AQE and lessons learnt along the way

After going through the AQE transfer process for the second time, I thought it worth sharing some of what I learnt from the whole experience.For those of you who may be unfamiliar with AQE, let me explain in brief. AQE stands for Association of Quality Education. It is used to refer to the transfer tests that P7 pupils in Northern Ireland take to gain a place in our local grammar schools, and when I refer to it here, I am also including the GL tests which many children also take. We used to have an 11+ exam which all schools used and most children sat and whilst it wasn't ideal, many would agree it was better than this system we now have. Each November, 10 and 11 year olds across the country sit 3-5 tests, then wait for 2 months for a score before applying for school places and waiting 4 months to find out their educational future. It's been a rollercoaster and I am thankful we are finally done with it!Today we finally found out which school Conor will get to attend next year, and while we are delighted that he was happy when the letter was opened, I can't help but feel something else that I can't quite put my finger on. It hovers somewhere between anxiety, anger, frustration, disappointment, hopefulness and helplessness. I know I'm not the only one feeling this way today. And I know of many others who are still in that place, hoping that things will work out when the transition takes place. Praying for new friends for their child who won't get to transfer with their friends. And generally just wondering how on earth we got to a place that puts our 10 and 11 year olds under so much unnecessary (unacceptable?) stress and strain.So what exactly did AQE teach me?Well firstly, it taught me that our children are not defined by a score. Obviously no one ever defines their kids by a score, but it's amazing the power those numbers on the results letter in January had. We had tears as we processed higher scores as well as for friends who had scored lower. For weeks our children seemed to refer to these numbers as if they were the be all and end all. But I ask  you, how can a number add meaning to this?It will come as no surprise to anyone that another valuable lesson I learnt through this second time round is the value of friendships. I could not have come through this last few months without the incredible support of my friends, whether that support came in a text, a hug or a gin! And I know that the one thing that has sustained Conor has been his friendships, particularly with those who love him just for who he is. So thank you to all of you - you are truly angels sent from the Lord.The transfer process is truly awful for any child, but I don't really have the words to describe my experience of being an anxious parent trying to guide an anxious child through the last year. Maybe if you can just imagine feeling constantly on edge, waiting for the next meltdown and trying to be prepared to remain calm and not let your own insecurities come to the forefront, you might be able to begin to understand. And I know categorically that this is how so many other friends of mine have felt too. So I've learnt that we need to be gentle with ourselves and with our kids. My mum and sister will be howling at this, as this lesson is a serious case of don't do as I do, do as I say! Anyway, it has been the little things that have reassured us during these months. A kind word, a gentle hand of encouragement and taking comfort where we can find it are treasures to store in our hearts.Of all the observations I've made recently, perhaps none has resonated more with me than the need for each of us to embrace who we are and be ok with that. I have long ago accepted my own weirdness as a good thing! I no longer care what others think about my iMusic playlists and I have embraced my love of paranormal teen fiction (along with several of my closest friends, might I add!) That I choose to wear yellow shoes that look like I'm undergoing some sort of foot treatment bothers me not a jot! And I will keep trying to encourage both of my sons to do the same. You love cricket? You go play cricket. You want to make your own Lego WWI soldiers? You go for it! You want to dance along to the beat of your own drum? Be my guest!But if there is one thing that AQE has taught me more than anything else, it is this.Family. Is. Everything.The end. Beyond the people we love and live with there is little else that matters. It is these people who push us through when we are scared, and catch us when we stumble. They share our successes and failures without judgement. They couldn't care less what numbers are on a piece of paper or really what school we go to. They only care about us. Worries, warts and war wounds.So if you've been in the same boat as us this past year and have finally closed the door on possibly the worst experience imaginable for our children, then I salute you. That's a job well done!To those of you who have just started the process, maybe you'll take some comfort from this post and remember over the next year that your child is unique and amazing and that's all that matters. Because my son is this...But he is also this......and this.The beat he is dancing to is his and his alone. And we wouldn't have it any other way. PS:: The family photo and those portraits of Conor at the end are by Gather & Tides - they are amazing at celebrating their own family and I am so glad they captured ours last summer.