The Eleven plus, equality and social mobility

One of the few genuinely political issues abroad in Northern Ireland at the moment is the abolition of the Eleven Plus exams which determine which of Northern Ireland’s Primary students will get one of the 9000 places in its Grammar schools. The last education minister Martin McGuinness brought in the legislation at the eleventh hour of the old Stormont regime, leaving (mostly) Unionist opponents no time to scrutinise his proposal. With direct rule ministers preparing legislation for Westminster next month and legal action being threatened, it looks like it is going to be a lively debate.And yet some of the issues around selection appear to be counter intuitive. Much of the anxiety around the abolition of the test centres on the ending of selection for NI schools, rather than the loss of this particular exam. Whilst many of its opponents object to selection has having bad social effects, the performance figures show a mixed picture.

Comprehensive style education in the Republic, for instance, has traditionally given rise to higher levels of educational participation there: in the 1957-70 cohort for instance, 11% of the Republic’s school children when on to degree level., whilst in NI the figure was 6.6%.

However, the figures look rather different when you look at class and social mobility. Richard Breen et al in an 1999 essay for the British Academy reported that the advantage ratio between the poorest and richests classes in the Republic was a staggering 179:1, whilst in Northern Ireland it was at 28:1, he notes it “would need to be multiplied by 6.4 to reach the Southern figure”.

Bob McCartney makes the comparison with state schools in Britain: “Northern Ireland sends 42.5% of its students to university from disadvantaged homes. The comprehensive system sends 28.2%.”

And yet, as Sinn Fein’s Michael Ferguson points out, the abolition of the 11+ doesn’t necessarily mean the end of selective education. Indeed the legislation for its abolition is unlikely to kick in until 2008. But without an Assembly there is some danger of drift on this issue and little prospect that key changes needed in Northern Ireland’s education system to meet the demands of a changing world will be shaped by anyone who actually lives there.