Pivotal

Post–primary transfer tests – full steam ahead?

Post–primary transfer tests – full steam ahead?

Post–primary transfer tests – full steam ahead?

In primary schools across Northern Ireland, many Year 7 pupils and their teachers are putting in the hours preparing for the transfer tests in January. While changes are being made to next summer’s exams for older pupils, we are pressing on with Plan A for our 10 and 11 year olds (with a slight adjustment to the timing). There is a surprising lack of discussion about whether this is either fair or practical given Covid–19. This note explores some of these issues, including the likely impact on educational inequality and the practicalities around holding the tests during a pandemic.

Lockdown and educational inequality

All children faced serious disruption to their education in the spring. School closures meant learning at home for more than three months. The quality of this experience varied depending on children’s home situations and the different approaches taken by schools. The return to the classroom for all pupils in late August was welcome. The Minister of Education has been clear in his commitment to keeping schools open as a top priority (although a further two week school closure around half–term has just been announced because of the rise of Covid–19 cases). Huge efforts are being made by school leaders and teachers to address the impact of the five months without school on children’s wellbeing and learning, together with all the necessary distancing and hygiene measures to keep everyone safe. It’s certainly been a challenging start to the new school year.

The link between school attainment and socioeconomic background is well established, and evidence suggests that school closures have accentuated this. In Pivotal’s earlier report Covid–19 in Northern Ireland – a new economic vision, we highlighted that research identifies a ‘lockdown learning gap’, where children from more disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have fallen behind their peers during this period. The reasons for this vary, but in many cases will be about the home environment, support from parents or carers, access to IT, and the type of home learning provided by the school.  As in other areas, the impact of Covid–19 in education is to make existing disadvantages more stark. The differential impact of lockdown on children was recognised by the Northern Ireland Executive in providing £11.25 million additional funding for schools (allocated based on Free School Meals entitlement) to provide extra wellbeing and learning support over the summer months and during the new school year (The Engage Programme).

Given the evidence of the different impacts of lockdown on children’s wellbeing and learning, the transfer tests this year would seem likely to produce results that further disadvantage children from less well–off backgrounds. As well as learning loss, children from more disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to suffer other negative impacts from Covid–19, which may impact on their wellbeing and ability to learn (e.g. family illness or bereavement, financial concerns, or other challenging circumstances at home). Given the timing, concentrated effort is being put into preparing Year 7s for transfer tests, when in fact for some children the real need may be for a focus on their wellbeing.

Testing in a pandemic

Linked to the issue of fairness, there are several practical questions about this year’s transfer tests. Children and teachers are missing periods of school this term because of individual, family or ‘class bubble’ Covid–19 cases, and this will increase as case numbers rise. There is no consistency in the quality of remote learning for individuals or classes during these periods without school. An extra week of school closure has just been announced at half–term. Further local or NI–wide lockdowns remain possible. Although the Northern Ireland Executive is committed to keeping schools open, we have seen with this week’s announcement that this is not always be possible for public health reasons. While every effort is made to minimise it, future disruption to children’s learning seems inevitable. Given this, the differential impact of missed school on children makes the arguments about fairness doubly relevant. In addition, it would also seem inevitable that some children will be unable to sit the transfer tests in January because of Covid–19 in their family or ‘class bubble’ at that time.

On a specific practical issue, the campaign group ‘Bring it back to primary’ has been pressing for the transfer tests to be held in children’s primary schools, both to enable children to do the test in a familiar environment, and to reduce the risk of Covid–19 infection as existing ‘class bubbles’ could be accommodated together. Both these points would seem to provide strong practical reasons for tests being held in primary schools, as was the case before 2008.

Some changes have been made

A recognition of the disadvantages faced by some children during lockdown was the main driver behind the Judicial Review by two parents which resulted in the postponement of the transfer tests by eight weeks, from November to January. The Department of Education (DE) had previously put in place a two week delay. The response to the change in date has been mixed, with some parents welcoming the extra face–to–face teaching time it gives children, and others saying it prolongs an already anxious period unnecessarily.

Twelve schools have already said they won’t use transfer tests this year . Instead they will use alternative criteria, for example siblings at the school, other family connections, or distance from school to home. The DE has said that these schools do not need formal approval to change their entrance criteria for one year, but that its use in subsequent years would require approval.

Meanwhile, changes are being made to the timing and coverage of exams next May/June for older pupils. In Northern Ireland and England, GCSEs and A levels will start later and course content will be reduced slightly. In Scotland, National 5s (roughly GCSE equivalent) have been cancelled for 2021, while Highers and Advanced Highers will go ahead on a delayed timetable. 

But what’s the alternative?

It seems inconsistent that while the approach is adjusted for older children doing exams in May/June right across the UK, the same plan remains in place to test much younger children in a few months’ time. One reason for this may be that the voice of disadvantaged groups is often less heard in policy debates, and this would seem to be particularly true in discussions about the transfer tests. Another important reason is the absence of obvious alternative methods of selection. The schools in Northern Ireland who have said they will not use transfer tests this year have faced challenges about the fairness of the criteria they will use instead (e.g. siblings, other family connections, distance from school), since they would seem to favour those with existing links to these schools. There is no obvious fair alternative method of selection. But should this just mean pressing with the same process this year, regardless of the consequences in terms of fairness?

Teacher assessment would be the other route to explore, given it was comprehensively used across the UK and Ireland for all the public exams that were cancelled in 2020 (although clearly with significant problems). However, there is no established process in place for collecting or using evidence to inform such assessments for Year 7s, creating concerns about consistency and leaving the outcomes open to challenge.

Policy considerations

This blog has highlighted the challenges that children, parents/carers and educators face during this evolving pandemic.  Strong leadership is required to prioritise children’s wellbeing and educational equality.

Three emerging policy recommendations are outlined below:

Fairness – will the transfer tests be fair to all children this year? Leaving aside the obvious question about whether this method of selection is fair in any year, evidence would indicate children from less well–off backgrounds will face additional disadvantage in the tests because of the bigger impact of Covid–19 on their learning and wellbeing. Delaying the tests until January will help with this by allowing more face–to face teaching, but may not be sufficient to make up for the lost time, particularly given the additional disruption that looks inevitable in the coming months. A further postponement may be justified, although this would prolong an already anxious period for children and families.

Plan B – there is a clear case for a contingency plan setting out what will happen to the post–primary transfer process this year if the tests cannot take place in January, or if Covid–19 restrictions mean further disruption to face–to–face teaching time. This is long overdue, given this situation was foreseeable from when schools closed in March. Decisions are needed from the test providers and the grammar schools who plan to use the tests. The Executive needs to demonstrate leadership in this contingency planning. Children, parents and teachers need clarity and reassurance.

Leadership and accountability – stronger leadership of education policy is needed from the Minister and the DE. Many of the problems about the transfer process are of course rooted in the wider issue of the current tests being outside the control of the Minister of Education. The postponement of the tests until January was the result of a Judicial Review by two parents, rather than any action or leadership from the DE. While well–established, this lack of responsibility and accountability from elected representatives for such a defining feature of education policy remains a serious concern.

Tell us what you think

Pivotal is an independent public policy think tank. We want to help improve public policy in Northern Ireland through promoting a better use of evidence in policy making, and through involving a wider range of people in talking about the public policy issues that matter to them.

We would welcome views on Twitter @pivotalppf or by email info@pivotalppf.org

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