On the peril of losing Grammar schools

I’m not sure the headline of this piece on Grammar school education is borne out in the body of the article, or in reality, where nationalists in general have been slow to defend Grammar schools in face of their pending abolition. But the figures quoted by Tom Peterkin are interesting, in that they show greater working class educational achievement in Northern Ireland than in Britain.

International studies have revealed that 75 per cent of 17-year-olds in Northern Ireland are still in full-time education or vocational training compared with 60 per cent in England. Studies have shown that 32 per cent more children from Northern Irish working class areas go to university than those from a similar background in England. Seven per cent more pupils in Northern Ireland achieve five or more GCSEs than in England. Under the point scoring system used by UCAS, Ulster university candidates average 90 compared with 75 in England.

So is this a case of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”? With the formation of a new group, the Association for Quality Education, today, expect to see much more of this issue in the coming months.

  • Crataegus

    BRA is an excellent school with mixed religious and social intake. Billy Young is right to fight these proposals, his school is inclusive and does provide opportunity for everyone of ability.

    I am not a great fan of the 11 plus but believe that much of the disadvantage that children suffer is due to the lack of suitable skills of the parents. Children learn from their parents and if the parents don’t know granite from limestone nor will the children unless the schools teach them.

    I think the better way to proceed would be to invest in Primary Education in areas of poor attainment. Provide breakfast clubs, homework clubs and lower pupil teacher ratios than the norm. We need to provide support for these children and build their self esteem as some may not be getting support at home. Let’s raise the standards rather than reduce them. Perhaps we need to have a look at the exam itself as some aspects of it did strike me as inadvertently class orientated.

    There is an over provision of schools due to falling birth rates and considerable opportunity to rationalise the whole structure of education so that more money is invested where it is most needed.

    Has anyone thought what selection by area will actually mean? Schools in the inner city, which don’t opt out, will be working class sink schools. Class and religious divisions will increase. How will some bright lad or girl from the Shankill or the Falls have improved opportunities by this proposal?

    The SDLP and SF could do with wakening up to the consequence of these proposals. Look to England to see the problems and learn from their mistakes.

    This is the time of year for school open days I can clearly remember the difference in ethos of schools such as Methodist College with its professional middle class parents and the Model school with its weary working class parents, cheap cloths, bad hair does, younger children in toe. In grammar school aspires to sending pupils to University to study medicine, law, …….Home Economics is about healthy diets, and health care. In the secondary schools the RAF, PSNI and Army feature high in the Careers Office and Domestic Science puts much more emphases on raising children. I may be wrong but, I felt the ethos of these schools could improve and they could widen their horizon somewhat. After all it is not the solicitors and business consultants that make the world go round but the Engineers and mechanics. There is nothing lesser about practical skills.

  • Baluba

    ”This is the time of year for school open days I can clearly remember the difference in ethos of schools such as Methodist College with its professional middle class parents and the Model school with its weary working class parents, cheap cloths, bad hair does, younger children in toe. In grammar school aspires to sending pupils to University to study medicine, law,…..”

    they didn’t teach you how to spell ‘clothes’ though did they?


  • willis

    Well obviously I wasted my time getting an Honours Degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering!

  • susan

    I would find the grammar school advocates such as Robert McCartney much more convincing if they put forward a convincing argument for keeping ‘secondary schools’ rather concentrating on the benfits of attending grammar schools. These schools are the other half of the current selection system. Currently too many children leave these underfunded, second class schools with no qualifications. Considerable investment has been put into primary schools, grammar schools have a very effective lobbying system; secondary schools are the forgotten part of our schools system.

  • Are there any comparisons to the education systems north and south? The south’s seems broader with more subjects, often a transition year, and a fierce points race. The comparison with Britian is lazy and partitionist. Compare like with like 🙂 .

    I specialised in school work when at boys grammar school in the north, and have had to catch up ever since, though due to good academic results I have been given some lee way for my lack of social/community/communication graces, engineering/computers just underlined/excused my unsocial bias.

  • Michael Paul McAlonan

    Speaking as someone who has worked in the rapidly shrinking manufacuring base in Northern Ireland it has been pretty obvious that while our schools can produce enough lawyeres and solicitors to go round they are unable to teach a significant proportion of our population to read write and add up. I have had to sit with forty year old semi skilled workers and explain to them that if they do not learn to spell to make their shift reports legible that they will have to be moved to a lower grade. I am talking about people with good minds and mechanical aptitude who cannot write or spell.
    The problem with listening to people who write into newspapers is that those who cannot write are ignored.

  • willis

    Let me see now

    75% in full time education at 17

    11+ pass rate at grade A 25%

    66.66% misdirected

    Oh Dear!

  • Crataegus


    “they didn’t teach you how to spell.”

    They tried, and tried in the traditional manner. I got 10 of the best first thing every day in Primary School, brute force seldom works. Dyslexia was not something they considered in my days. I started school at well over 7 with a poor grasp of English due to spending most of my early years in foreign parts. I hated every minute I spent there. It was boring, repetitive and brutish.


    I agree with what you say but still believe more resources need to be spend in Primary schools in areas of poor attainment.

    Agree greater priority should also be given to good provision in Secondary schools. True the Grammar Schools can look after themselves and often with bright children it is competition and setting high expectations that are as important as resources and with lots of middle class parents willing to contribute additional funds they will continue to do fine.

    There is no doubt in my mind that we need to raise the standard and ethos in secondary schools I know what it is like to be expected to do poorly, can’t spell in my time meant stupid. I get the feeling in our secondary schools that reminds me of my Primary School days they exude a feeling of low expectations, narrower horizons.

    Though deeply flawed there were some good ideas in the Burns report and I think you need a greater flow between the Grammar and Secondary sector for many children are wrongly allocated at 11.

    The problem with comprehensives is putting average children in with bright pupils does neither much good. The class is slowed down, the bright feel bored and the less clever are be made to look stupid.

    I think you need selection but am not so sure 11 is the right age. 14 would make a lot more sense to my mind but that is not what is proposed. I don’t think changing to something that we know will lower overall standards is the way to go but this needs proper consideration so we create a fair and rigorous system before we do anything.


    I did not mean to imply that Hons in Electrical and Electronic Engineering is a waste of time, quite the opposite. I think many of the children that go to Grammar are directed into peoples intellectual hobbies. My eldest is well qualified in a complete load of bull. Intellectual pursuit for the sake of intellectual pursuit is fine, I suppose, but I would rather there were more applied qualifications.


    I agree.

  • lib2016

    Garrett Fitzgerald did a piece on a similar subject two weeks ago in his Saturday column in the Irish Times.

    His main point was that Blair’s ambition (opposed by the Tories until Cameron changed the policy last week!) was to raise third level attainment rates to 50% of school leavers.

    The rate in the South has already reached 56% with definite ambitions from all parties to reach 66% as soon as possible.

  • hovetwo

    Is there any mileage in having streamed schools, where every child benefits from the “grammar school” rigour in terms of personal educational attainment, but the brightest and the slowest can work at their own pace? My old school adopted this practice and was able to turn out mechanics AND business consultants – they also adjusted the streaming periodically to take account of late developers and people who had a strong aptitude in one or two subjects.

  • willis

    As the debate unfolds this may be a key text.

    Sammy Wilson deploys the usual mis-representation and disinformation but is outflanked by a well briefed and committed Minister who appears to have more knowledge of the Shankill than him.

  • Crataegus


    Thanks for the link, and I agree Sammy is as ever Sammy.
    I thought the questions raised by Gordon Banks, Mr Fraser and Mr Anderson were more to the point, and caused difficulty.

    The system proposed relies on pupil profiles and I for one can see all sorts of problems with this. I actually think exams are fairer.

    Also the idea that parents select the most appropriate school belongs with Alice in Wonderland. It is obvious what is going to happen; Methodist College grossly over subscribed and picks who it wants.

    On the subject of poor attainment in areas like the Shankill and Education Action Zones Angela is less than impressive on tackling the root cause of the problem. By the time children get to Secondary school it is too late.
    Thought I would list some of the questions below.

    Q206 Mr Fraser: There seems to be a determination to impose the fundamental elements of the comprehensive system in Northern Ireland. That is the charge which has been laid. It goes against the wish of the people in Northern Ireland when you look at the statistics. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education Ruth Kelly are currently trying to mitigate the consequences of that failure elsewhere in the United Kingdom. How do you balance that?
    Angela Smith: I do not agree with your assessment of that.
    Q207 Chairman: I did not think you would.

    Q246 Lady Hermon: You seem extraordinarily confident about the success and usefulness of pupil profiling. Can you actually point to some evidence, whether it be international or whether it be in another part of the United Kingdom, where in fact it has actually worked and been successful?
    Angela Smith: It is very difficult to do so, because there is no education system like that in Northern Ireland anywhere else in the world.
    Q247 Lady Hermon: Are our children being guinea pigs?

    Q216 Mr Anderson: Just to be clear, did anything actually happen? Did anybody go in, because they do not say they did?
    Angela Smith: Yes, £2 million was earmarked and was put in and the Boards have had staff in place working up proposals. It is just that it came to us that we could do more, so the proposal was to have two in each Board area, but, with the announcement of new money, we can do more and extend it further.
    Q217 Chairman: Our witnesses told us that nothing happened for three years. You have effectively confirmed that.
    Angela Smith: Work was ongoing at Board level, as I understand it.
    Q218 Chairman: Come on.
    Angela Smith: A level of bureaucracy which can give money direct to schools would be more effective

    Q230 Chairman: But you do not have a clue.
    Angela Smith: No, it is not fair to say I do not have a clue; it is just putting an exact figure on it.

  • willis


    I think that Methody’s concern is that they will be oversubscribed and not allowed to pick who they want.

    Pupil profiles are of course the key to all this. That is why engaging parents is so important. Currently a lot of parents feel that Methody and BRA are not for the likes of them, even if their child is bright and would benefit from an academic education.

    Q247 Lady Hermon: Are our children being guinea pigs?

    Angela Smith: No, because we have a different system. We have to look at something which is right for Northern Ireland and the confidence I have on this is because I have had the opportunity to speak to CCEA, to look at the information, to see how it is working. We do have the opportunity, where we think there are deficiencies in it, to alter or change it, because it is an ongoing process until it comes into operation. I suppose the confidence I have comes from seeing the deficiencies in the current system which has enormous benefits but also is letting down a number of children as well.

    Q248 Chairman: I think your confidence is based on faith rather than experience.

    Angela Smith: In some ways it is, but it is experience of looking at how it is working. The reason we profile anything and pilot things is to see how effective it can be. I have been quite prepared, if I was not happy with the results of those pilots, to say “Forget it. We’re not going to do this. It doesn’t work”.

    Q249 Lady Hermon: How large is the pilot?

    Angela Smith: Fairly small at the moment; initially small though it has been extended.

    Q250 Chairman: How small is small?

    Angela Smith: About 20 schools at present. One of the things I was a little concerned about and I pressed the question of what kind of schools they were, whether they were schools where the parents would be the easiest to engage? I am sure that is not the case. I have seen evidence for myself. I have a school in my constituency where the primary head said pupils would not get their annual report unless parents came to receive it and talk. Every single parent except one went in and spoke to the head to get the report. In the same way, we can engage parents in pupil profiles in the most difficult areas, because you build up a relationship between the school and the parents and that in itself is important for the development of the young person in primary school.

  • willis


    Found this via wikipedia. Table at the end is fascinating. It explains poor achievement in Belfast Prod non-grammar schools and may explain why Govt is so determined to press ahead despite fierce opposition.

  • Crataegus


    It is an interesting link, but I am a bit worried about some of the stats. When figures are selected to suit the argument it raises alarm bells in my mind. From my personal experience I think there are major problems in the English Educational system. I also disagree that the problems in inner city Belfast are not on a par with say Tower Hamlets. Poor verbal skills, dire socio economic problems and ethnic divides.

    However I thought the comparison with Scotland was interesting.

    The Anomalies were EXCELLENT! But the conclusion disappointing; “The principle of selection is essentially unethical because it is based on individualism rather than personalism, sectional rather than the common good, centralism rather than subsidiarity, a preferential option for the rich rather than the poor.” Reads like a bad paper from the Socialist Workers Party.

    The misgivings that I have with the proposals are;
    1The personal profiles and potentially the subjective nature of these. I personally was not a popular pupil at Primary School and can imagine the sort of profile I would have been given.
    2Regrettably I believe educational attainment (with notable exceptions) is generally a reflection on the class and educational attainment of the parents as well as the individual pupils intelligence. That is why I believe you need massive investment in improving Primary facilities in areas where there is poor educational attainment. Basically you have to augment the skill of the parents and provide role models and increase aspirations.
    3I agree with your point about parents aspirations for their children, the fact that many are not even put in for the 11plus is an indictment against the schools and the parents. Parent selection of schools is potentially a deeply flawed concept as working class parents may not put their children forward and middle class ones are unlikely to accept that Nathan is perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
    4The idea of selection then being prioritised based on locality has me deeply worried as Lower Falls and Shankill become educational Ghettoes.
    5The curricula in many schools (Grammar Schools included) are not sufficiently varied and do not reflect the needs of this century. I know there will be a move to vocational content but I have some apprehension as to what is vocational and the need to relate subjects to the possible future needs of pupils and their personal development. I am also concerned at the decline in Science and Maths and the perception that all exams are not of equal rigor which encourages a drift from Science.
    6With falling pupil numbers the thorny problem of state, maintained and integrated (and Irish) really must be tackled because providing sufficient range of subjects is difficult with fragmentation. How can you possibly plan with this mess?
    7Leading Schools will find a way to opt out of the system and middle class parents will move to the areas with better schools, which will in itself cause further social decline in some areas.

    As you probably gather I am not over enthusiastic about retaining Grammar schools, but am worried that the proposals may in fact be worse and waste time and resources.

    I would be a lot happier if I saw a proposal that dealt effectively with 7 above and allocated some of the savings to sorting out 2 above. 11 years old is too late.

    Rather than the hokum about pupil profiles and the time it will inevitably waste I personally would prefer comprehensives and streaming by ability, but for that to work would require very large schools which would be difficult in rural areas. You also need to accept we have too many schools, and decide what are closing, and what are merging. You need to have a clear plan to ensure delivery of overall improvement. We don’t have that.

    If we must have them I would also like to see more consideration given to the pupil profiles and the potential for subjectivity and class bias. I am not from a wealthy background, but can clearly see the difference in opportunity that my children had compared to me. To take an example; daughter went to guides, did ballet and Irish dancing, played 3 musical instruments at grades 3 & 4, was in choirs, did sports and horse riding, travelled extensively, had a good knowledge of several llanguages, Art, Geography, Botany and History BEFORE she left Primary School. If personal l profile is pivotal to school selection what chance does a girl from Ardoyne have by comparison?

  • hovetwo

    Crataegus, I would be interested in your thoughts on how big a school would need to be before streaming works – I could imagine it working in schools where there were 50 or so pupils in each year – not easy in some rural areas but quite feasible in inner cities?

    Streaming seems a fair and flexible way of enabling children with different levels of ability to learn at their own pace – better than having sink schools and elite institutions, however children are selected for them. Pupil profiling sounds like ideologically-driven pish that will discriminate in favour of parents who have high aspirations for their kids, and encourage them to have the “right” hobbies etc.

    Parental aspirations have been shown to be a powerful factor in the success of children. In Chicago they have been allocating places in the best state schools by means of a lottery for many years – the results were summarised in the book Freakonomics. Children whose parents had entered the lottery on their behalf did much better than average, regardless of whether they managed to get into the best schools.

    As you say, trying to address the real problems of underachievement and wasted resources would require a coherent plan for developing the overall educational infrastructure of Northern Ireland, but I would have thought that schools could introduce streaming on a voluntary basis..?

  • Crataegus


    “I would be interested in your thoughts on how big a school would need to be before streaming work”

    Good question! I have no experience running schools, but I think the number would need to be at least 120 per year, (wild guess) unless you have separate 6th form colleges. With less than that I would imagine you would start to have problems with offering say 3 science subjects at A level or pupils would have to drop Geography to do History or similar choices.

    Needs to be high as you are going to have all abilities so will need at least two basic streams, but within that you are going to have pupils of different strength in different subjects and there is also a need to widen the subjects available. No one will be dtaking all the subjects available. Also unlike Grammar Schools a fair number will leave at 16 making A levels more problematic.

    How would such a school stream would it be by subject or by Class? This really is quite complex. .

    Another change I would like to see is the incorporation of trade apprenticeships. I would like to see a lot of trades such as joiners licensed into ‘guilds’ with an interest in training and I would like to see those trainees in the same schools. 2 days at school and 3 days on site. I would also like to see the A levels replaced with a wider range of subjects.

    One of the problems with streaming is that it will not get over the stigma of poor achievement and for some pupils a comprehensive may be worse. It is going to be very obvious who are the strong pupils and also who are not, but for the vast majority it has to be a fairer system.

    “Pupil profiling sounds like ideologically-driven pish”

    Daintily put and inclined to agree, and as you say parents are crucial to the child’s achievement.

    With falling enrolments schools are going to have to cooperate (some already do) to provide the proposed new syllabus, but you can’t really have voluntary streaming if there are local Grammar Schools removing the more fortunate.

    This is one area where we need clear, reasoned, policy decisions and I feel that what we are being offered is a confection. It fails to address some of the really difficult political issues like having parallel systems of state, maintained and integrated. Also if there are too many schools you need to make a decision to close some within a coherent framework. It is a muddle and it is plain from Angela Smith’s answers in the link above that we have a policy where key parts are not properly tested.

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