The Mental Health Challenge of the Transfer Test…

Helen Armstrong lives in the North West and is a psychotherapist, executive coach and trainer.

Many thanks to Arnold Carton for his article in January 2023 regarding the transfer test and why some kids give up because of being negatively impacted by the transfer test. I want to continue this conversation as a concerned mum.

I wait with bated breath for the results of the transfer test today. It’s a double whammy for me as I have twin boys, so double the worry as well – will they get into the school of their choice, and what if one does and one doesn’t?

Being a twin myself, it has taken me right back to my own worries about the test as an 11-year-old. I hated doing the test: I stressed and worried about failing, and this was compounded by having a twin sister and the worry of being compared. Luckily, I did pass, however, when I look back, I do remember the friends who didn’t and who received confirmation in black and white that they were officially ‘stupid’. I thought my youngest twin summed it up well himself when one day he said: ‘Mum, there are basically winners and losers in this test’.

You might be asking why on earth I have put my children through this; the obvious answer is that the school they liked the most is indeed a selective one, so I was left having to navigate the system as it still stands today.

These feelings and thoughts have been around since my first child did the test (I’m a mum of 5). I enjoyed the momentary relief of finding out he had got enough to get into his school of choice but then the news of course filtered through once again of all the poor critters not so lucky. I basically couldn’t get them out of my mind, and I had a gut feeling that this could not be good for their self-esteem and wellbeing. This scenario repeated itself twice with my second and third child.

My work as a psychotherapist and coach has continued to confirm my gut. I have had frequent enough conversations about the test’s negative impact; here are some examples of what I have heard:

‘I am one of the stupid ones’

‘I still doubt myself to this day regarding my intelligence’ (this was from a woman who had gone on to achieve a PhD!)

Recently, I undertook further training in trauma recovery; we looked initially at causes and diagnosis of trauma and not surprisingly, doing the test has come up as a traumatic ‘flashpoint’ in many peoples’ lives.

I agree wholeheartedly with Arnold’s advice to parents, how love and support through this event can be great antidotes. I have always played down the importance of the test; my narrative with my children has centred around saying things like ‘there’s no way 2 papers of 58 questions says anything about your intelligence’ and ‘you are far too young to be tested on anything’. I have always made it clear that I didn’t agree with it and why in the hope that this would help them if it all went wrong. Here’s hoping this strategy works for this Saturday.

Even so, I feel strongly enough to say that the psychological damage far outweighs any arguments for the test. People might ask me what we would replace it with, and my answer is simply as so; ‘I don’t care as anything is better than this madness’.

If principals of selective schools stopped worrying about their reputation through the lens of academic achievement, it would help to make the transfer test an irrelevancy and I applaud the few ex-selective grammar schools I know of that have taken the plunge and opted out.

If we want a healthy society, we need healthy kids who feel good about themselves with their ability to reach their full potential intact. The current transfer test does not add to this vision.

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