Will Theresa May’s support for grammar schools help or hinder schools sharing in Northern Ireland?

Now we know why Theresa May has been so vague about Brexit. All along she has been preoccupied with – grammar schools and lifting restrictions of faith schools especially Catholic schools!

Schools will be allowed to select children on the basis of ability at 14 and 16 as well as 11, Theresa May said today, as she outlined the biggest reform of the education system in 50 years.

The prime minister presented her plans to allow new and expanded grammar schools, as well as existing comprehensive schools in England, to start selecting by ability.

Mrs May mounted a passionate defence of selection in education, saying that it exists at the moment for the wealthy.

Starting a major attempt to convince the public and parliament to reverse the thrust of education policy since the late 1960s, when the tide turned against selection, she said: “99 per cent of existing selective schools are rated good or outstanding – and 80 per cent are outstanding, compared with just 20 per cent of state schools overall.

“So we help no one – not least those who can’t afford to move house or pay for a private education – by saying to parents who want a selective education for their child that we won’t let them have it.

“There is nothing meritocratic about standing in the way of giving our most academically gifted children the specialist and tailored support that can enable them to fulfil their potential. In a true meritocracy, we should not be apologetic about stretching the most academically able to the very highest standards of excellence.”

She insisted that there would be no return to the 11-plus or a “binary” choice between grammars and secondary moderns. This was “unfounded” because there is a diverse school share, from free schools sponsored by universities to faith schools.

Pupils in non-selective schools should also be able to join grammars for specific subjects or specialisms. Some £50 million a year is available to support the expansion of good or existing grammars.

. Northern Ireland doesn’t have to follow suit of course. But DUP Education minister Peter Weir’s decision to lift the ban on primary schools preparing for secondary transfer tests goes with the grain of grammars’ increasing popularity in spite of greater competition from non-grammars and the official disapproval of the Catholic bishops. The question now is, how will ambitions for schools sharing be affected?  A read across isn’t automatic  but if consolidation of the existing pattern of secondary education take priority, sharing  which is still in its infancy could be affected. And that would be a great pity.

, , , ,

  • Tony Gallagher

    She has a point about postcode selection, with house prices rising in the catchments of schools with reputations for high academic outcomes, even though the consequent social gaps in schools in England are narrower than the social gaps in Northern Ireland which are institutionalised through the selection tests. But her proposed solution goes in completely the wrong direction and will inevitably widen the variance in outcomes among schools. A different solution has been adopted elsewhere: in cities in South Korea the same problem of social differentiation was found, but the solution was to create large catchments, each of which had a number of schools, and allow parents to apply to get their parents into any of the schools in the catchment. Where a school was over-subscribed then entry was allocate don a random basis – this meant that parents, and the education system, was incentivisied to ensure that all schools in an area where of high quality. In a selective system, by contrast, which affluent parents are always better able to work, the incentives operates in a different way, enhancing the standing and reputation of what are seen to the the ‘best’ schools, at the expense of all the others.

  • mickfealty

    That’s borne out by personal experience Tony. I’ve lived either in or near selective areas in England. The Grammars themselves can be of highly variable quality, particularly if they’re in areas where they’re surrounded by much larger Comprehensive zones, which means there’s no effective competition (no one can say this about Belfast for instance). Nevertheless they do act as a magnate to the wealthy and aspiring middle classes (IDS’s strivers).

    May’s solution to the postcode lottery then is to scale them up, spread them and create a competitive edge. But what I don’t get is just how she plans to guarantee that there will, as Justine Greening claims this morning, be no return to the Secondary Modern (or Intermediates as we used to call them)? We know what that blight looks like, since we have them here in Northern Ireland, where, in theory, there are no Secondary Moderns.

    From a political point of view she’s playing a strong card particularly against slow footed, slow witted Labour party more entranced by it’s own internal contradictions, but John McDermott Public Policy Editor at the Economist doesn’t think it will be the huge deal everyone thinks it’s going to be right now. I’m not so sure. Sometimes it is the smallest strategic changes that can create the greatest disruption. I do agree with him on some of the mentality driving it’s probable voter popularity…


    It’s the byproduct of the change I object to rather than selection (which the comprehensives do undercover anyway) that I object to. That and the amateur tinkering that English politicians cannot ever resist getting into. UK education has improved over the last forty years in spite rather because of the political interference in the education system. The costs of doing such root and branch reforms are enormous, and I’m not just talking about investment streams, but the disruption involved in institutional memory/understanding.

  • hgreen

    Maybe if she increased pupil funding, increased teachers pay, reduced teacher workloads and reduced class sizes, you know just like what private schools do, there would be less of a problem.
    Teasie already showing she’s been promoted beyond her ability, blowing the usual dog whistles and with nothing new to say.

  • Croiteir

    A very welcome development which will no doubt be of benefit to the English people in the long run, especially to those gifted children wallowing in comprehensives. My own experience of the non selective system has been to confirm my view that it is a disaster for the gifted or those who wish to work. In England we now see the rule of the Eatonites. Even they recognise that this is wrong and potentially dangerous for their country. The nation needs to take and develop an elite, they need to come from all sections of society, a meritocracy. The demise of the grammar meant that the poor can no longer get the same quality of education the rich can, if they are capable of it. The destruction of the grammars led by an ideological agenda to acheive a political outcome rather than educational outcome by people like Tony Crosland was a power grab, centralisation and control was the order of the day. And it has failed the working classes as social mobility has fell. Those who can afford private schools now run the country as they did in pre war pre Rab Butler times. Labour and the socialists once again harmed the people they claim to represent.

    Which neatly takes me to another issue. I take exception to the tone of the opening line about May being preoccupied. Rab Butler and Churchill were planning their reform during the war. Was that preoccupation or sensible planning, do you need to concentrate on Brexit without any consideration for other issues if you do not wish to be labelled as preoccupied. It is that sort of bordering on diatribe that detracts from the argument and is harmful to meaningful dialogue. So why do it?

    The last line also shows the real reason for the piece. It reveals that the concern is not for the educational outcome for childen primarily. It is ideological. It is the letsgetalongerists revealing their intolerance. The integrated education sector will see this as a threat. Especially if dem Ketlicks start building schools. They are not interested in true pluralism and diversity, they want homogeny, but their homogeny. And if they start doing building Ketlick schools in England it will be increasingly hard to stop de Ketlicks doing it here.

  • Mega Kensei

    Not sure she is playing a strong political card. Grammar schools are long enough ago in England to have a nostalgic air, divorced from the reality of it, to give it a cachet in some quarters. but the reality is – a percentage of strivers kids and Tory kids will fail as well as the rest. And that is a ticking time bomb under any grammar school policy, because having your child labelled a failure is really unpopular. There is a reason why they’ve been avoided to date.

    In the short term, she’s united a Labour Party that looked unlikely to unite on anything, and will have trouble in her own party over it.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I agree with the first part of your piece but am lost regarding the second part.

    Why would letsgetalongerists feel threatened by this? Indeed, do grammar schools not tend to be more mixed than comprehensives?

  • hgreen

    Anecdotes are not facts.
    Many other countries have far superior educational performance than the UK without having to resort to the use of grammar schools. This is a fact while your post is just a desire to return to the good old days when our economy required an entirely different set of skills.

  • Mega Kensei

    There is no research that show selection helps poor kids! Or an overall cohort! And you accuse people of ideology.

    Beyond parody.

  • Reader

    In England they aren’t comparing between selection and non-selection; they are looking into the difference between academic selection and postcode selection.

  • OneNI

    Catholics here have far to many school buildings here and the church leadership that is against selection. So there is no bar on Catholics building schools here (other than a lack of pupils)
    And the leadership will not be building grammars – indeed they are building schools e.g. in Lurgan to destroy existing grammars

  • terence patrick hewett
  • aquifer

    The streamed middle school system in Craigavon worked, so they scrapped it.

    They being people who went to Grammar schools.

  • Croiteir

    If the govt is advocating the building of faith based schools in England it becomes difficult for them to maintain their policy of discrimination against them in here.

  • Croiteir

    So why not get rid of A levels then?

  • Croiteir

    so free access to high standard of education targeted at those capable of getting benefit from it will not help poor children whose parents would not otherwise be able to afford it will not help them? I believe it would.

  • Croiteir

    That is their misguided policy, however that does not mean that schools will not need to be built in the future to meet demands

  • mickfealty

    She can get away with it whilst the Labour persists on ripping itself apart. [BTW, haven’t you been bucked out x 3?]

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Policy of discrimination?

    Magherafelt has just built a multi million pound bypass to accommodate the traffic caused by the educational apartheid of the town and cookstown.

    Compared to other parts of the uk/world you’ll find that the Catholic education system in NI leads a guilded existence.

    My wife is a practicing Catholic and a former teacher in an English Catholic school and is still perplexed at the practically (not theoretically) enforced level of segregation in the NI education system and the accompanying mind boggling expense.

    All criticism of the sectarian machine here is dismissed as either anti-Catholicism or (ironically) sectarian.

    In the meantime the residents of magherafelt enjoy the view of yet another new road and consequently the thusly constricted transport budget can’t afford a train station in templepatrick, muckamore or any number of commuter belt areas.

    So we get apartheid AND congestion for our taxes.

    And as for business rates….

  • Croiteir

    I am not au fait with the road system around Magherafelt however I find it hard to believe that the construction of any new road was done for the purposes of ameliorating school run congestion.

    The discrimination I refer to is not direct bias against but bias for a different sector which, in effect, makes one sector more favoured than others.

  • Croiteir

    If the govt is advocating the building of faith based schools in England it becomes difficult for them to maintain their policy of discrimination against them in here.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    The traffic in the morning in magherafelt is noticeably diminished in the summer.

    When the schools open it is unbearable.

    A large portion of this the importing of pupils from cookstown and if things are as they were in my day the ‘duplication of services’ regarding the school buses.

    A merger of st pius, MHS and the integrated school (with strategic sale of excess assets) could save money, allow money for building/expansion of schools in cookstown , expansion of st mary’s as well as streamling the bus services.

    The saved money on buses could be put into the translink kitty to alleviate congestion in Belfast (or build some ruddy train stations at the airports).

    Maybe there’d be some left over for an Irish medium school in maghera too.

    And as for the bypass…

  • Brian Walker

    Tony, The Korean system which Id never heard of seems v interesting. But how about taking up Ken Baker’s project, of technical colleges which vie for parity of esteem with grammars?.

  • AntrimGael

    As someone who attended a top Catholic grammar school I can confirm that they are elitist, snobbish and middle class obsessed. They are your great friend when you churning out and gaining 10 A* and A’s to boost their ‘school rating’ but the minute you struggle or dip they are hostile, cold and don’t want to know. I recall my headmaster, a so called man of the cloth and faith, whose first question he put to you was “And where would you be from?” If you replied that you lived in a working class area he would screw up his eyes and nose and treat you with contempt. If your da wasn’t a solicitor, teacher or top civil servant and you didn’t live in a semi or detached he took an instant dislike to you. That’s grammar schools!

  • Tony Gallagher

    Countries which have strong, that is highly regarded, vocational education tracks tend to be ones where the vocational track leads to clear and desirable outcomes. In some places this is a direct link into employment, whereas in others there is a route towards technical universities. In many places students follow broadly the same curriculum up to the end of compulsory education and then opt for vocational or academic routes, with both providing clear outcomes towards higher qualifications.

  • Madamarcati

    This will always be a problem for any community subscribing to belief in merit. Any meritocracy will let the weak drop while those with ability are nurtured as the proper winners in the economic race. The school system is always going to be a reflection of how society is structured.

  • Mega Kensei

    The Labour Leadership contest / seemingly endless self harm exercise will end this month. I’m not sure it makes strategic sense to give them an issue that will immediately unite basically everyone in that party except Kate Hoey. Especially when there’ll be trouble in your ranks over the issue.

    Welcome to one of the key lessons of internet security: blacklists don’t really work. I did find the ban hilarious given the context and the fact it was a genuine question. It’s good that I can still get under the skin, though.

  • mickfealty

    As you well know I like to give a sucker and even break…

  • Mega Kensei

    That’s the Tory line. It’s a good lie.

  • Mega Kensei

    Today’s PMQs suggests maybe not.

  • Reader

    So good that it was swallowed by the Guardian:
    If only the true believers would stick to the script!
    If only the preferred narrative was internally consistent, eh?

  • Croiteir

    Ha, I, a brickies son whose grandda was born in the workhouse, also went to a Catholic grammar and sat in a class with the sons of ambassadors, small farmers, labourers and all between and never did I suffer any discrimination. Yes they were elitist and rightly so, society requires elites. Otherwise we get leaders of mediocrity. Which takes me straight back to the malaise that besets northern nationalism.

  • billypilgrim1

    I attended a top Catholic grammar school, and I found it to be quite unlike what you described. I found they pulled off the remarkable balancing act of instilling in pupils both excellence of standards and a strong sense of egalitarianism.

    I’ve known schools that prioritise individual excellence and others that promote more social values, but my own experience is that it’s the Catholic ones that strike the best balance of both.

  • billypilgrim1

    “…the practically (not theoretically) enforced level of segregation in the NI education system…”

    What you call this “practical enforcement” is being carried out by parents.

    The reason we have the state/Catholic duopoly (notwithstanding the Integrated and Irish medium minnows) rather than just a state monopoly, is that the Catholic schools are generally really, really good. That’s why Catholic parents want to send their kids there.

    Where the state schools are as good or better than the Catholic schools, large numbers of Catholic parents send their kids there instead. (Eg. Methody or Victoria College in leafy south Belfast.) But there just aren’t many instances where the state schools ARE better.

    Your solution – ie to abolish the Catholic education sector – is far, far worse than the “problem”.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    That is NOT my solution to the problem.

    Were st pius, MHS and the integrated school merged (retaining the best aspects of each) then the money saved (and generated from selling the integrated school site) could be used to help the schools in magherafelt and cookstown.

    Catholics would still have st Mary’s, St Pat’s and St Colm’s to choose from in the area should they require education within the faith.

    In other countries this would be called common sense.

  • john millar

    I`m afraid that experience is not confined to catholic grammar schools
    Pupils at more than one Prod grammar schools are told not to come back for A levels after poor GCSE`s

  • billypilgrim1

    The point was a general one. I’m afraid I know nothing about the particular circumstances in Magherafelt.

    I just think a lot of well-meaning people don’t really get why people would defend Catholic education so jealously. And even when they try to, every motivation they can think of is malign.

  • billypilgrim1

    “Pupils at more than one Prod grammar schools are told not to come back for A levels after poor GCSE`s”

    Seriously though – what’s wrong with this?

    I mean, if someone has a proven record of not being academically able, why is it wrong to dissuade them from continuing down the academic path?

  • john millar

    Not a thing but bear it in mind when schools boast about A level achievements -get rid of the less able –boosts results

  • Kevin Breslin

    No effect whatsoever.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I ‘think’ I get it, i’ve taken on board the various opinions on slugger over the years which is why i’ve changed my stance somewhat over the years.

    That being said i draw the line at the current set up which is a plethora of schools when a smaller number would do and still fulfill the task at hand.

    As I stated earlier I am almost convinced that the current set up in msgherafelt has led to the building of the by pass, if true then how regrettable is that?
    All that lovely countryside ruined and the constant hum drum of traffic encroaches ever further into rural life.

    Not to mention the cost.

    I believe we can have Catholic education AND sensible fiscal policy (in theory, knowing stormont they’ll just blow it).

  • Mega Kensei

    Consider the number of options you can actually compare between.