Is it time to bin the NI transfer test?

As most of us heard in recent news, the AQE Transfer test was finally cancelled after various debates and rescheduled times due to COVID-19, which is completely understandable. Although the decision could have been made earlier to inform pupils before they put the hard work and effort into studying for it, I do feel like this could be the start of ‘reimagining’ how we proceed from primary school to secondary. 

It might be worth noting if you are not familiar with the transfer test, it is an optional test used to select pupils by the majority of Northern Irish grammar schools for secondary education. Earlier this year, a number of grammar schools had already said they would not use the test to select pupils this year as of course, it wasn’t exactly fair due to the circumstances. Instead, grammar schools who were planning to use the AQE test will now make alternative arrangements to admit pupils in 2021.

However, like many parents and past pupils, I was outraged when the Education Minister, Peter Weir, tweeted the below following the announcement of the cancelled test:

Is the transfer test outdated?

I am no teacher and I’m sure they know more than me about what is best for children. But to say that cancelling a test which enables 10/11 year olds to attend a grammar school if they do well, ‘severely limits parental choice & children’s opportunities, with disappointment for many children & parents’, is a real kick in the teeth for students who have attended comprehensive schools and achieve just as good, if not better, results throughout their secondary education. I do understand however, that grammar schools may have more subjects to offer children, but if all schools funds were equally weighted, would this be an issue?

Like a lot of things in life, you soon find out that the things you worried about as a child, have no relevance now! As a 10 year old who did sit the transfer test, I was the youngest and only sibling out of 5 who did not attend a grammar school, so you can imagine the disappointment I felt when I didn’t get in and realised I was going to a ‘comprehensive school’ – but this was only because it was portrayed that going to a grammar school was the better option! No 10/11-year-old should feel that amount of pressure and disappointment of not feeling good enough. Their choices should be unlimited at that age – which I soon found out was the case for me. 

As I write this, I am in my final semester studying a course at Ulster University which required 3 A’s to get into and had a capped number of places. I can’t describe how proud I was to get into it and be in the same position as my other siblings, even though I didn’t attend a grammar school. I simply would not be here without the help and knowledge I gained throughout my 7 years of education at my secondary school, and this is the case for so many students across Northern Ireland who have not attended grammar schools. Our universities also deserve credit as they are more than welcoming no matter what school you have come from, which is great to see!

I wish I could tell every Primary 7 student that this ‘test’ does not define their future, nor does the school they attend, and it most certainly does not ‘limit opportunities’ – if this test does anything, it creates self-doubt at such a young age and a stigma. I feel that this highlights these outdated systems do not work in a modern world, and I hope this is the beginning of scrapping the transfer test and developing new ways to give all children an equal chance so that there is no longer a backward stigma. 

Shauna McKillop is a final year BSc in Communication, Advertising & Marketing student at Ulster University. She spent her placement year at The Tomorrow Lab in Belfast, where she worked as a digital marketing executive. Shauna can be found on: LinkedIn and Twitter.