Delay the transfer test or suspend academic selection for school admissions in 2021

Delay the transfer test or suspend academic selection for school admissions in 2021

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AQE/GL transfer test coronavirus concern group started this petition to Education Minister and

We, the undersigned, ask for a meaningful delay of the transfer tests (AQE/GL) to after 1st March 2021 or the urgent suspension of academic selection for post-primary school admissions in 2021.

Here’s Why

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, P7s across NI will have missed 13 weeks school-based learning, and almost 4 months directed education as most schools finished remote learning on 19th June. It is still uncertain how many hours children will attend school in the academic year 2020/21 especially as there’s no certainty on how the Autumn/Winter cold/flu season is going to affect the transmission of COVID-19, or interact with future public health policy. Some P7s will return 2 days per week, some 5 days and for varying school hours. We expect there will be further inconsistency and disparity between schools in how much direct teaching each is able to offer. A 2-week delay to the tests does not compensate for this amount of lost learning.

The best interests of children must be at the heart of all actions, and inactions, in educational planning.  Once school re-starts, priority should be given to each child's individual recovery and reintegration into the 'new normal' school-life. Each child's experience of lockdown will have been different and the first few weeks of P7 would be better used assessing and addressing children's needs than preparing them for a non-compulsory test, that may or may not happen.

Currently, 43.7% of secondary school places in NI are at selective grammars which means many children, (over 16K in 2019), will effectively be obliged to sit the transfer tests administered by AQE and PPTC to be eligible for admission into their preferred school, if using academic criteria.

The use of tests, that measure children’s ability to apply specified parts of the curriculum, that have not been taught in full or to a consistent quality by all schools will be a very poor indicator of academic ability this year and an unfair basis for selection.

Exam providers have suggested that providing extra time will mitigate the effects of Covid-19 and school lockdown. Any parent who has been supporting learning will know; subject areas such as ratio, proportion, ‘I think of a number’, square numbers, prime numbers, inverse equations and probability are all new learning, usually taught after Easter whilst schools start to familiarise children with the exam papers.  Children who are not exposed to this learning and preparation will be at a disadvantage to children who are.  

Some children may not have anyone in their household able to assist or support their home learning.

Some cannot afford or have no access to the technology, internet, printers, or ink needed.

Some children may flourish in a home learning environment; some families can afford to pay for remote tutoring. However, socially or economically disadvantaged children and their families are likely to be affected worse by lockdown, further widening the educational gap. Testing is unfair to children whose only source of learning and exam preparation is in the school environment. School is a great leveller.

Under Article 28 of the UNCRC ‘free’ access to education for primary children has been compromised.  Ability to access home learning has depended, amongst many variables, on a child’s household being able to afford technology, connectivity, printing, and other learning resources. An initiative to provide technology was initiated in May which is too late for some children to access home learning during the Summer semester.

Children with specific learning difficulties/SEN are affected disproportionately by school closure as traits or symptoms of many conditions are worsened by stress, uncertainty, disruption to routines, lack of structure and lack of social and individual educational supports. Those with statemented SEN are exempt from the post-primary process but there have been further delays in the statementing process for some children during lockdown. Children with SEN who require access arrangements for the tests may find it more difficult to get appropriate arrangements in place as primary schools usually help parents with the process and paperwork.

Parents’ own levels of education vary as does their natural ability to teach. The Sutton Trust* research points to parents own level of academic achievement as an indicator of how able they are to direct their child’s home learning*. Even teachers find it trickier teaching their own children.

Parents have been co-opted by the State to provide education. This shift in the balance has put some parents in the difficult situation where their work opportunities are unequal to other adults due to having children versus not, or being a single parent, or being the parent with the majority of care responsibilities which seems to affect women disproportionately.

There is inconsistency in the methods, platforms, and quality of remote learning provision. The ETI (Education and Training Inspectorate) would usually inspect quality standards inside schools but this service has been interrupted. A recent ETI review of remote learning indicated that almost half of pupils in some post-primary schools were not engaging in remote learning.

Teachers and principals face an unprecedented crisis and have worked very hard to adapt to novel techniques and technologies. Teachers also have varying home access to technology, resources, and varying levels of experience with remote learning techniques. Many have their own care responsibilities whilst trying to work from home. On return to school, it is unknown how many teachers will return, some may be shielding or face other COVID-related barriers.

Many parents are working from home or in essential services. Some children are disadvantaged by the amount of time their parents/carers have available to support learning.

Some parents are facing redundancies and financial hardship, the true extent of which is becoming apparent as the end of furlough and social support draws near. Children live with families as a part of wider society. External financial stressors have knock-on effects in kids. If families struggle to meet basic needs like food and safe shelter, education, especially test preparation may not be an imminent priority.

Many can no longer depend on grandparents or other forms of childcare. Some families are struggling to fund suitable childcare for children who may not be in school fulltime from August. Most childcare does not offer educational support.

Some families will be directly affected by illness or loss from Covid-19.

Some children will experience new or exacerbated mental and physical health challenges due to social restrictions, underlying conditions or inability to access routine health appointments. Devora Kestel, the head of the W.H.O.’s mental health department, said the world could expect to see a surge in the severity of mental illness, notably in children and health care workers. Testing and selection is excess stress, in already uncertain times, that is unnecessary and avoidable.

There is no public health consensus on the social restrictions that will be in place in November and December 2020. There is no detail yet from AQE or PPTC on infection control procedures in place at test venues. It is unclear whether test providers AQE/PPTC or the test centre venues (predominantly state-aided schools) are liable for any resulting civil or criminal litigation. At present, a ‘bubble’ model has been proposed for school restart. Previous test arrangements see hundreds of children from different schools sit together in post-primary school venues and overfill centres to sit each paper on up to 4 separate days. Some children may be shielding, and some may miss papers if they exhibit symptoms of COVID- 19, whether they test positive or not.

The Department of Education (DE) claim that the transfer test, as an unregulated test provided by private companies, is beyond the DE or EA’s control. It is our belief that the test is so integral to the overall transfer process into EA funded grammar schools that decisions not to address it meaningfully are in effect a failure to act in the best interests of children.

The Coronavirus Act 2020, specifically Schedule 17, allows temporary removal or relaxation of statutory requirements and timescales. We ask the education minister to delay the test date to after March 1st 2021.

Other NIE departments have moved mountains to protect the health, well-being, and equal opportunities of people in Northern Ireland. We are calling on the DE to make commensurate efforts to ensure that every decision, action, and inaction, made about this year’s transfer process regards the best interests of the child as paramount, in accordance with their responsibilities under the UNCRC Article 3.

If the tests are not able to be postponed to after March 1st, then proper and consistent admissions criteria must be agreed by post-primary schools under guidance from the DE.

Please visit our concern group to view the alternatives we have suggested.

Whatever criteria are used, we suggest the following mitigations:

The EA  grant temporary variations to all oversubscribed schools.

Issue clear advice to encourage parents to select the school that is the best fit for their child and their family's circumstances. Teachers will have already given parents indications on this and will continue to in P7.

We believe that if schools take a broader mix of abilities for one year, during a crisis, they will be able to teach to ability.

Proximity is not the most heavily weighted sub-criterion at most schools. The idea that selection by wealth could be exacerbated by people relocating to be nearer schools, during one contingency year is very, very unlikely. An arguably better way to address selection by wealth would be to ask some grammar schools to waive or reduce the 'voluntary' contributions pupils pay.

Schools can work together to agree consistent criteria. We ask the EA to model these scenarios and agree non-academic selection criteria that will allow optimal post-primary transfer of all children whilst keeping the best interests of children at its heart.

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