Six counties that retain the 11-plus

As 11-year-olds in England and Wales prepare for new national tests, Fran Abrams visits Northern Ireland, where an accident of history preserved a selective system abolished elsewhere
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The Independent Online
This month 600,000 pupils in England and Wales will sit down to take the first ever nationally administered tests for all 11-year-olds. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, pupils are already preparing for the tests they must take next year.

The papers drawn up to assess these different groups of children are very similar, with each covering the requirements of the national curriculum in English, maths and science. But there is one big difference: in Northern Ireland, they are used to select pupils for the grammar schools which still exist in most areas of the province.

At Cairnshill Primary School in Belfast, parents expect their children to work towards the tests for several months beforehand. Although the two papers are taken six weeks apart in October and November, they are already anxious.

"We are under a lot of pressure from parents," says Lynne Campbell, one of the teachers who takes final-year classes at the school, which is based on a new private housing estate where expectations are high. "If the children don't start their test work next week, questions will be asked."

While selection is far less of a hot political issue in Northern Ireland than it is in England, most of those involved agree that the tests have a major effect on the later stages of primary education. At Cairnshill, pupils will take two practice papers each week in the run-up to the tests, and teachers will spend much of the remaining time going over the answers with them. Later on, there will be revision work to do at weekends in addition to the regular daily homework, which is also geared to the tests.

Even then, many parents will not be satisfied with the work the school sets for pupils. The area is "tutor-mad", Lynne Campbell says, and some pupils will have private tuition twice a week. Cries of "But my tutor says ... !" are common in the classrooms at Cairnshill.

An accident of history allowed Northern Ireland to retain the selective system that used to exist all over the United Kingdom. In 1977, ministers announced their intention to eliminate selection at 11 plus and gave the province's education and library boards two years to plan how they would make the change. But in May 1979, the Conservatives were elected and the proposal was dropped.

Even so, time has not stood still in the past 16 years. Two years ago, the old verbal reasoning tests were replaced with the current variety based on the national curriculum, a change that seems to have led to an increase in the market for private coaching.

This week the Department of Education for Northern Ireland launched a consultation on further changes which would increase the number of 11- plus grades from four to seven and cut the comments that primary schools are able to make on pupils' transfer forms sent to secondary schools. This would ensure that selection is based as far as possible on exam grades alone.

Ministers must also decide soon how to assess what national curriculum level pupils have reached at 11. They must choose between three options: a further test, to be taken in the spring after the 11-plus, the existing classroom-based assessment or a mixture of the two.

There is little flexibility within the system, although children who have been ill or had other problems during the tests can cancel their first attempt and try again without ever knowing their original results. Grammar schools must select on the basis of test results and can only take other factors into account when choosing between pupils with the same grade.

Of the 26,000 children who transfer to secondary schools each year, 18,000 take the tests. A quarter of the entire cohort are awarded an A-grade, 10 per cent gain B, 10 per cent C and 55 per cent D. An A guarantees a grammar-school place and a B or a C may win one, but a D almost always means a child will go to a high school instead. About a third of pupils go to grammar school.

More pupils in Northern Ireland leave school with five or more A-C grades at GCSE than do so in England and Wales - 49 per cent, compared with 43.6 per cent. However it is hard to assess whether the school system or the province's strong belief in the importance of education is responsible for this - and it must also be noted that a higher number leave with no qualifications at all.

There are a few alternatives available to parents. In recent years the province's integrated schools, which are non-selective, have been seen as the next best thing to grammar school and have attracted many children who just failed to make the grade.

For those living in the Craigavon area, there is a completely different system, known as the Dickson Plan. Here, children do not take an 11-plus test but transfer to junior high schools instead. At 14, the most academic pupils transfer to senior high schools and the rest have the chance of attending a technical school.

But there does not seem to be a huge number of parents in the province looking for alternatives. On the whole, they seem to accept the system and there is no strong lobby pressing for a move to comprehensive education.

Teachers' unions, on the other hand, are less keen on the status quo. Brian Gilliland, principal of Cairnshill, says many teachers would like to see something like the Dickson Plan implemented across Northern Ireland. "But the grammar school system is so entrenched in this part of the world and the lobby for it is so strong that it is difficult to see it breaking," he says.


Christine Magill did an hour's work every day during her summer holidays last year in preparation for her 11-plus tests, the first of which took place in October. Her efforts paid off and she emerged with a grade A.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Christine did not have a personal tutor. She revised with her parents, using work set by her school and the practice papers that are available from most corner shops and garages in Northern Ireland.

But she admits that sometimes it was hard to keep up the effort: "I hated it at the time. My friend was always sitting out on the swings, calling to me, and I had to do my work. But she didn't pass."

Now she will go on to Strathearn Grammar School in Belfast, whose prep department she attends - 25 of the province's selective state schools have fee-paying junior schools attached to them.

She admits she was nervous about the results. But despite the school's calm and supportive attitude, some others were much more worried, according to Penny, Christine's mother.

"There was an awful lot of hype amongst some of them. Two or three weeks before the results they were getting upset," she said.

But she would not advocate a change to a comprehensive school system. "The grammar school and secondary school system is what we were brought up with over here. But I do feel that perhaps some sort of continual assessment could be brought into it rather than having it dependent on two hours of exams. If the child has been doing well all through, that should be taken into account."


Olwyn Malcomson will never forget the day her daughter, Vicky, received her 11-plus results. Despite predictions that she would pass easily, she emerged with a D and with little hope of a grammar school place.

"Every time I looked at her, she would break down and cry. I could not believe people would allow children to go through this if they had seen the likes of my daughter. My heart was broken for her."

Both Vicky's primary school and the private tutor who helped her to prepare for the test were confident that she would do well. She is a bright girl who enjoys studying, and even in her worst moments she had imagined she might emerge with a B rather than with the A she had hoped for.

Olwyn says she would never have entered Vicky for the exam if she had believed she was not likely to pass. She withdrew her son, Ryan, now 13, because he was finding the preparatory work hard going. He is now thriving at a high school, but everyone believed Vicky was more suited to a grammar school education.

Now her mother believes Vicky must have been stricken with nerves. The night before the first test she had a sore throat and a high temperature, and seemed anxious.

Afterwards, the head of Vicky's primary school suggested asking for a re-mark of her papers, but this brought no change in her result. Her mother does not want to see selection ended, but would prefer a system under which children move on to either vocational or academic schools at 14 rather than at 11.

"If it were a driving test, Vicky would have the opportunity to sit it again."