Parents will have last word on Grammar schools

Newton Emerson compares the impending reform of the education system – ie the plan to abolish the eleven plus and move towards a comprehensive system – with the coercive integration of black and white children in Kentucky. The Catholic school system, which has already embraced the concept, may be the first victim, as parents move their children to non Catholic Grammar schools in pursuit of the best education on offer.By Newton Emerson:

Last November I spent five days in Louisville, Kentucky, a city of a quarter of a million people – and there wasn’t a soul to be seen. The sprawling centre was utterly deserted, with whole buildings simply missing, bizarrely reminiscent of an early-evening control zone in 1980s Belfast. This is the legacy of ‘busing’, the forced racial integration of Louisville’s schools.

Since 1975 white children have been sent to black schools and vice versa, by bus and by quota, regardless of the child or the school. As a result everyone who can afford it – black and white – lives outside the city boundaries. At the downtown offices of the Louisville Courier-Journal busing was the first thing the editor explained to us – the key to understanding his city.

At the offices of Mayor Jerry Abramson we learned of his campaign to extend those boundaries out beyond the ‘white flight’ suburbs in an attempt at reintegration. Nobody knows if it will work. No ideology, creed or policy yet devised has ever stopped people trying to do the best for their children at a purely individual level.

This is the fact that must be acknowledged now in Northern Ireland as our own education system faces imminent change. The cosy consensus of the present arrangement is coming to an end, exposed by early moves towards comprehensive schooling in the Catholic sector.

The paradox that has emerged is this: we are told that it is wrong for schools to select children by academic ability. At the same time, we are told that it is right for schools to select children by religious belief.

As both these moral arguments are based entirely on the advantages or disadvantages of selection, both cannot simultaneously be true. Where tribal integrity is at stake the people of Northern Ireland will generally accept contradictory positions – but where education is at stake, even the people of Northern Ireland will break rank in numbers.

The recent upsurge in Catholic enrolment at state grammar schools proves it, but this may only be the start of our own ‘white flight’. In Britain it has long been considered normal to move house to be near a good school, even if it means less space for more money. This will happen here. In much of England it is normal for families on average incomes to pay for private schooling, even if it means no money for anything else at all. This will happen here too.

The Department of Education, the maintained and controlled sectors, the churches, the political parties and the teaching unions can believe, say and do whatever they like. Everyone else will do everything they can to get their children into the best school possible – even if they have to build it themselves.

In Louisville people would be amazed to learn that our authorities plan to resolve the selection paradox by abolishing state grammar schools. Coerced integration wouldn’t work in Northern Ireland any better than it worked in America but coerced segregation won’t work either – because the issue for most parents is not integration or segregation, but coercion itself. Vested interests in the present system are already struggling to maintain their agendas.

Disgracefully, schools have been exempted from fair employment legislation. The Catholic church actively lobbies against the voluntary integrated sector. Clerics and councillors stuff the boards of state schools, terrified that mixed enrolment will dilute their unofficial ‘Protestant ethos’. Politicians who shamelessly compare themselves to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela promote segregation and hiring practices straight from Wallace’s Alabama and de Klerk’s South Africa.

Asking parents to accept all this and a failed comprehensive model as well is an ideological step too far – and how ironic that the maintained sector should be the first to feel the squeeze, having single-handedly created the Catholic middle class whose aspirations it now scorns.

Most ironic of all is that Northern Ireland already has a working compromise between Catholic, Protestant, grammar and comprehensive in Craigavon’s Dixon Plan. For over 30 years the children of Craigavon, Portadown, Lurgan and Banbridge have been selected by subject-based examination at the age of 14 after three years in comprehensive junior high schools. This ideologically impure system is successful and hugely popular – but only with parents, so during the Costello Report consultation the Department of Education completely ignored it.

Alas for those unable to buy their way out of the coming catastrophe, the Department of Education is about to learn that it is only what parents want that matters.

First published in the Irish News.