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.

  • willis

    A question for 11+ supporters.

    A member of the Governing Bodies Association was on the Costello Review Body, and yet Costello voted unanimously for abolition and the changes in the review. Why was it unanimous?

  • Very interesting figures there. I think the problem with the ratio in the south is to do with school funding rather then lack of an 11 plus. if the level of funding was corrected i think the advantage figure would better the northern figure. As some kids do not start to work until their teens. Which is not much of a problem in the Irish type system but would be in the 11-plus type system.

  • aquifer

    Kevin Schofield of the Scotsman Newspaper:

    Comprehensives ‘not helping working classes’

    Key points
    • Study finds abolishing selection schools has not reduced class divide
    • Report finds that careers shape social class more than education
    • Scotland shows similar movement between classes as England and Wales

    Key quote
    “If education could have an independent effect [on increasing social mobility], then Scotland should show it – but it does not” – Social Moves, a report by Edinburgh University academics

    “A report by academics at Edinburgh University found that abolishing grammar schools in Scotland had had “no impact” on helping people move between social classes.

    The paper, by Professor Lindsay Paterson and Dr Cristina Iannelli, of the university’s education department, comes at a time when the Labour government is trying to introduce sweeping education reforms aimed at giving schools in England greater independence. According to the report, however, it is the type of career people enter, rather than the type of education system they go through, that determines how socially mobile they are.”

    – Should we then be thinking of more vocationally oriented education, like Germany?

  • heck

    sorry for putting this in the sectarian Northern Ireland context but does’nt this highlight a problem with unionist politics.

    Last summer there was article after article pointing out the lack of educational achievement in working class and under class unionist areas. Yet these same people are voting for parties which are not working in their economic interests.

    The 11+ works to the advantage of middle class childern in places like north down and north antrim. It does not work to the advantage of working class unionists in places like the shankill road.

    Rather that point out to that SF abolished the 11+ and unionists want to keep it ,should’nt you point out that this is an issue where working class unionists need their own representation.

  • Mick


    I’m not sure the reality is as clear as our politicians are inviting us to think it is. I know at least one strong advocate for getting rid of the eleven plus is also a fan of Grammar Schools.

    The social mobility question is a real one – check those unambiguous figures out above.

    There may be little option but to fix what is clearly broke (ie the 11+), but if people simply clamber back into their sectarian trenches over this one rather than pay attention to the crucial detail, we may have a long time to repent at our leisure. And at the expense of future generations.

  • willis


    I must admit to being more sanguine. Roisin McAuleys piece in the Tele points up that we have a system wheras England has a battleground. The people who are being ill served at present are working class prods. They do have proper elected representation but they are hamstrung by not being prepared to accept a solution proposed by “themmuns”

  • Mick Fealty

    Thanks for the link Willis, the story’s now at the top of Slugger.


    “The people who are being ill served at present are working class prods”.

    The only significant difference in the school system that Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland go through is cultural/religious. The system in each case is precisely the same. So how would changing a common system address the particular problem of a limited number of failing state secondary schools?

    I’m not saying it wouldn’t. I’m just struggling to see how?

  • Social mobility in the UK?! The biggest asset and accelerator of wealth in the UK is property.
    Just now, the average price of a home is 7 (seven ) times the average wage. If you ain’t rich now you won’t be anytime before one of your grandchildren gets lucky with an enterprise or the lottery. New Labour? ha, its two nations now for the forseeable and probably distant future, well done guardians of the working class!
    Apparently our democracy gives us choice, its clear it doesn’t.

  • Mick Fealty

    And in the Republic. But the comparative figures are fairly clear.

  • willis


    The overall system may be the same but the way it is used or interpreted in different sectors creates different outcomes. Niall Mc Cafferty makes this point better than I can here, see section 3.

    His point is essentially that Belfast State schools are the most selective, I’m not clear as to the measure of this, I assume it has to do with proportion of A’s in the selective schools.

    Degree of selection does not do much to improve Grammar school performance but it does have a devastating effect those left out.