Children's Mental Health is more important than Academic Achievement

I recently read this article, entitled, 'Why children's mental health is as important as academic achievement'. As a parent who has a child completing the N Ireland transfer tests this year I couldn't agree more. I would even go one step further and say my children's mental health is much more important than their academic achievement.

I did the 11+ myself many years ago and my older children went through it also. This year is my first brush with the new style transfer tests. For those of you not familiar with our transfer process from primary to post primary, this is what happens in N Ireland. Children are tested at age 10 / 11 and their scores determine whether or not they are eligible to attend our grammar schools. Until 2008, this involved children sitting the 11+, 2 tests a couple of weeks apart in their own schools. When this was abolished in 2008, grammar schools unofficially started using new tests to select pupils, the AQE and the GL. For many children this means completing 5 different tests on 4 consecutive Saturdays, often in 2 different grammar schools.

There is no doubt that our grammar schools in N Ireland produce excellent exam results. The current system of academic selection should mean that every child should has opportunity to attend a grammar school. Coming from a family with very limited means I personally benefited from a grammar school education, as did my brothers.

However, I know that some children's mental health has been detrimentally affected by undertaking these tests. I have spoken to parents who have watched their children struggle with serious anxiety triggered by exam stress. The number of counselling sessions delivered to children by Childline NI about exams is increasing every year. Ask any N Ireland GP and they will have seen children recently who are struggling with stress and anxiety related to the tests.Children are crying and even vomiting on the way to, or even during the tests. At age 10 or 11. That is simply not right! These children have brains and bodies that are still developing. And what about when the results come in? Children either get the required results, ie, they pass and are able to attend their school of choice or they fail and are not. Most parents work really hard to convince their children that it really doesn't matter and they will be loved no matter what. As a 10 or 11 year old can you really accept that? Or does 'I am a failure' become one of the core beliefs that affects you throughout your life. 

My late father was one of the most intelligent men I have ever met. However, as he frequently told us, he 'failed' his 11+. He was bullied in school and felt that this detrimentally affected his performance. However, even knowing that there was a context to this failure didn't help. He never really got over it. Even as a man in his 60s, he still felt like a disappointment. Was failing the 11+ an Adverse Childhood Experience? It isn't cited in any ACE study I've ever seen, but it most definitely was for him. It led to toxic stress, deeply affected his self esteem and the emotional memory of being a failure was often triggered in his life. He encouraged us to achieve academically and he was so proud that every one of his 3 children passed that dreaded test. 

Fast forward to this month and my daughter Cara. I have shared before how she dealt with anxiety a few years ago. The build up to the transfer tests was difficult and the anxiety seemed to resurface somewhat, especially when hurricane Ophelia decided to take the roof of our house with it! We should have been doing practice tests and spending precious family time together. Instead we spent weeks freezing, unable to access our upstairs bedrooms, sleeping on blow up mattresses and moving buckets and blankets around to soak up the leaks. We moved into rented accommodation a few days before the transfer test, which was again stressful and difficult. I was already feeling pretty stressed, but I also worried constantly that the whole situation would be too stressful for Cara and would undo the amazing progress she had made over the previous years. I spent a lot of time reassuring her, helping her feel grounded, safe and secure. This wasn't easy as I wasn't feeling entirely grounded, safe and secure myself!

She got through the day of the test OK. I think one of the things that helped her most was that she had been told again and again that it was optional. We are lucky that our local secondary school is great and she would be happy to go there. This meant if, at any point, even on the morning of the test she didn't want to do it, there would be no questions asked. This helped her feel safer and the test to feel less scary. I wonder what it would have felt like for her had that not been an option. I wonder if there are children who's mental health will be detrimentally affected in the long term. I wonder if there are children, who, like my daddy, will go through life with a sense of being a failure. 

I am not an educational expert and I have no suggestions for an alternative to the current process. The above is simply my personal experiences and reflections on the process of academic selection in N Ireland. I know that some children will breeze through the transfer tests. Others will find it a little bit scary, but manage it OK and learn a lot in the process. I also know that parents can choose not to register their children for it. However, there are simply too many children to ignore, for whom the impact of the current process of academic selection will be an Adverse Childhood Experience.