How has our ‘free education’ system become so elitist? - Lynette Fay

Academic selection was supposed to have ended years ago. So how come the transfer situation has got much worse?

Lynette Fay

Lynette Fay

Lynette is an award winning presenter and producer, working in television and radio. Hailing from Dungannon, Co Tyrone, she is a weekly columnist with The Irish News.

There is, in fact, a body of evidence demonstrating the unreliability of the `11-plus' transfer tests
It was supposed to have been scrapped years ago, but academic selection is still very much with us

“E for eligible.” The letter and the word jumped off the page my mummy held in her hand. I was 11 years old, I barely understood what eligible meant, particularly when I had been expecting a grade. After a panicked few minutes, we realised that I had passed the 11-plus. I was going to grammar school, which was what I really wanted. I don’t know why this was the case.

I remember feeling happy and relieved. I had been worried about receiving the result. It is a feeling I will never forget.

Thirty-five years later, I find myself in the thick of conversations about second level education, before my daughter has even finished nursery school.

At the time of writing, we are waiting on confirmation of a primary school place for her. I hope that she will get a place in the school we have chosen, but there is no guarantee. When we filled in the application form for a pre-school place last year, I did not realise how stressful the process was, until I felt relief when we received confirmation that she had got in.

Surely, we could work out a system that would be fair to everyone and not make any one child feel less than in any part of the experience of receiving an education, which is a basic human right?

I didn’t go to nursery school, and I turned out OK, but I piled the pressure and anxiety on myself awaiting this confirmation.

At a four-year-old’s birthday party a few months ago, while the children were loving life on the bouncy castles, I found myself in the middle of a conversation about feeder schools for the best secondary schools in the area.

At the time, my daughter had been in nursery school for a couple of weeks. I felt myself coming out in a rash. My child was three at the time, yet to turn four. I have no idea what her academic capability will be, and suspect that it will be some time before we have any indication what she is good at or what she enjoys.

Even though this is what I know and believe, I can’t help worrying if her future school is something I should be thinking about now, when she is only four years old. Am I letting my child down if I don’t think in this way or is this talk about education normal, or an over-reaction?

I have watched family members and friends deal with their children preparing for and sitting the transfer test. The pressure is unavoidable. How has tutoring become an integral part of the process? Not everyone can afford to have their child tutored, it is expensive so how must that affect children and their parents who can’t afford it? How has our ‘free education’ system become so elitist?

I went to a grammar school, and loved it, but in so many ways, I felt like an outsider. I couldn’t afford the capital fee, my blazer and gym gear were always a few sizes too big or small. I didn’t have trendy shoes or schoolbag. The flip side to my experience was that many of the girls who had been ‘paid in’ to grammar school by their parents, struggled with the academic standard demanded of them. They were constantly under pressure, and scrutiny.

Surely, we could work out a system that would be fair to everyone and not make any one child feel less than in any part of the experience of receiving an education, which is a basic human right?

Not all schools work to this model, I am no expert in education. I am a parent and I don’t want to see my child, her peers and their parents have to deal with this level of anxiety.

The mental health champion, Professor Siobhán O’Neill, addressed the Stormont education committee recently and offered a solution to “the harmful impact that the current system of transfer from primary to secondary school has on the mental health of individual children”.

She called for the recommendations of an independent review of education in the New Decade, New Approach deal to be implemented. The recommendations advocate for a move away from the one-off test and instead use pupil profiles, enabled by technological advancement. She urged that this be implemented as a matter of urgency and suggested that it could be achieved within three years.

When I was studying ‘structured reasoning’ for my 11-plus exam, I remember the talk that we might be the last cohort to experience academic selection. Yet, 35 years later, it feels that we are in a worsening situation.