Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s mental health champion blasts ‘unethical’ transfer test as thousands of pupils receive results

Fresh details of the new single common transfer test have been released
Around 14,000 children in Northern Ireland received their transfer test results on Saturday.

NORTHERN Ireland’s mental health champion has called the transfer test system “unethical and harmful” as around 14,000 children received their results over the weekend.

This year marked the first results under a new common transfer test administer by the Schools Entrance Assessment Group (SEAG).

It replaced separate tests from AQE and PPTC, meaning pupils sat two one-hour tests in November.

A total of 63 schools, mainly grammars, are using the results to decide which pupils to admit.

It is the biggest change in academic selection since 2008, when the Eleven-Plus system was scrapped after 60 years.



As the results were released to anxiously waiting pupils and parents on Saturday, Professor Siobhán O’Neill was highly critical of the pressure it continues to place on young pupils.

Commenting on social media, she said: “Today, thousands of 10/11 year-olds in NI receive results of unregulated, high pressure tests, to determine which school they attend.

“The system of transfer is unethical and harmful.”

The Mental Health Champion for NI, Professor Siobhán O'Neill.
The Mental Health Champion for NI, Professor Siobhán O'Neill. The Mental Health Champion for NI, Professor Siobhán O'Neill.

She referred to the findings of an independent review of education in Northern Ireland last month, that was agreed in Stormont’s New Decade New Approach deal in 2020, which she said would provide the alternative in the context of broad chances to create a fairer system.

The review’s suggestions had included replacing a one-off test at age 11 with a pupil profile, informed by statutory assessment and computer adaptive testing, which would not be confined to numeracy and literacy.

Professor O’Neill continued: “I’d love to hear from the organisation who plans and runs the test. What exactly does it measure? How do we know that the measurement is accurate? “Are we sure that anxiety/ poor mental (health) doesn’t lead to an inaccurate result?”

SEAG has been contacted for a response.

On Friday, the organisation’s chair and principal of Regent House in Newtownards - Michael Carville – argued that the new system had streamlined a process that meant pupils would sit two tests instead up to five.

A smaller number of pupils who were unable to attend one of the exams will also receive estimated grades.

“We’re quite confident in the estimated score that’s being produced, so we think they will have a fair process,” he told the BBC.

For children who did not get the results they wanted, Professor O’Neill advised their parents to listen.

“Avoid platitudes, don’t say it doesn’t matter, it’ll be ok. You’re communicating that you don’t understand, it can make it feel worse,” she said.

“Connect with them and listen without interrupting. Show them that you ‘get it’.

She added that problem solving was still helpful after these steps, and that making time for the other interests in their lives such as friends, sport and entertainment.

“Show them that they are special and unique, don’t just tell them,”she said.

To parents, she added: “Don’t blame yourself, the system is the problem, you were trying to give your child opportunities.

“Manage any disappointment you might feel, they will pick up on it.”

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long also welcomed the advice.

“It’s easy to say ‘it doesn’t really matter’ or ‘X didn’t pass and still did well.’

“But it really matters to them today. Disappointment hurts at any age. Parting with classmates is scary.”

Principal of St Joseph’s Boys’ School in Derry, Ciara Deane, said: “I failed the transfer test at 11-years-old and I fail every day at something but I continue to keep working tirelessly for the boys at St Joseph’s.

“I invite our new arrivals to remind themselves of their greatness because I know your best is yet to come!”

Irish News columnist and comedian Jake O’Kane added: “I failed the 11 plus, but guess what? Today, I run a successful business, am on my yearly comedy tour and write for NI’s main newspaper. Plus, TV work, radio work...you get the idea, head up and onward!”