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The future of transfer tests

Like most things in education, transfer tests have been hit by pandemic-caused delays, but even before Covid-19, the future of unofficial transfer testing was a contentious issue.

Following an initial announcement of a two-week delay to the holding of the post-primary transfer tests for students entering second level in the 2021/22 academic year, the contentious exams will now be held in January 2021. While the exams are typically held over five consecutive Saturdays starting in early November every year, this year’s exams had been pushed back to 21 November originally, sparking concerns that children would not receive an adequate level of preparation due to their schools having been closed, and further concerns were raised that the delay would further discriminate against disadvantaged families.

The latter became the basis of a legal challenge against the original postponement. The parents of two separate children brought the action against test providers Association for Quality Education (AQE) and the Post-Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC). Their counsel told the High Court that there was “a baseline of damage that will inevitably be caused to all by the school closures” but that disadvantaged families would be at a much greater disadvantage if the tests were to only be moved by a matter of weeks. Despite initial attempts to resist a judicial review challenge due to AQE and PTTC being private companies, Minister Weir eventually confirmed the movement of the tests to January in response to the challenge.

Other families and some teachers have voiced concerns that the new date means that pupils will now have been preparing for the exams for over a year and that, when considering the Christmas holidays, they will receive a minimal amount of extra teaching days. Yet the acknowledgment within the challenge that disadvantaged families are already discriminated against by the transfer test system (the challenge alleged further discrimination rather than new discrimination) has not led to a downturn in numbers undertaking the tests. Figures released in January 2020 show that the transfer tests have steadily grown in popularity in the decade since the abolition of the 11-plus.

Just under half of P7 students now sit the tests, with 13,101 students applying for 9,462 places at academically selective grammar schools in 2018/19. This marked an increase from the 12,285 applicants for 8,844 places in 2017/18. Data shows that nine schools using the AQE system did not accept a score below 100 and that just three of the 63 selective grammar schools were not oversubscribed.

Minister Weir has consistently held the line that schools are free to academically select their incoming students and that, in his view, the fairest way to do so is through testing despite repeated protests about the discriminatory nature of the 11-plus system and its successors. Plans have been afoot to standardise the transfer tests, having one test replace the AQE and PPTC versions, but these have yet to be finalised and have been met with opposition from AQE.

In a letter to schools, AQE complained of having been left out of the planning process for the standardised test and called the process “not fit for purpose”. PPTC, on the other hand, have expressed support for the proposals. 29 schools currently accept the fee charging AQE tests, 26 accept the free PPTC tests and seven accept both. While some will continue the fight to do away with the testing system entirely, the next battle shaping the future of transfer tests appears to be one more attempt to put the ever-increasing numbers of those sitting the tests on equal footing.

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