Mental Health Champion: Towards a new definition of excellence part 2

It is necessary for me, as Mental Health Champion, to highlight the compelling mental health arguments to end academic selection using transfer tests, and to urge the Review of Education to address this as a priority.

Tests are stressful, and studies consistently show a deterioration in pupil's mental health during exam periods. Teachers agree; in a 2018 survey, 92 per cent described transfer tests as having a significant mental health impact. These tests also discriminate against neurodiverse and disabled children.

It is not possible to find details of the arrangements for children with special educational needs, or children with mental health difficulties, or disabilities. Children affected by poor mental health often perform poorly in high pressure situations; their score has absolutely nothing to do with “ability”, it is about their stress response pathways and reflects adverse experiences that they have encountered.

Education should give every child a fair chance and reduce the levels of poverty and inequalities which thwart progress and lead to poorer wellbeing generally. Instead, in Northern Ireland, the use of selection maintains inequalities, favouring privileged families and those who can pay for tuition. As a “high-stakes”, “closed book” test, the transfer test has the hallmarks of a trauma inducing situation. We must also consider the pressure of the preparation workload (44 per cent pupils estimated that they had completed over 40 papers), which reduces the time available for other activities that nurture wellbeing at what is a critical developmental period.

Teachers speak about the need to rebuild pupils' self-confidence when they arrive in non-grammar schools. A failure experience of this magnitude, at such a young age, clearly has a negative influence on how children view themselves. This is the very basis of wellbeing and the potential for harm is immense.

Given the implications for children, it is concerning that there is no published information about the reliability and validity of the current tests. There is, in fact, a body of evidence demonstrating the unreliability of the `11-plus' transfer tests; and the allocation of grammar school places on the basis of these tests has been described as akin to a “lottery”.

Selection using this method appears to be based on the wholly misguided notion that “ability” or intelligence (or whatever the test claims to measure) is actually measurable and immutable by the age of 11. These tests have a counterproductive impact on views about the nature of ability and intelligence, and they send the wrong message to our young people, even those who benefit as a result of the system. Instead, our goal should be creating a system that aligns with incremental theory of intelligence, the view that intelligence can be cultivated, and that effort leads to positive outcome. Data also shows that those who hold the view that intelligence is incremental (rather than a fixed entity) have higher levels of motivation, and better educational outcomes.

In 2010, 83 per cent of children said that they sat the tests “in order to get into a good school”; and the continued demand for these tests is concerning. All our children deserve an excellent education and the need for change was recognised in the 2008 Every School a Good School policy. Systemic change is necessary. There are examples of education systems internationally, countries where citizens know that every school is of a similar high standard, which produce excellent outcomes, without the need to subject 11 year-olds to this level of harm. We look forward to hearing the recommendations of the review regarding how this can also be achieved in Northern Ireland.

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