Minutes of Evidence:  1 March 2001



(Ms Rhonda Reid, Research and Evaluation Services and Ms Alison Montgomery, Assembly Researcher)

Review of Post - Primary Education in Northern Ireland

Members present:
Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms E Bell
Mr Gallagher
Mr Hamilton
Mr McElduff

Ms R Reid ) Research and Evaluation Services
Ms A Montgomery ) Assembly Researcher

The Chairperson:
Good afternoon and welcome. Today we will continue to look at evidence on the review of the transfer procedure. We are very pleased to welcome Rhona Reid and Alison Montgomery from Research and Evaluation Services and the Assembly research team who will outline the results of research undertaken with focus groups comprising parents, pupils and teachers in Belfast, Fermanagh and Tyrone.

Ms Reid:
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about my research.

Eleven groups were involved - four with parents, four with pupils and three with teachers. In total I spoke to 108 people. The groups were not designed so that I could get a consensus - I was merely there to get their opinion. We were not trying to reach an overall view to take forward. The report and research collated different people's opinions in each of the focus groups.

First, I would like to go through the results from the children's groups. There were four groups - two in Belfast, one in Enniskillen and one in Omagh. When asked about the current system, the majority of children felt that the test was very important. In one group, however, the children were all happy to go to the local high school and did not feel as much pressure about the tests or the results as other children. They felt that the test showed who was the most intelligent child, and they were quite accepting of that. However, they also felt that it had long-term implications for them and that the better their mark, the better their education would be. They felt that if they got an A and went to the grammar school, they would get a better education.

I asked them what their parents felt about the test, and there was a variation. The majority said that their parents told them not to worry and just to do their best. However, some said that they were put under pressure by their parents and that they would get a reward only if they got an A. One child said her father would hit her if she got a D - I do not know whether to believe her. There definitely seemed to be some pressure from parents. One girl said that her mother had forced her to do the test, but she did not want to do it, and she constantly got lower grades as a result.

They felt that some questions were put in the test deliberately to trick them. They felt that the test was very long, and they felt under pressure sitting it. There were probably three or four children in each group who would get grade As. They sat quietly in the corner and said that the test was no problem and that it did not upset them. Those who were more vocal were probably the children who found it more difficult.

They all said that they would recommend that other children should do the test - not one child said that they would not recommend it. They felt that it was something that you do when you get to 10 or 11. There were some children in each of the groups who did not sit the test. While they were not overtly ridiculed, they were described as people who could not be bothered doing the exam and were told that it would be a waste of seven years if they did not. They really felt that this was something that they should do. There was some concern about the fact that one child who got a B1 or B2 would get into the grammar school one year, while another with the same grade the next year may not.

They did not feel the system was fair, and they did not understand why that happened.

I asked the children about preparation for the test and how it had interfered with other activities. In Belfast the majority of children said it had not interfered with their activities outside school. However, in Omagh and Enniskillen all the pupils said that they had had to give up extra-curricular activities, such as clubs and societies, take their work with them on holidays and give up visits to grandparents. Coming up to the test, children in these groups had had to give up their lunch breaks in order to prepare for the test. They were, therefore, slightly envious of the other children who were not doing the test, because they could see them playing while they had to do a great deal more work, and they thought that that was unfair.

I asked the children if any of them had been tutored and about the prevalence of that. Only in one group had the majority (7 out of 10 pupils) had tutors, and, while it was their parents' idea, they felt that it was a good one, and it gave them a chance to go over the things they had done wrong. The rest of the group were adamant and said "My mother goes through it with me" or "My auntie, who is a teacher, helps me". They felt that by not having a tutor, they were disadvantaged, and they wanted to explain why they did not have one. In the other groups only one or two had tutors, and it did not seem to bother the other children that they did not have one. They all seemed to get a great deal of help at home.

I asked the children whether there should be different schools such as grammar and secondary schools. They said that the children who were not as clever should not go to grammar schools and that the grammar schools are there for the children who can learn more quickly. If children who could not learn quickly went to the grammar schools, then it would slow the others down.

Therefore, the children had a strong, definite notion of what they perceived to be the difference between grammar and secondary schools. One of the children said that there might be trouble at grammar schools if there were no secondary schools. That shows a perception of the type of child who goes to both the secondary and the grammar schools.

I asked the children about the age of transfer. The majority of them felt ready to go to a new school and that 11 was the right age. When I asked them if they would like a test at a later date, they thought that that would be a good idea, but then they realised that if the test were hard at 10, it would be really hard at 14. One boy said that you could end up doing a 25+ test instead of your 11+ test. They realised that they would not like that. A few children said that an extra year might be beneficial to them and that perhaps 12 would be a better age.

The children were all looking forward to going to their new school, predominately in order to study new subjects and meet new people, but they were very scared about the extra homework and the timetable. They had heard that they would get stricter teachers, and bullying seemed to be an issue for many of the children. The children in Omagh and Enniskillen, in particular, seemed to be more worried about bullying than, for instance, those in Belfast.

I asked the children about their opinion of the current system and the alternatives. The vast majority of them said that doing some form of test was right, because it prepared them for doing future tests. They said that doing tests is important and is good experience for doing tests in the next school. They thought that some form of continuous assessment, where their marks could be taken into account, might be useful. Some of them supported assessment from P1; some from P4 or P5 onwards. The children thought that the Key Stage tests had not been too tricky and that that might be a good way to go. They did not think it would be fair if teachers decided, because they said that teachers are human and have favourites.

In one of the schools in Enniskillen a teacher had visited from the high school and had talked about the school, and they felt that that was very useful. It helped reassure children about their next school. Whilst they had all been to see schools on open nights, they found it good that the teacher actually came to their school. They enjoyed that.

One boy also talked about the expense of going to grammar school. If he got an A and was going to go to the grammar school, it would cost £80 for his uniform. He felt that this would be a factor that could put people off. He wanted to go, but obviously he knew that it would be more expensive than going to a secondary school.

I will now give you a summary of the results from the parents. All of the parents disapproved of the current test. They felt that 10 or 11 was too young for children to be doing a test of this nature. They said that it does not give a true reflection of the child's ability, and that their children's self-esteem is destroyed after this test. They also felt that it was rigged to make some children fail. One parent talked about his older child, who had got a D in a previous test. Afterwards the child said "I did not realise I was that stupid". This parent was very concerned about the grading and felt that there should be a pass or a fail grade instead of giving Ds. She thought that D was such a terrible grade.

Three parents felt that it was not a big deal. They were not concerned about it, because the children were going to the local secondary school. They let the children do the test, but the result did not matter, because they were very happy for the children to go to the local secondary school. That is the emphasis they placed on it for their children.

One parent said that it really did impact upon her children. She said that it was only after the test that she had heard her child laugh again - there was no laughter from September until November, and she felt that it was unfair. When I asked if certain sections of society were disadvantaged, the majority of parents did not think that they were. Somebody said, "If I had a million pounds and my child got a D, they would not get in to the grammar school".

In one group, a mother said that her child had indicated on the form that she wanted to go to a grammar school if she got an A. The mother had to tell her to take it off the form, because she could not afford the uniform. While she did not think that she was being socially disadvantaged, obviously she felt that she could not afford to send the child to the grammar school - that child would not be going to the grammar school no matter what grade she got. A group containing mostly middle-class parents - and I hate to use that term - felt that, statistically, working-class children do not get the grades and that the poor are left behind. That was their opinion. They felt that the benefit of the current system was that all children could receive a grammar education. Some said that they had relatives in England who had to pay £15,000 a year to get their child into grammar-school education.

On private tutoring, the majority of parents were totally against coaching. One parent gave the example of having had her middle child coached. The child struggled at grammar school, and the parent felt that that had been the absolutely wrong thing to do. Her next child will not get any coaching at all, as it puts too much pressure on the child. They said that the ethos of tutors came from the schools, and some schools have a definite coaching culture, almost enforcing coaching for the children.

I got a mixed response when I asked about the transition to post-primary school at this age 11. Parents felt that children were ready to move schools at 11, but that they were not ready for the pressure of the test. A number had older children in post-primary education, and they were all happy and thriving - really enjoying being there. The pressure of the actual test, not moving schools seemed to be a key concern for parents.

The majority of parents felt that in the current curriculum, there was too much emphasis on academic achievement. The current system was losing children who were not academic, and there is no credit given for practical aspects. One woman said that her child could build a circuit quite easily, but ask him to write it down on a piece of paper, and he would not be able to. She did not feel that his abilities were being catered for in the system. Some parents were concerned that grammar schools did not do woodwork or metalwork any longer, or that home economics was not taught in schools, and they thought that that was wrong.

I went through some of the potential alternatives with the parents.

The majority of them felt that the comprehensive system would be the best solution, if it were run properly. However, they did not feel that it would suit everybody, and some said that they did not want to lose grammar schools. They felt that grammar schools were necessary if their children were to be pushed. All the parents were able to name good secondary schools, and they asked why all secondary schools are not as good as those they named. They felt that improving all secondary schools would be the best way forward.

Most parents did not see the delayed transfer system as an alternative, as it was still perceived as selection's being postponed to a later date. Some parents did not think that selection was bad in itself. They said that life is about selection, and that it is a good way of letting children know that life can be tough: they were not that opposed to selection.

Some parents felt that the differentiated system of post-primary schools was ideal. However, they did not know whether it would be workable in Northern Ireland. They were not sure that their children would know at 11 years of age what path they wanted to go down, whether it be vocational, technical or academic. The parents described it as a faraway dream in which academic achievements are equal to others. They felt that if that system were to work, a lot of work would have to be done.

The majority of parents felt that if the dual system were to remain, some form of test would still be required. They did not think that it would be fair if teachers decided but felt that some element of coursework should be included in the system, which would take the extreme pressure off the children.

Some parents felt that it would be fair if the transfer system could be set up in a similar way to the Key Stage 2 exams. They seemed to like that system, although they did acknowledge that if it were introduced, the pressure would probably be transferred from the transfer test to the Key Stage 2 exams.

One parent in Enniskillen felt that the allocation of bus passes restricted the choice of schools that her children can attend. She said that if her child got an A she could go to any school in the area and would get a bus pass. However, if the child did not get an A and she wanted to send her to the all-girls secondary school in Enniskillen town, she would not get a bus pass. She would, therefore, have to send her to the local secondary school. She felt that her choice was restricted.

The majority of parents felt that there was long-term impact on those children who fail. When I started the groups, I asked them about their own experiences of the transfer test. They were all able to say "I failed. I passed. She failed. She passed". They felt that the transfer test would impact as much on their children as it had on them.

All the teachers felt that the way in which the selection system for 11-year-olds is currently managed should be reassessed. They felt that the current system is divisive, with children at age 11 being classed as either successes or failures. Primary school teachers found the current system to be stressful, as they are marked on the number of passes that their pupils get. They felt that giving one grade for seven years' work was not fair and that the work in year seven was rushed to try to accommodate the exam. Many teachers said that by the end of the year, some pupils who got a D in the exam were getting higher marks in other tests by May and June. They were looking at the ones who got the As' in the transfer exam but were struggling by the end of the year, and they were thinking "That is not fair, as I am equally intelligent, but I got a D at the start of the year".

They felt that a child did not get an A by virtue of its academic ability only, but that a wide range of social factors impacted on that. Some of the teachers said that some pupils do not see that they have a role to play in the grammar school system - their parents do not know anything about the system and have not come from a grammar school system. Therefore, if their child got an A they would not send it to a grammar school. Those parents and children do not feel part of the system at all.

The secondary school teachers said that failing in the transfer exam knocks the self-confidence of the children, and they spend a great deal of time in year eight trying to rebuild that. They also argued that selection at 11 years of age did not work because of the number of high achievers in secondary schools who got high GCSE and A level marks, but yet they were seen to have failed at 11 years of age.

However, some of the primary school teachers felt that the current system is quite cut and dried and that it is relatively easy to teach. They liked the fact that the decision as to who passed or failed was taken out of their hands. They were frightened about what would replace it. They were not sure whether anything better could be introduced.

On the whole they felt that the current exam was out of kilter with all the others, since there was no element of coursework and the children could not resit.

They were not of the opinion that coaching was as big a problem as parents believed. They did not feel that the 11-plus was any different in this respect from other exams. As the system encourages teachers and parents to try to get children into grammar schools, it is an inevitable fact of life. They recognised that the issue of coaching was often used to highlight inequalities and social disadvantage but felt that inequality begins long before children sit the exam.

They felt that not enough vocational teaching was undertaken in schools since the advent of the common curriculum when the Government decided the academic route was best. They said that while it is not wrong to teach someone a foreign language, it should not be at the cost of practical subjects which may provide a means of earning a living at a later date. Given the league-table mentality, they felt that the value of a child would not be recorded unless it was academically gifted.

Some teachers believed that other structures might offer a reasonable alternative, but in a mixed-ability comprehensive, rather than one where everyone was put into the same groups. They felt that that was the only way it would work. One teacher had taught in Craigavon, which practises delayed selection, and felt that it tended to be dominated by academic abilities. Grammar school teachers wanted to bring pupils in at 11 and work with them for seven years. They thought that that was the way they could get the best out of the child while monitoring its progress throughout.

Assuming that values could be changed, the system in Germany was seen as the perfect solution, but it was viewed as a distant dream and perhaps as being not practicable owing to the Northern Ireland employment situation. They felt that you needed to have an academic qualification to get a job in Northern Ireland - or at least that that was what people perceived. People's views about jobs and the opportunities available therefore needed to be changed. One teacher had been on a tour to Germany to look at the system and was convinced that it would not work in Northern Ireland, since Germany has an industrial economy where technology is held in parity of esteem with academia. For example, engineers making BMW cars are paid, treated and respected the same as doctors.

Further concerns about the system were that children would not choose a vocational route at 11, since they had not been taught it up to that time, and that 11 was too early to decide.

On the whole, suggestions to replace the current system were limited. There was some fear of change, and it was argued that any development would be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. People said that the baby should not be thrown out with the bath water and that there were some very positive aspects to the current system.

Mention was made of how the status quo suits a great many people, especially in the grammar sector. A number of teachers said that finding the money needed to make changes might put too much strain on the current system, which could have an impact on schools.

Some primary school teachers said that they were happy with the system of selection by examination and that it took the pressure off them. They felt that it was easy to teach the three subjects of science, English and maths. If the number of subjects were increased, it might be more difficult to get children to excel in art or music. However, they felt that it was straightforward to get them to excel in science, English and maths.

Setting tests to cover broad areas of the curriculum was not seen as an alternative. They felt that primary teachers would be overloaded, and they did not have the skills to teach that. The teacher would become a jack of all trades.

Allowing individual schools to set their own entrance exams was perceived as terrible. It would increase the power of grammar schools and mean that primary schools would teach the grammar curriculum.

Having teachers and principals of primary schools recommend suitable post-primary education was described as an "absolute disaster". Some teachers said that they would have to move house and that the pressure that parents would put them under would make working impractical.

A teacher said that he felt that there should be room for local solutions to the issue that would be appropriate to the communities that they serve. He was from Omagh, and he said that the solutions that would work there would not necessarily work in Belfast or even in Enniskillen.

A teacher also said that he felt that the current system is making sink schools out of secondary schools because of the funding available for integrated education. The pupils who would have got a grade B or C and gone to the local secondary schools are now going to the integrated schools. Therefore, the academic potential of the children that they are getting has dropped significantly. He felt that that was an issue for concern.

All the groups agreed that the system in its current form is not appropriate, although pupils recommended that everybody gave it a try. None of the parents identified any positive aspects of the current system. The majority of all participants were in favour of some type of testing but agreed that this should incorporate a degree of coursework.

Most teachers and parents agreed that 11 is the wrong age for the pressure of selection and testing but thought that moving schools at 11 was OK. However, some thought that if the child was older, they might have more motivation to work for the test.

Most parents and a few teachers viewed tutoring in a very negative way. The rest of the teachers and the pupils did not feel that this had an impact on them.

There were not many differences between the results in Belfast and those in Omagh and Enniskillen. The main difference was that teachers thought that parents in Omagh and Enniskillen put more pressure on their children to do the test, or, when they were advised that their children should not do the test, they felt that they should, or made the children do it.

The issue of travelling to school seemed to be of greater importance for people in Omagh and Enniskillen. For example, some children had to leave the house at 7.15 am when they were going to their new school. Pupils in Belfast were less worried about bullying than the other groups and did not think that the preparation interfered with their extra-curricular activity as much as the pupils in Omagh and Enniskillen did.

The Chairperson:
What kind of sample of pupils, teachers and parents was used? How many pupils were involved, and did they represent the whole society? Are you satisfied that you had a full range?

Ms Reid:
I am very satisfied. I think that maintained and controlled primary and secondary schools were represented in one teacher group in Belfast. We had one parent group that was mostly from west Belfast and another from east Belfast, and the children came from schools in east and west Belfast.

The Chairperson:
Were all of the meetings for the different sectors held separately? Is it possible that children were looking at their parents and giving an answer that they knew that their parents would want to hear?

Ms Reid:
No. The children were in the schools, and I was the only person there - there were no parents or teachers in the groups.

Mr S Wilson:
In the responses about the alternative systems, you mentioned that the phrase

"The majority of parents felt that a comprehensive system if run properly, would be the best solution." was used.

What did they mean by that?

Ms Reid:
The feeling among parents seems to be that if the secondary schools that they identified as not being good schools could be brought up to the level of the other comprehensive schools and run properly, then secondary schools could be as good as others.

Mr S Wilson:
Other secondary schools?

Ms Montgomery:
I think that they gave examples, did they not? They identified some schools that they considered to be good comprehensives here, what we would call good secondary schools here, is that not right?

Ms Reid:
If all schools could be like that then they knew they would be good.

Mr S Wilson:
Did they identify what they thought was good about those schools?

Ms Reid:
They did not, actually, to be honest. They mentioned the wide facilities that one of the schools offered children, the results were good, and it seemed that the discipline in the school was good. That is how they perceived it.

Mr McElduff:
The research is very good. There is a great deal of detail in it and many things that each of us will recognise. What struck me was the phrase "no laughter from September to November." That is very compelling evidence, if that is what people are saying, if that is the effect this is having on children. It is very important to note that. Is there an overwhelming sense that something is about to change? Is there an uncertainty, or a feeling or were people saying "I hope my child benefits from the change" or "Is my child going to be caught up in this 11-plus thing in one year or two years' time?" Did you come across any of that?

Ms Reid:
The parents that I spoke to had children who had just sat the test, and a number of them said that they had younger ones and that they hoped that the system would have been changed by the time they came to do the exam. To be honest, I do not think that there was a great expectation that there would be a change. The teachers certainly felt that. Some said that it might be related to, perhaps, a change of Minister. A new Minister who was, perhaps, not opposed to it might be appointed, and that might hold it all up. They felt that it was a political thing - very much so.

Mr McElduff:
It is interesting to hear the almost cultural differences between Omagh, Enniskillen and Belfast. I cannot understand why there is this greater awareness of bullying in Enniskillen and Omagh than in Belfast. I know the travelling thing will affect rural people more, but I wonder why?

Ms Reid:
Perhaps the people that I spoke to did not make up a representative sample. I am not sure. There is no real explanation.

Mr Hamilton:
In primary schools there is talk about the fear of bullying, but it is largely a myth in many cases. I was a teacher in a secondary school, and I used to hear the primary school kids all saying things like "When you go there on your first day, they stick your head down the toilet" - all that old goof. Were they really worrying about bullying, or were they just frightened of the stories they heard?

Ms Reid:
Some did hear stories from older brothers and sisters. There was one woman whose daughter had gone to one of the secondary schools in Omagh, and she was currently being bullied; she was very worried about that. There obviously was some bullying going on, but she was very worried and would not be sending her child to that secondary school.

Mr Hamilton:
I thought that you said that the major cause for concern was bullying.

Ms Reid:
It was. They were concerned, but I think it was more about being the youngest and the smallest. Some were saying "I am the smallest in this school, so what am I going to be when I get to the big school? or "I am the fattest in this school". One boy said "They are going to pick on me even more when I get to the secondary school".

Mr Hamilton:
We hear a great deal of talk from different groups about the pressure that parents put on children to pass this exam.

Your research gives the impression that that was not the case. Most parents seem to have been saying that the children should do their best. Would you say that some parents put their children under pressure, but it is your impression that most do not?

Ms Reid:
Most children said that their parents had said that they could only do their best, and only a few said that they had been put under pressure.

Ms Montgomery:
The numbers involved in this research were very small, so Ms Reid and I did not use percentages in it. That is why we used terms such as "majority" and "some". There were 108 people involved in the research, and it is what I have described to Ms Reid as a snapshot of what is out there. I have to issue a word of caution about the numbers, because they are very small.

The Chairperson:
That is comparable to the Assembly, for we have 108 Members - another divergence of opinion.

Mr Gallagher:
Yes. We certainly have got a fair divergence of opinion.

You mentioned that there was a feeling amongst the children that 12 might be a better age. Was that a better age for doing an 11-plus type of test or for changing schools? We have spoken about other systems, for example, children in the Republic of Ireland change schools a year later. Some grammar school teachers wanted the pupils for seven years. Does your research show that this was a strong view held by grammar school teachers? Did any parents agree with teachers that local solutions were a way forward or a distinct possibility?

Ms Reid:
The children were happy to do the test at the age of 10 or 11 but were not ready to move schools and felt that an extra year in primary school would be best for them.

Only one or two grammar school teachers said that they wanted the children for seven years, but those who did felt that it was very important. Although parents felt that 11 was a bad age to take the test, the ones who had older children felt that it was good that the children were at the school from the age of 11 or 12.

Mr Gallagher:
Did the parents mention local solutions?

Ms Reid:
No. They did not.

Mr Hamilton:
I think we would all agree that we should try to keep children's lives as normal as possible and allow them to pursue other activities during the run-up to the test. Can you explain why the majority of kids in Belfast said that the test did not interfere with their activities and why the children in the two rural areas said that it interfered with theirs quite seriously?

Ms Reid:
I do not really understand why the children in Belfast did not think that it interfered. A number of children in Belfast had to attend a summer school to practice for the 11-plus, but they seemed to enjoy doing something different. Perhaps they felt special or that the extra work was something that they had to do in order to grow up. I am not really sure why there was such a definite difference.

Some children from Belfast had to give up an opportunity to do a play in the Waterfront Hall because they were doing the test, but they did not feel that that interfered with their time. I asked them whether they were annoyed that they had not been able to do the play, and they seemed quite stoical - they knew that they had to do the test.

Mr McElduff:
The additional stress of travelling miles and miles is also a factor.

The Chairperson:
On behalf of the Committee, I thank both of you for your excellent presentation and informative research.

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