Cruel transfer test robbing my boy of a year of his childhood

When her family concluded that going through the transfer test placed unacceptable pressure on her then 11-year-old son, Leona O'Neill defended their decision wholeheartedly. Two years on, another of her children faces the dilemma of whether to sit the test or not

I've already seen how stressed this is making my son

IN AROUND eight weeks my middle son will sit the transfer test. Like every other child his age, he has been obsessing about 'The Test' since the start of the year. He has been doing sample papers; comparing marks with his friends; worrying about low scores; feeling proud about high scores; working at the weekends; having his head stuck in books when he should be out playing.

He wants to sit the test. His teacher feels he is able for it. He feels he is able for it. I have not put any pressure at all on him and allowed him to make up his own mind on this. We have not employed a tutor. He'll just do his best and his best will be good enough. If he passes, great. If he doesn't, no big deal.

Northern Ireland's grammar schools have been using these regulated tests to select pupils since the dreaded 11-plus exam was scrapped by the Department of Education in 2008. Pupils have an option of two tests – one for state schools, the other for Catholic schools. Some kids sit one, some sit two tests, some sit none. All attempts to create a single unofficial exam have failed.

The Department of Education has not approved the transfer tests and does not allow primary school teachers to coach the children ahead of the tests. It is an undiluted mess of mammoth proportions and always has been. But then, this is Northern Ireland. Nothing is 'normal', nothing is straightforward.

It's no secret I'm not a fan of the transfer test. I think it is disgraceful that our children are tested at 11 and then farmed into schools – grammar and non-grammar. And I think the snobbery in some mindsets as to which road is better with regards the standard of teaching or the future careers of pupils is simply astounding.

Two years ago we were in the same position with our oldest boy, Daniel. Our child is dyslexic and, although he is one of the most intelligent young men I know, sitting set tests was not his strongest skill.

I very publicly extracted my son from the transfer test circus then, after he spent months working late into the night – as well as weekends and the summer holidays – on test papers, working extra lessons with a tutor and worrying ceaselessly over results.

I saw that the stress was crippling him, the constant striving for a perfect percentage and competing with his classmates was crushing his confidence. It was one of the most stressful periods of my life. I felt the weight of responsibility on my shoulders, knowing this was a monumental, life-changing moment in my child's life.

We decided together that he shouldn't take the test and placed his destiny in the hands of one of our city's finest secondary schools.

Two years on, our boy is thriving. He loves school, once he gets over the whole getting up in the morning thing. He manages his school work and his successes are celebrated. He has come on leaps and bounds working with a team to deal with his dyslexia, and it now rarely even bothers him.

He is challenged constantly. He makes and edits videos, he can dismantle and put together electrical equipment, he debugs our computers and regularly fixes our phones.

He is fascinated by science, is an excellent story writer and absolutely loves English and writing, something he hated in primary school. He built a massive Norman castle for History from sugar cubes and polystyrene and won a school prize. My child has been awakened, his abilities drawn out and celebrated. This is testament to the amazing teachers he has and the hard work they put into nurturing and guiding him. I have not for one second regretted him not taking the transfer test.

This time around our son will take the test. I've already seen how stressed this is making him. No amount of pep talks about it not mattering and how he'll thrive wherever he is meant to be can snap him out of it. There have been a fair few meltdowns. It's as if this cruel process has robbed him of this year of his childhood. He can think of nothing else. I can't wait until he can be a kid again, but he feels as strongly about doing it as his brother did about not doing it.

My sister's boy transferred from primary to secondary school this year. There was no fuss, no tests, no assessments, no months of worry. He just moved from his primary school to a really excellent post-primary school. It's not grammar, not non-grammar. But they live in England, not Northern Ireland, where children are not judged on their skills and abilities at the tender age of 11; they go to the school nearest their home.

I don't know how things will go this time around for us. I am not as nervous as I was when we first encountered this dreadful experience. I know everything will be OK. I know that there are amazing teachers and amazing schools and he will be perfectly fine. I know my child will thrive wherever he goes. And your child will too.


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