocating a single number as in AQE/GL. We also know that children can move within those bands throughout their adolescence.

Modern schools are like medium sized businesses with budgets of several million pounds each year. Teachers and other staff are not cheap, nor is heating large buildings. Their income comes from your taxes and is dependent on the number of pupils the school gets. The formula used is complex but most income is in the form of an AWPU (Age Related Pupil Unit of funds), with the school getting between £3000 and almost £6000 extra income for every pupil depending on age. Hence, it is in the schools’ interests to fill their school with as many pupils as they are permitted to take, but not just any pupil.

Because schools are competing with each other for pupils they need to think about their reputation, they want to be considered to be ‘good schools’ and many parents will judge a school on their exam results, so schools want pupils who will get good results.  (I accompanied my kids to several Open Nights and remember one principal saying plainly, ‘this school is about preparing pupils for university, if that isn’t for your son or daughter, then you should look elsewhere’)

In the same way as a carpenter or other craftsperson will pick the best quality wood for the project to ensure the best quality results, there is a pressure on secondary schools to select their ‘raw material’ (the pupils) based on the likelihood that they will get good exam results at GCSE and A-Level and that is where the Transfer Test comes in. Schools which get too many pupil applications can use the Transfer Test to filter their pupil intake.

This sounds very negative but once pupils are selected for each school, teachers do treat them as individuals with feelings, rather than just potential exam statistics.

Problems with the Transfer Test

There are reasons for the current system, but there are also problems with it.

  •  As outlined at the start, a bad experience of the 11-Plus test encourages some pupils to give up on education
  • It isn’t fair to working class children, middle class children have advantages that some working class children do not. (A child from a single parent family with poor accommodation, no funds for extra tutors and few educational resources at home has to compete with children from a house well stocked with books and computers where both parents might be able to help with homework as well as paying for extra tuition.)
  • Initially 25% of pupils were selected for Grammar schools, but the financial needs of selective schools take priority so Grammar schools are simply filled to capacity in years where pupil number are low, creating major planning issues in other schools
  • Pupils expelled from selective grammar schools are sent to non-grammar schools, rather than being transferred to other selective schools.
  •  Pupils mature at different ages; most educationalists believe that 11 is far too young to make such a judgment on a pupil’s ability
  • Pupils’ futures can be decided on a tiny number of marks, and pupils with identical scores will be allocated to a grammar school in one area and a non-selective school in another area.
  • Pupils at the top end of achievement in non-grammar schools frequently do better academically than pupils at the lower end of grammar schools.
  • Psychological research does not support the idea that any child’s innate ability is fixed to such a degree at 11 that their whole academic future should be determined by this. Most of the highly successful schools in Western Europe have non selective education models. Certainly, within my family the people who did best at the 11-Plus were not the ones who did best at university or who got the highest earnings.

Alternatives to the Transfer Test?

There are alternatives but all of them have their problems.

Selection at 14 – Junior High and Senior High Schools

Under the Dickson Plan in the Portadown and Lurgan areas children are allowed to wait until the age of 14 before any selection on academic ability.  This avoids the stress placed on pupils aged 11 and, by the age of 14, many pupils will have a much clearer idea of their own ability and aptitude for study and will self-select, rather than being selected.

Unfortunately, this system could not be rolled out across N. Ireland without enormous cost and disruption as the school buildings are already designed around selection at 11.

Comprehensive All-Ability Schools

Keeping pupils of all abilities in one school seems attractive to some, but others believe that the higher ability pupils are not stretched enough at such schools. When Comprehensive schools were introduced in England there was a tendency to mix pupils of all abilities together, rather than banding pupils by attainment/ability.  Setting pupils by ability for each subject is more common now, but the reputation of comprehensive schools was damaged.

Where a comprehensive school does well a significant problem can be dealing with excess demand for places. If a school is perceived as ‘good’ and demand is high it is common for housing prices in the school’s catchment area to rise.  Rather than selection via the 11-plus, you can end up with a more divisive selection by postcode system which favours those able to afford more expensive houses. (Catchment area fraud is a problem for some English schools.)

What Can Parents Do?

The Transfer Test is a deeply flawed system and there is a clear trend towards schools abandoning this divisive test, but for the moment this is the system that many parents have to work with.

All secondary schools teach the same curriculum and offer more or less the same GCSES, all secondary schools are ‘academic’, even if they offer non-academic courses to some of their Y11&12 pupils.   Many non-grammars have Sixth Forms with a high number of pupils going on to university.

Success is possible at any school, but pupils must be persuaded that their intelligence is not fixed at the age of 11, you can develop your brain in your teens, just as you can develop your muscles IF you decide to keep working at school.

When a child gets their transfer test results, parents should be ready to deal with disappointment and persuade them that they are loved, that they are clever and need to keep working towards success at school. Good schools will have lessons to reinforce this message. When I was teaching ICT, one of my early lessons with all Y8 pupils involved proving to the pupils that every one of them was more intelligent than our computers. All children need to feel successful.

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