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Editorial: Transfer tests failing young people

THIRTEEN years have now passed since the last official 11-plus test was sat by primary school pupils in Northern Ireland.

Parents of new-born babies at the time would have been forgiven for assuming that when their turn eventually came, a new system would be in place.

Instead, along with the scandalous state of the health service, failure to resolve the transfer issue has been a damning indictment of our politicians' ability to reach agreement on matters of huge public importance.

Since 2009, most grammar schools have continued to use academic selection to allocate places through unregulated tests operated by two private companies.

Primary 7 children can face up to five papers if they enter both systems, one used mainly by Catholic grammars and the second serving other schools.

There have been discussions for several years about producing a common test to simplify the process.

It has now been reported that a proposal for a single system to operate from November 2023 has been sent to grammar schools for approval.

While this change would potentially reduce some of the burden on thousands of children and their parents, it risks also further entrenching a hopelessly outdated process that required overhaul not one but several decades ago.

As the Catholic Bishop of Derry, Dr Donal McKeown, has pointed out, it also raises questions about who exactly runs the public education system.

For reasons that always defied proper explanation, nationalist and unionist parties have tended to be divided about the use of academic selection, with the DUP most vocal in support of current arrangements.

The reality is that the defining feature of our transfer system is not academic selection but social selection.

Two government-commissioned reports recommended a new approach based on informed parental choice and Catholic bishops have been calling for many years for schools in their sector to phase out use of tests.

As recently as March this year, a paper from Ulster University's Unesco Education Centre argued that current arrangements are traumatic for many children and "serve to benefit a few (generally already privileged) pupils while damages the life chances of a large proportion of the school population".

It has been clear for many years that Northern Ireland's transfer system is failing both young people and the wider economy and society.

Rather than moving to a single test, we should be acting swiftly to end this iniquitous system of testing children at 10 and 11 entirely.

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