Teachers and Selection in Northern Ireland

Alan Smith, Ursula Birthistle, Seamus Farrell

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned reportpeer-review

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The remit for this strand of the research was to assess the impact of the selective system in terms of its effects on teachers’ perceptions and expectations of pupils and on teacher motivation and performance. The research involved semi-structured interviews and focus group meetings with 50 Year 6 and Year 7 teachers drawn from 18 primary schools, and 50 post-primary teachers drawn from 38 case study schools.Main findingsPrimary school teachersThe concerns of primary school teachers are related mainly to the ‘backwash’ effect that preparation for the Transfer Tests has on the final two years of primary education. The majority of primary teachers stated that preparation for the Tests distorted the curriculum. It created problems for classroom organisation, particularly in relation to pupils who were not entered for the tests. There were reported instances of pupils not entered for the Transfer Tests receiving unequal or less attention than Transfer Test pupils. More generally, the reported evidence indicates that the Transfer Tests influence how teachers categorise pupils in the last two years of primary school. In addition, they said that the tests required them to adopt a narrow repertoire of teaching strategies. This included:· an emphasis on Transfer Test technique rather than the development of concepts;· a narrow focus on reading, comprehension and grammar in English;· neglect of creative writing in English;· compression of two year’s Mathematics into the period before the first Transfer Test;· teaching of Mathematics by rote and test technique;· teaching of Science by lecture and note taking rather practical experiments;· neglect of project work in History and Geography;· displacement of Art, Music and PE by Transfer Test preparation;· adoption of more didactic teaching methods.The majority of teachers are critical of out-of-school coaching for the following reasons:· coaching is primarily focused on the development of ‘technique’ for the Transfer Tests rather than broader educational goals and ‘conceptual development’;· coaching ‘hothouses’ borderline pupils who may later not be able to keep pace with academic demands in grammar school;· coaching is a commercial activity, so children from less affluent backgrounds are less able to afford it and are therefore disadvantaged;· parents may feel they are depriving their children if they do not receive coaching;· coaching creates additional and unnecessary pressures on pupils.In terms of primary school teacher motivation and performance, a dominant theme in the interviews with primary teachers related to frustration generated by competing demands to prepare for the Transfer Tests, fuelled by parental demand, and desire to provide a broad and balanced curriculum as required by the statutory curriculum. The majority of primary school teachers reported dissatisfaction with the amount of time they felt compelled to spend on preparation for the Transfer Tests. This included curriculum time spent in administering and marking practice papers. There is some evidence to suggest that certain teachers ‘specialise’ in Transfer Test preparation in some schools. Many teachers referred to ‘emotional demands’ associated with the Transfer Tests. Many teachers referred to the demoralising effect of working with pupils who are entered for the Transfer Tests but have little prospect of success. Primary school teachers also identified the period after the announcement of results as particularly difficult, especially in dealing with the majority of pupils and parents who have been disappointed in not securing a grammar school place.Secondary School TeachersTeachers’ perceptions and expectations of pupils are influenced by the view that most secondary school pupils arrive with a ‘sense of failure’ due to the Transfer Tests. This generates an emphasis on ‘rebuilding confidence and self esteem’ in the early years of secondary school. In addition, the teachers point to specific problems they feel are created by the selective system and the Tests:· many secondary school teachers consider that the curriculum often needs to be mediated at a different pace and pitched at a different level in terms of difficulty and relevance;· many teachers consider secondary school pupils to require a broader range of teaching methods to maintain motivation and discipline;Teacher motivation and morale is adversely affected by the perceived low status of secondary schools within society, and the many, and sometimes conflicting, demands which provided them with less certainty of purpose. Furthermore, many secondary schoolteachers felt that while that their job required a broad range of teaching skills, that this was generally undervalued.Grammar school teachersMost grammar school teachers regarded their pupils as arriving with a sense of achievement and readiness to learn. Two other categories of pupils were identified. The first are pupils who relax through a sense of achievement after the Transfer Tests and can be difficult to motivate. The second comprises pupils who are perceived to have difficulty meeting the demands of academic work: some attributed this to the effects of out-of-school coaching for the transfer Tests. Both categories of pupils were considered to be in the minority but readily identifiable. While many characterise teaching in grammar schools as relying more on didactic teaching methods, grammar teachers suggest that they face a number of specific pressures. These include:· increased demands to provide learning support for children with special needs due to a broader intake of ability in their schools since the introduction of open enrolment;· pressure related to academic demands and the need to secure examination results.A significant number of grammar school teachers had concerns that changes to the system of selection would increase the challenges they would face if required to deal with a broader range of ability within the same class.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherDepartment of Education
Number of pages58
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 28 Sept 2000


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