EVER hear of ‘The Butterfly Effect’? It’s the idea that the tiny vibrations of a butterfly flapping its wings, multiplied by millions of others doing the same, can produce changes in the world’s weather pattern?

The whole argument is not one of leverage – that small things can be the final push for a major event – no, it’s the fact that in a really complex issue, the butterflies may have had a massive effect on the outcome, or none at all; no-one really knows.

This is something we can apply to education. Because of students not being able to do exams due to the pandemic, the slow, painful shelving of academic selection at 11 years old has resulted.

This rather accidental massive change to the landscape of society in Northern Ireland (Northern Ireland) may or may not be as a result of the ‘butterfly wings’ of the pandemic, but as sure as night follows day, it has created an uneasiness for supporters of the transfer test, and things will not be the same afterwards.

For what it’s worth, NI remains one of the few areas in the world that decides students’s pathways for life at 11 years old, and yes, the two major parties have opposing views on it ... we’d expect nothing less.

Putting the rights and wrongs of the selection issue aside, the immediate victims in all of this hokey-cokey of testing are the very children who are being assessed.

Those pupils who at eight years old – yes, eight – start their journey of preparing for life via one of two routes, and they have just over two years to do it.

True, there are some comprehensive systems out there, but the norm is that you go to either a grammar or non-selective secondary school.

The routine is this. Pupils enter Year 5, follow the curriculum ("but a bit tighter, with one eye on what the transfer test requires", as one primary school principal put it).

There’s a chicken and egg situation here, of course. The transfer test is modelled on the NI Curriculum, so the whole thing is two sides of the one coin, but the extra work comes in teaching the subtleties of how questions are worded and how content is prioritised – at 10 or 11 years old, clarity is king.

Roll on one year later to Year 6, and usually some time after Christmas or as late as Easter, schools start offering up to twice weekly after-school classes in transfer work.

This is the beginning of the intense period of the triple anxiety faced by parents, pupils and teachers.

During this time and the weekly past papers required to be completed over the summer, it’s the beginning of a relentless eight or nine months of stress for all concerned until the winter of Year 7, when the children sit the exams.

Of course, NI being as it is, there are two transfer tests – one each mostly for ‘them' and one for 'us'.

That’s the long and the short of it, but like everything else, the devil is in the detail, and my goodness, this one is the full, bright-red emoji with fiery horns and triple-spiked blivet.

Why is the detail so troublesome? Let’s start with Year 5, and to quote a teacher of that year group, "There’s a momentum that starts to grow at this stage, primarily by parents and always one filled with anxiety".

The little digs and spikes start to be made across the bows to teachers at parents’s evenings, or in the case of one local teacher, in the Slow Lane of the Lakeland Forum swimming pool.

This usually takes the place of, "I’m sure you’ll remember that Suzie is weak at spelling ... but I know you’ll have that sorted by the time the transfer work starts next year ... we were just saying at home, what a good teacher you are".

You get the picture. Subtle little threats, woven between fake compliments.

By the time of June in Year 5, every eight- and nine-year-old is now fully aware of what the transfer test is, how much work is involved in opting for it, and that they’ll have been told onehundredfold times they will need to knuckle down hard next year.

As we know, of course, never in the history of knuckling down has being told to knuckle down had any effect on those most needing to knuckle down.

Instead, the conscientious become even more stressed, and the de-knuckled-downers continue on their merry way with unbruised hands.

Year 6 sees a split, ‘the wheat stay after school and the chaff don’t’, as one parent cruelly told me – and to quote Grumio in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, "thereby hangs a tale".

The split between the perceived educationally haves and have-nots has started, and the children feel it.

The word ‘perceived’ must be emphasised. Deciding a child’s academic pathway at 11 is proven to be dangerously flawed – let’s never forget that every child’s star shines at a different time.

That aside, it must be said that schools go to great pains to ensure that no difference is shown to those who are syphoned off for the transfer test, and those who aren’t.

That comes mostly from parents who inadvertently add to the stress by cancelling all but the essentials of life – eating, breathing and playing golf until their nearest and dearest has "this dreadful transfer test out of the way" – so ‘dreadful’, they remain the main architects of its retention.

This cycle has remained in place years upon years until the pandemic struck, and now the middle classes are stuck with knowing what to do with grammar schools who can’t use academic selection as a means of post-primary admission.

This has created a different set of unfairness in society, giving places to those who live in the right catchment area or who have siblings at a place at their chosen institution, while others, who in some cases are deemed to be more academically meretricious of being at a grammar school, miss out.

The situation is now precarious. A few more years of not using academic selection may well change society’s feelings on it, so perhaps now is the time for some brave politicians and decision-makers to start flapping those little wings of theirs.