It’s amazing how much fuss the presence of 66 grammar schools in a small devolved nation like ours can create.

Ever since the introduction of the 11+ in 1947, we have struggled with finding some kind of education system in the province that pushes and stretches the more able, takes care of the weak, and provides aspiration for the middle ground.

Regrettably, the bridge over the very troubled waters of transfer tests still resembles the few wooden planks thrown over the Erne at Roscor, with only a lick of paint planned in the meantime.

When I say 'meantime', I’m of course referring to the latest shenanigans – that of the new ‘Schools’ Entrance Assessment Group’s’ new Single Transfer Test, starting in November, 2023.

In other words, the children who have just finished P5, will have the pleasure of being the first cohort to sit this test – an assessment where no practice papers or guidance have been issued.

So, here we go again.

This new assessment will replace the current system of two separate tests, one run by AQE and the other by PPTC.

AQE’s test is used mostly by the controlled or non-denominational grammar schools, and PPTC’s test – called the GL test – is mainly used by Catholic maintained grammar schools.

Of all the grammar schools in the province, four have still not decided whether or not to join this new system, and as yet, they are unnamed.

So what do we know about this new test? In many ways, there’s a familiar feel about them in that they will be held on two Saturdays, two weeks apart.

In November, 2023, that will be November 12 and 26. Each paper will feature both English and Mathematics questions, and there will be a mix of both multiple choice and extended written or open questions.

The test will cost £20 to do, but if you receive free school meals, it will be free.

There will also be an Irish language version, and as was widely reported, GL will provide the test, having been awarded a three-year contract which will run from 2023 to 2026.

So what’s the problem then? Well, it’s superficially at least quite simple: the Department of Education has been accused of keeping schools, parents and pupils in the dark about it.

What do those parties need to know, or what are the unanswered questions?

The main issue is that of preparation. From the first structured play in Foundation Year 1, through to the mock transfer papers, all primary education ultimately leads to this point.

From where I’m sitting, it’s not simply good enough to throw in a specification and let teachers get on with it.

Young minds need to know what the paper looks like, the way questions are asked, and the format in which they answer them.

This doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a process, and for the Education Minister not to equip teachers and schools, especially from Year 5, is in my opinion tantamount to recklessness.

Let’s not forget, these same children were just learning to speak a few years before this.

From a teachers’ point of view, it’s about support; what resources are out there; what methods are used to solve problems of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

In English, what emphasis is put on grammatical construction, and how will multiple choice be handled?

The list of unanswered questions is endless.

The question of bias is another thorny issue. Because GL are actually doing the exam, so another criticism of this new test is that pupils who attend Catholic maintained, Irish medium, integrated and controlled schools who now do the GL exam may have an unfair advantage.

Even GL’s existing exams’ page sizes, margins and fonts will have an air of familiarity; enough to arguably give young children enough to cling to in terms of familiarity.

It’s a valid criticism, and one which the Minister needs to address.

That’s one side of the process, but at the initial end, has there been enough consultation?

Ms. Naomi McBurney, from The Parent Engagement Group, thinks not, and was quoted previously in national media as having said “we don’t know what consultation was undertaken with primary school staff on the new arrangements and, if so, when this took place”.

She added: “Was there any consultation undertaken with parents on the new arrangements?

“In 2020, during a judicial review, the transfer test, although delivered by private organisations, was deemed to be an integral part of our education system.

“It is therefore essential that SEAG consult with all stakeholders on the transfer test process.

“While I understand, legally, selective schools can set their own entrance criteria, they have a duty of care to pupils, parents and school staff directly impacted by their decision”, she added.

In fairness, these comments have been partially allayed by Michael Carville, principal at Regent House Grammar School in Newtownards, and Chair of the SEAG, who has claimed that SEAG will make everything available in the coming months, but therein lies the problem – is that not a bit too late?

Minister McIlveen has not yet spoken directly to parents’ groups, but she has addressed the Northern Ireland Assembly – back in the days when there was one – to tell it that practice papers and such forth would follow, but not just yet.

For teachers that need to plan, for parents that need to get behind what their children are learning, and for schools to simply want to know what to teach and in what way, it’s all a little last-minute-dot-com.

One final thought. Let’s remember that the children who will be the first to sit this test, spent most of the early years of primary school being home-schooled by frazzled parents, supported by teachers, trying to get used to Google Classrooms or equivalent software that they were grappling with from a standing start.

These children, who have had their most formative years substantially diluted by Covid-19, and their recent years in bubbles not meeting many other pupils and teachers outside their own classrooms, now face a brand-new exam for which the teaching profession is still much in the dark about.

If this was a report, I think the Department of Education would get a very generous ‘could do better’ verdict on it.