Transfer tests remnant of appalling political failure

Transfer tests have to end. They are a crude, nasty, unfair system of determining who goes to grammar school (and which). They pigeon-hole children and force parents (in  effect) to pay for coaching. The consequence is that many children end up in the wrong school and many parents run up debts (in both time and money) that would not be necessary in a fair system.

The outcome of it all, as we saw reported in the latest OECD report, is literacy and numeracy standards lower than the average in the developed world (that they are higher than England, whose standards are the worst, is nothing to write home about), while the cream of the crop leave school able to administer but not innovate. We churn out accountants, lawyers, civil servants and all kinds of other bureaucrats – but no entrepreneurs or general wealth creators. Meanwhile teachers continue to be pressurised with all kinds of administration of their own (and constantly live under threat of discipline if they look once at the wrong pupil or even the wrong parent the wrong way). The system has its good points, but fundamentally it doesn’t work for anyone.

The transfer tests represent the ultimate political failure – one side failed to realise the harshness of it all, the other failed to analyse the problem properly in order to solve it.

Firstly, as mentioned in the past on these pages, no one asks the obvious question: what is the education system for? Even lessons grouped by subject are a fundamentally Victorian method, designed for sending people off to govern 19th century India rather than to create wealth in a globalised 21st century economy. Without agreeing what we want from the system, we are never going to agree how to get it.

Secondly, what is the cause of the transfer test? It is that grammar schools are oversubscribed. Why is this? It is because they are perceived automatically to be better than other schools. Why is this? Generally, it is because they are, given the common (academic) curriculum. So no one then asks the other obvious question: why is there a common curriculum? If pupils are genuinely not academically minded and thus not desiring of a career as a civil servant, an accountant or a university lecturer, why give them the same curriculum as those who are? Maybe there is an answer to this – but I have never seen the question posed.

Thirdly, let us face a few home truths. Parents are going to want the best for their children; not all schools are going to be the same; so there will be and should be an element of choice.

So, never mind the daft sectarian games, let us face the fact that the current system is unfair on children, parents and teachers and answer the question: how do we enable that choice to be made in everyone’s best interests?


8 thoughts on “Transfer tests remnant of appalling political failure

  1. Rhe Listener says:

    Have you considered the Dixon Plan applicable in Co. Armagh. It appears to be derived from the German system. Primary School, then Intermediate School, then two years at a Grammar School or Technical School or alternative, from whence it is possible to acquire technical qualifications and for those who wish it a pathway to a degree course. The assessment as to the pupils pathway occurs at the intermediate level. This means that boys who generally mature later than girls, when it comes to academics, have a fairer chance at say 14 rather than 11. It should remove academic snobbery as it allows each child’s qualities and aptitudes to be encouraged and recognised.

    • I’m instinctively a fan. If there must be selection along academic lines, 14 strikes me as a much more sensible age to do it.

      Practically, of course, it would require a vast overhaul of the entire school estate other than in North Armagh, so I don’t know how feasible it is.

      Out of interest, in Germany the age and means of selection vary from state to state. What is universal though is that the curriculum is not common – different schools do different things.

  2. Martin says:

    You acknowledge that grammar schools are oversubscribed – because parents want to send their children there. And also that there should be choice.

    So how should grammar schools select children if not by exam?

    • There are a few parts to the answer to that.

      Firstly, the exams themselves, as currently set, are not as good as they could be. They are too easily coached for; they are taken at an unfamiliar location; and they do not assess some skills (science, reasoning, etc) at all.

      Secondly, it would be possible to select without exams. It could be done by various means of assessing pupil performance (not unlike GCSE coursework), or simply in conjunction with teachers’ assessment of what type of education suits the child (many English counties do it that way).

      Thirdly, for all that, the key to my own view is that the curriculum should not be common. Different schools should offer different things. Some should be academic (let’s call them “grammar schools”), but others should be more directly vocational, more immediately akin to Regional Colleges from the outset. Those vocational schools would in fact suits some children better and may well set them on a clearer career path – and would thus, in time, come to be chosen in preference to grammar schools by some parents (leaving grammars potentially under-subscribed). This is, essentially, what happens in most of German-speaking Europe.

      • Martin says:


        Better exams are hard to argue against, but I thought you were objecting to exams per se?

        Teacher assessment places a lot of responsibility on the teacher. I can imagine appeals and disgruntled parents and perhaps pressure in teachers to make assessments likely to be pleasing to parents.

        It’s interesting to see somebody challenge the notion of a common curriculum. It be something we simply take for granted. However I still think in moving to a vocational approach in some schools it would require major attitudinal change to shift the perception that academic is superior to vocational. I’m not familiar with attitudes in Germany but I suspect that they place a higher social value on technical and vocational education than we do.

      • The basic point of the blog post is this:
        – parents will do what they feel is best;
        – grammar schools are best;
        – grammar schools are thus oversubscribed;
        – thus it is necessary to select.

        Before we establish those basic bullet points as the question, we will never find the answer.

        I would wish to intervene as high up as possible (ideally at the second bullet point), by making grammar schools the best for some but not all; that would resolve the third. Failing that (and, as you rightly suggest, attitudes won’t change overnight), you can only tamper around the edges with the fourth, and actually it would be better to organise a single, inclusive test rather than what is in effect a free-for-all.

        But the basic point is we are not even posing the question correctly. We have to start there!

      • Martin says:

        I agree with your basic point!

  3. Scots Anorak says:

    It’s an interesting question. As you know, I’m of the opinion that we all bring our backgrounds with us when it comes to our views, and I happen to come from a country that doesn’t have any state grammar schools (and has a much more modest private sector than England too). I’d no doubt have been happier socially at a grammar school, but ultimately I don’t think being at a comprehensive did me any academic harm (of course, it was a fairly middle-class comprehensive).

    That said, the big problem in Northern Ireland seems to be that the grammar sector is far too large, and in numerical terms approaches the divide between the middle and working classes. People put up with the resulting lack of opportunity for their children because their sympathies revolve around ethnicity rather than class. One bizarre consequence is that grammar schools are supported by the previously privileged Protestant working class, which is very badly served by them, but not by the Catholic working class, previously discriminated against economically, which does much better out the current system.

    There has been a stand-off for some time. Certain possible ways out recommend themselves, but would all the parties be willing to compromise? There are many changes short of abolition that could mitigate the worst aspects of the current system for Protestant males in particular. One would be extending the Dixon plan. Another would be cutting the number of grammar schools in half, or abolishing the nonsense of state-subsidised preps (which seemed to have survived on the bizarre logic than getting rid of them would harm Protestants more than Catholics). A more modest reform would be to base transfer on teacher advice or take class into account by means of some formula or other (free school meals?). After all, we know from research at university level that private school pupils do less well than those from state schools with the same grades.

    Another change, unrelated to the current question, might be to declare that, since being at a grammar school is a privilege, any claim to that other NI privilege of denominational education should be surrendered (Protestant and Catholic grammar-school pupils are likely to mix better than their secondary counterparts, so why not start there?). If the grammar sector shrinks because of it, so much the better.

    At the end of the day, however, I fear that there are simply too many people in the Assembly who reflexively adopt the most right-wing of all possible Westminster positions because that’s what makes them feel safest (we are about to see the same phenomenon with regard to EU membership). For that reason, as with many other urgent social reforms that might help normalise NI (gay marriage, abortion, Irish language), I won’t be holding my breath.

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