Warning: Educational Vandals at Work

Long time reader and occasional contributor Watchman lays out the case against planned reformation of the local education system in Northern Ireland. He argues that merit is part of every aspect of life and that trying to dumb down the education system is a trick that only works against the poorer parts of society. Indeed he calls it a form of “arrogant egalitarian bigotry”.By The Watchman

“This Order will not only see an end to the 11-plus exam as a means of deciding a child’s future, but will also end all forms of selection by academic ability.”

These words of Peter Hain prove beyond doubt that the target of the government’s education reforms is academic selection. Commentators often point to the alleged rightward drift of New Labour, but Hain personifies the worst kind of pig-headed arrogant egalitarian bigotry. He rides roughshod over those who fear for their children’s future, on the votes of Labour MPs unaccountable to anyone in Northern Ireland. His ideological class warriors are ready to implement what has been shown to fail disastrously in Great Britain. The rest of this essay is about the de-education of modern Britain
and the resulting problems that are about to hit Northern Ireland.

At the heart of the matter is a simple question. If selection by merit is part of every walk of life (except perhaps with appointment to the NIO), why is it so unacceptable in education?

The grammar schools in Great Britain – why they were wrecked

In his brilliant polemic The Abolition of Britain, Peter Hitchens says:

“Proper education is a fundamentally conservative activity, based on the assumption that a body of knowledge exists, is in the hands of the adult and educated, and can be passed on in measurable ways, by disciplined learning reinforced with authority. Since the Left in Britain have never reconciled themselves to authority – monarchical, aristocratic, religious, traditional and ancient, their attitude towards the inherited education system remains instinctively, automatically revolutionary.”

Britain in the 1960s, with its resurgent socialism and a craven Conservative Party, was ripe for change. Grammar schools were unashamedly elitist, although the 11-plus opened them up to those from modest backgrounds. They were based upon a common sense proposition: since people differ in ability and motivation, some people will always do better than others. Selective education recognised human society as it was and never confused equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. The system was not perfect. The 11-plus brutally divided children into just 2 categories and did not allow
for different rates of child development. Technical and vocational education was treated as second best and never fostered elitism of its own. But no better means of social mobility in Britain has ever been discovered.

The social revolutionaries of the left were determined to sweep away selective schooling because it was an obstacle to the egalitarian society they wished to see created. But they also loathed other features of grammar schools:

* Great public schools like Rugby and Harrow were role models for the grammars. Hitchens describes English public schooling as “more or less religious in a traditional way, instinctively monarchist and based upon tradition and deference”. The grammar schools, he argues, modelled their “ethos, timetable and shape” on them. Accordingly, the grammars provided a means of transmitting conservative values to young people, something anathema to the left, which wanted to separate the young from the values of their elders.

* Grammar schools also enshrined hierarchical relationships between teacher and pupil, in terms of strict discipline, traditional teaching of facts to a whole class and learning by heart or by rote. Progressive educationalists thought that impeded a child’s creativity.

* Finally, grammar schools provided a vehicle for working class children to join the middle classes. Of course, this notion was repugnant to a British left that detested the bourgeois “Victorian values” traditionally associated with the middle class.

So grammar schools were abolished, allegedly to improve the prospects of children in the underperforming secondary modern sector. If the fate of such children had driven reform, the logical course would have been to change only the failing schools. But educational standards were of limited interest to the revolutionaries. They wanted to have their levelled-down society. Today, the failings of comprehensive education are too big to be ignored. Social mobility has decreased to Edwardian levels.

One in five pupils leave school after 11 years of compulsory education functionally illiterate, sometimes defined as being unable to find a plumber in the Yellow Pages. Public examinations no longer distinguish the brightest and best from the rest. Universities are leaned upon to discriminate against applicants from private schools on the spurious basis that such applicants have an “unfair advantage”.

Why it is the poor who lose out from comprehensives

Comprehensive education, like all egalitarian notions, could work in an ideal world. But egalitarianism always fails because (a) it neglects human nature and (b) the world is not and can never be perfect.

The progressive left may be wedded to comprehensive education, but it is also uncomfortably aware of the need to keep its own offspring out of failing schools. Hypocrisy rules. Its parents use religious affiliation to get their children into a well-regarded church school (like the Blairs); move to an affluent catchment area of a good school and pay for the schooling in house prices; or swallow their principles and send their children to a private school.

But then all good parents try to pass on their economic position within society to their children and use their income to manipulate the state school system to their advantage, should their children remain within it. Government can decree that all children in the state sector should go to schools with a comprehensive intake, but it cannot circumvent the ingenuity of ambitious parents.

But if the prosperous can manage, there is less good news for those from more modest backgrounds who would have been the real winners from the grammar school system. Since their parents cannot usually move in search of a good comprehensive, the children are often consigned to the worst schools with little prospect of advancement.

Critics of grammar schools often complained (accurately) that grammars were predominantly and disproportionately middle class. But a grammar school could still provide a wide social mix of pupils, certainly in comparison to English comprehensives where middle class children often go to one school in the suburbs and working class children go to another in the inner city. If children cannot be divided by academic ability, they will be categorised by other means.

A Way Out

The time has come to move on from the left’s hang-ups about academic selection. Selection simply opens up access to elites by meritocrats. Selection and reward of talent are essential to private wealth creation, which is central to a nation’s prosperity. There is no time for delay. Many Third World countries in the Far East are moving into the First World at great speed. Those still convinced of the superiority of Britain’s education system should ask why, if our schooling is so good, it is not being emulated. The British political and educational classes may be in denial but hungry tiger economies see our inadequacies all too clearly. India, for instance, is enjoying a boom in independent schools, many of which work towards exams at least as rigorous as old English O and A Levels.

But we need other elites as well as academic ones. There could be a variety of schools: academic, vocational, technological, music or sports-orientated. There could be multiple entry and exit points to ensure that children who develop at a slower pace can move between streams. The detail is less important than the principle: that selection is not merely defensible but essential for a thriving modern market economy. Yet, as Robert Yates recently wrote in The Spectator:

“(O)ur leading political parties appear to agree that there is something fundamentally wrong with telling a bunch of ten year old that some are more academically able than others at the moment. Elsewhere, selection on ability seems simply logical; whether you’re learning to ski or taking classes in bricklaying, you find your level. But schooling, it seems, has a logic all of its own, one that would have amused my old teacher. ‘It might make sense in another world …,’ ran his favourite put-down when our thoughts were a little scrambled. ‘But it makes no sense in this one.’”

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Egalitarian Bigot

    OK, I’ll bite,
    If the state is powerless to stop middle class parents from securing advantages for their kids, what is there to worry about?

    Watchman et al. will have to show that kids from poor backgrounds have done worse under the comprehensive system than they would have done under selection, and that sounds like a rather tall order to me.

    I’m all for high standards in education, and have no problem with the idea that some have more ability than others, but it’s obvious that selection of the 11 plus sort (selection by ability within schools, on a subject by subject basis is another matter) militates against developing the abilities of very many of the children concerned. Equality of opportunity, if it is to mean anything at all, must be about giving kids an equal start, not just heaping additional disadvantages on those who were some distance from the starting line to begin with.

    Finally, I think Watchman’s realism human nature etc. sits rather uneasily with his utopian optimism about the possiblity of fostering a variety of differently talented elites in New Labour’s educational great leap forward. Get real! ;_)

  • Garibaldy

    Nobody on the left wants the dumbing down of education any more than they want everybody to be poor. The British system is in many cases a disaster. There’s one fundamental difference between there and here – public schools, which are virtually entirely absent from comparative discussions like this one. Part of the reason that the comprehensives in many areas of Britain have fallen so low is that there are few middle class children in them, and so no powerfully and effective lobby composed of articulate and organised parents.

    The opposite is the case in NI. The small number of fee-paying schools cannot expand sufficiently to replace the grammars, and any new schools would take decades to acquire the necessary reputation. Therefore, bourgeois children will continue to attend publicly funded schools, and will continue to be the subject of intense interest and scrutiny from politicians and public opinion. Neglect of our schools would not be tolerated.

    When I did the 11+, 27% went to grammar schools. That figure is now 40%. They already stream for different abilities within grammar schools, as does every school. Streaming will become better organised rather than be a novel imposition. The end of the 11+, or more likely the delaying of it until 14, will not actually make that much difference in many cases.

    On the universities being pressured because public school students have an advantage, they absolutely should be. I know for a fact that within Oxford certain colleges maintain links to certain schools for certain subjects. So, for example, if a college has a 8 places for say chemistry and has an arrangement with a school that it will take one or two of its people per year, shouldn’t that be stamped out? Never mind the more structural bias involved.

    Streaming and selection are absolutely nececssary. It remains a question of the best way to do it in the interests of the children, and in the interests of society. The 11+ is clearly not the best way to do that. ‘Faith schools’, whether here or in Britain, are a disaster for social cohesion, and should be phased out rather than encouraged.

  • Shore Road Resident

    But… nobody can find a plumber – especially in the Yellow Pages.

  • “So, for example, if a college has a 8 places for say chemistry and has an arrangement with a school that it will take one or two of its people per year, shouldn’t that be stamped out?”

    Certainly – the whole point of the 11+ is to give places in grammar schools to the most able, not those who go to the right school (like your talk of the colleges at Oxford) or can afforrd to pay for the privelege (ie private schools which will naturally become a feature of any post-selection education system).

  • John East Belfast

    Why do people insist in calling the 11+ academic selection when we all know it is really social selection.

    It guarantees the middle classes are kept apart from the worst dregs in our society and then forces those individuals on the vast majority of the rest of our kids.

    Our emphasis should be on excluding the trouble makers from school rather than trying to shield a 25% elite from them.

    Half that elite piss off to GB universities and a high proportion of those dont return. We are feeding our brightest and best to the GB industrial sector and we are left with a high proportion of poorly educated low achievers needing to survive on benefits.

    I cannot think of one intelligent reason to put kids of different academic ability into different schools.

    Into different classes for different subjects in the same school depending on their individual talent – no problem but why a different school ?

    My second son goes to Campbell – it is a Comprehensive and with two full classes of Ds this year it blows apart any notion that academic selection is required for success.

    School success is all about discipline, family control and involvement and motivated teachers. The grammar system preserves that for 25% and the rest mostly (not always) fail on all three.

    I have had two kids already gone through the 11+ and a further two still to go through it. The first two were a B1 and a B2 i dont know what the girls are capabe off.

    It doesnt change my opinion of them one bit but I have no doubt whatsoever that not being an A at 11 is a stigma that they will carry all their life – I have watched kids wait for that Saturday morning envelope and how any sane person believes that it is an appropriate way to treat a child is beyond my reason.

    Yes the world is tough, competitive and hard but doing this to a 10 and 11 year old to toughen them up is unforgiveable.

    It is a nasty system who’s sole aim is to separate the middle classes from the great unwashed.
    I have no problem to some extent with that desire by parents but its shouldnt be done at the expense of about 50% of the rest of the kids who, although might not be that academically able, come from good homes and families.

    You only need 2 or 3 gobshites to bring a whole class down and that is what happens in the Belfast Secondary sector where my wife has taught for 20 years.

    Have a well funded comprehensive system but enforcing a form of sin bin exclusion for the trouble makers. They can only return when they learn to behave.

    Then within the school it should be offering a whole range of subjects and disciplines in order to identify and get the best from every one of our children.

  • Mick Fealty

    Correct me if I’m wrong John, but surely Campbell doesn’t take lower than ‘D’, and charges a modestly heavy termly fee. Not strictly speaking comprehensive, or at least in the sense the Watchman is defining it in his polemic, or the way it is widely understood in the UK.

  • Reader

    John East Belfast: You only need 2 or 3 gobshites to bring a whole class down and that is what happens in the Belfast Secondary sector where my wife has taught for 20 years.
    You are undermining your own argument there. If it’s only ‘2 or 3 gobshites’ they can do as much damage in a comprehensive as they do in a secondary. The English system is surely evidence enough of that?
    But if you can solve that problem somehow, the decision as to whether to have school selection *still* exists. So what’s the second line of attack – ‘social selection’? But social selection still exists in comprehensive systems – the original article explains that. In contrast, the selective system opens doors for people – it produced the first generation of the SDLP (SDLP = School-teachers, Doctors and Lawyers Party); and it lifted my parents out of a family history of labouring and factory work. It does what the alternatives never will, it rewards aspiration, effort and ability then immerses pupils in an atmosphere of aspiration and effort. The comprehensive system can’t do that unless you have a miracle cure for society.
    Get rid of the 11+ by all means, it’s a blunt instrument, and entirely too coachable; but keep selection. Supporting streaming and opposing selection is just plain muddleheaded.

  • Brenda

    Garribaldy do you have a crystal ball? Streaming will become better organised? Every attempt at streaming has been a disaster, they never get it right. I don’t see how faith schools discourage social cohesion. Perhaps in NI where the society is already divided and is reflected in our schools,but in GB generally faith schools neither add nor divide social cohesion. Muslim and Catholic and Protestant schools co-exsist, and do not foster division. It’s state schools (especially in France where headdress etc is banned) and where everyone is meant to be the same that fosters division imo. Expecting all to be the same fosters social division as groups rise in order to promote themselves in schools which can over flow into main stream society.

  • I used to teach preteen and teen aged boys wilderness skills, how to handle a knife, shoot and all manner of deadly things. I did learn one thing other than that I was damned lucky to live thorough it.

    Up to the age of 14 a thought has a half life of under 15 milliseconds in a boy’s head. After 14 they can suddenly handle leadership, math and everything else except women. It’s like they are pod people.

    That is why I have always thought that the 11+ exam was unfair to young men.

  • “It guarantees the middle classes are kept apart from the worst dregs in our society and then forces those individuals on the vast majority of the rest of our kids.”

    Ah yes, the old preserve of the middle class argument. It amazes me when the anti-grammar lobby resort to this old gem in the belief that ridding the country of grammar schools will be some kind of panacea for all society’s harsh realities. It serves as a simple reminder that they’re all actually devoid of any capability for reason whatsoever!

    I know that the author of the Watchmen articulated this much better than I will, but I’m going to repeat it anyway since some folk clearly couldn’t grasp it first time round. I’ll keep it simple. Without academic selection we will see a sharp rise in the number of private schools here. Now, there is no way you’re going to tell me that grammar schools result in more class segregation than private schools which only the rich can afford.

    Even those whose kids do stay in comprehensive schools will find their parents movoing to the catchment area of the better schools, forcing house prices up in those catchment areas at the detriment of poorer parents.

  • “I know that the author of the Watchmen articulated”

    Sorry, it’s late. Should read:

    I know that the Watchman articulated…

    A grammar school education is no substitute for a good night’s sleep!!

  • Alan

    There’s a whiff of the last chance saloon in Watchman’s rant. There’s also a lot of opinion and nothing of substance.

    Let’s start with the basics. Northern Ireland does not have the wherewithal to carry more than two or three private schools, particularly as each school will have to repay all capital costs since 1948. Schools such as Methody should now be writing to the Dept to refuse the £ 4m for renovations that they recently agreed.

    Selection isn’t working even here. In Sept 2005 only two schools had intakes of only “A” students. At the NI Affairs Committee the Grammar lobby actually suggested that Grammars should be shut down until only straight “A” schools remained.

    Comparisons with GB are interesting too. PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) NI GCSE points score is 38%, while England – with its comprehensives – is 40%. In 2004, 10,575 young people left school in NI without marketable qualifications. Due to the failure of selection 24% of people in NI have no qualifications – compare that to 15% in England and Scotland and 17% in Wales.

    It is also clearly a preserve of the middle classes : 7% free school meals in grammars and 28% in non grammars speak volumes.

    As has been argued before, you can band children by subject when they walk through the school door, you don’t have to belittle and humiliate them and deny them the right to go to the same school as their brothers and sisters.

    I sympathize with John EB. I have kids who have gone through the system in the last year or two and it is abject misery for all concerned. The red in tooth and claw impression given by Watchman is great in theory and an abhomination in practice.

    Finally, I had to laugh at *The grammar schools, he argues, modelled their “ethos, timetable and shape” on them [Public Schools]. * So Watchman would have us introduce flogging, fagging, subject teaching and quadrangles to sort everything out. Sounds like an education manifesto for the Elizabethan age, but which one?

  • John East Belfast


    I am not sure – it probably doesnt take lower than a D but as you know for those who sit the exam you cant get lower – yes if the exam has been opted out of then it probably doesnt take the child at all.

    I also didnt mean comprehensive in the social sense

    However in terms of a range of abilities being taken into the school and then that range being streamed later on into functioning classes it is close to a comprehensive. It is certainly very different than Sullivan Upper from an academic point of view who even this year did not accept lower than an A I am told.


    “You are undermining your own argument there. If it’s only ‘2 or 3 gobshites’ they can do as much damage in a comprehensive as they do in a secondary”

    Yes but the point I am making is that although 25% of our children are kept apart from such trouble makers the vast majority of them are not. When people talk about removing the Grammar system will ‘dilute’ our educational success they forget they are doing that already to the vast majority of our kids.
    We are also labelling them with a hefty “failure” stigma at the age of 11.

    I have said what i would do and that is exclude the trouble makers from the main line schools rather than exclude the most academically gifted from everyone else.

    “Get rid of the 11+ by all means, it’s a blunt instrument, and entirely too coachable; but keep selection. Supporting streaming and opposing selection is just plain muddleheaded.”

    I would say supporting selection but opposing ‘streamlining’ within a school is just plain muddle headed.

    There are kids who are an A in languages but a D in maths or an A in Sports and a D in Sciences – who says they cannot be in the same school and their strengths played to ?

    Lets be honest about why middle class parents really want to mainatin selection and it has got little to do with academic success.

    “In contrast, the selective system opens doors for people – it produced the first generation of the SDLP (SDLP = School-teachers, Doctors and Lawyers Party); and it lifted my parents out of a family history of labouring and factory work. It does what the alternatives never will, it rewards aspiration, effort and ability then immerses pupils in an atmosphere of aspiration and effort.”

    As the son of an East Belfast shipyard worker the grammar system did the same for me.
    However that was 30 years ago and the world has moved on.

    The kind of jobs for those failing the 11+ that existed 30 years ago have left these shores for good.
    To be honest most of what is taught at Grammar Schools is a waste of time anyway – the curriculum is way out of date for today’s world of work and required social skills.

    The kind of social cohesion that cemented working class families together has also weakened – the collpase of organised religion and growth in one parent families. The power of paramilitaries in loyalist areas.

    The exam itself has changed and now middle classes can use it to pay £20 to £40 per week to coach their child to an A or B grade. Not to mention if you come from third level educated parents you will get a further leg up at home.

    What chance has a child from the Shankill Road got of making a grammar school – about 3% actually.

    Are you telling me that is helping the traditional lower classes ?


    If parents want to pay extra for private schooling that is their affair.
    That house prices will rise in areas of good schools that is possible – although Belfast doesnt have as sprawling a catchment area for this to have such as an effect a everyone thinks.

    Anyhow I am not saying leave the Secondary sector as it is – I want to drive up minimum standards within all schools and exclude the trouble makers.

    If parents thought the local comprehensive was a school that enforced discipline and got the best from their child no matter what his ability they would not pay extra for anything else – unless it was just old fashioned snobbery.

    I just wish people would be honest or just really think about why they want to preserve Grammar schools

  • Alan

    Looks like the Education Order will now pass in the Lords (the figures had been very tight). The Lib Dems have agreed to support the legislation.

  • Reader

    JEB: What chance has a child from the Shankill Road got of making a grammar school – about 3% actually.
    And are you going to fix the system by sending those 3% to the same school as the other 97%? If anything, the Shankill Road seems to be already comprehensive in all but name! Let’s watch the experiment…
    But the reason that the Shankill Road statistics are quoted over and over again is because they are such an outstanding disaster. There seems to be a complete failure of aspiration there. I don’t know how to fix that. But I suspect that the fix has to start with families and primary schools. By 11 the damage is already done.

  • Crataegus

    We have a duty to our children to ensure that we do this as best we can. I often think that on one hand there is a lot of ungrounded faith put in the benefits of change which is matched in equal measure by an acceptance of things as they are. I am not so sure that I have seen an overview of a proposed system that appears to work or that adequately addresses areas of under achievement..

    Care of Hardtalk late one night, before the introduction of comprehensives in England 60% of those going to Oxbridge were from state schools it is now less than 50% and of those most are from Grammar Schools. If you go to a private school you are either 17 or 27, think it was 27, times more likely to go to Oxbridge than if you go to a Comprehensive. This bothers me as it tends to suggest that the Comprehensive system as in England is failing children. Indeed what I see in England is education by post code and if anything it is more divisive than the old Grammar School system, so is that what we aspire to?

    We also all know the problems of selection, splitting friends up and branding some as failures at 11; children in the areas of greatest deprivation do badly and some very clever children are nervous and fail, especially at that age. Also what exactly are we testing an 11 year old on? At that age surely their ability has as much to do with background as if you like raw ability? Then there are the parents who keep the child at it doing test papers and those that don’t so what exactly is the basis for selection? Parent’s determination? Also late developers get a bad start.

    In areas of poor attainment you need to improve Primary Education and the selection argument is not just a red herring it is actually taking attention away from the real problems. To late by 11 anyway. The system proposed will make little difference. Indeed we also know the problems relating to a few unruly children in a class yet that issue is also avoided.

    We know the existing system has very major flaws so to retain unaltered is complacent, but we need to be extremely careful and ensure that what we propose works, is efficient, and effectively deals with known problems.

    We talk of streaming, pupil profiles and busing children around and increasing range of subjects available etc but little thought seems to be given to the actuality, detail and purpose of some of it. We also know there are problems relating to resource management and running several education systems in parallel yet we steadfastly ignore the problem.

    Pupil profiles, what’s the purpose?

    If the main criteria is selection by proximity will this not increase the divide? Not many middle class types live in inner Belfast.

    We talk of streaming, how exactly does this work? What size of schools do you need to give effective choice of subjects and stream.

    Should we decide that a certain range of subjects must be on offer. My pet hate is combined dumbing down of science.

    Political dogma being used as a tool before practicality. All sounds a bit of a hotch potch to me. No it is actually worse than that we are using children’s education as a pawn in an unfolding political game. It’s criminal.

  • There’s a core idea to the Watchman’s piece, which I don’t think has been picked up yet. That’s the idea that society operates best when it can generate talented and well educated elites. A meritocracy in fact. Any takers?

  • Crataegus


    This is of course true. Would anyone seriously suggest that say the School of Music should attempt to teach a wide range of abilities? Of course they get rid of those less able or less dedicated, and those with no innate ability don’t get in in the first place. What applies to Music applies to all other things. We are not all equal at all things.

    But the system must be fair and we need to invest in many types of training, because one ability is not lesser than another. To simply pour resources into supporting an academic elite and ignore say building up a talented body of craftsmen or artists may be short sighted. We need to maximise the various skills and talent in our society. The system may be rigorous, but it needs to be fair and we as a society need to recognise various skills and give all achievement in various fields standing. Give people pride in what they do and recognise their ability.

    The problem however is ensuring that those from disadvantaged backgrounds get good support and access to opportunities. The system has to be open and fair and as ability changes with age and there are the problems with young children and nerves there needs to be multiple points of entry. 11 may well be a tad young for many. We need to look at the system, look at the short comings and areas of low achievement and deal directly with those issues.

    We also need to look at exams and the use of course work to as a measure of ability.

    Private schools work, there is no question of that so perhaps best to ask why rather than reinvent the wheel.

  • Jo

    It aint criminal, its politics. But trying to get an octogenerian to prioritise the future of the under 11s? Optimistic, at best.

  • Crataegus


    The problem on the Shankill will not be solved by getting rid of selection. These children need increased resources and attention from Nursery School. By 11 we merely show that the system has already failed them!! Do you honestly thing that the proposed system is going to ensure that more go to University? I doubt it.

    To give an example used on another thread. I know a young lady who is very well educated at 11 she was grade 3-4 in various musical instruments, had a good knowledge of several languages, a good basic knowledge of History and Geography and knew what Rome etc was like, the Renaissance, the Baroque and so on because she had been there and because she had parents who were both well educated could pass that knowledge on and had the money to send her to whatever she showed interest in.

    The resources available to such a child bare no comparison to those available to a child on the Shankill where the parents may even be illiterate, and the possibility of difficult family backgrounds greater. The problem is investing enough in such areas to increase the support for such children so you break the cycle and I regard this as the highest priority in education and resent the distraction that the proposals are causing.

    The greatest benefactors of the proposed system will be the middle class children who currently fail and not the working class in sink areas. For the middle class will go to the leafy middle class local school.

    Identify the problems and address the reasons forget the political dogma.

  • Crataegus


    But trying to get an octogenarian to prioritise the future of the under 11s? Optimistic, at best.

    Joe I wasn’t aware that Hain was an octogenarian, well preserved for his age!

  • Hmm…

    Crategeus is generally right to say that private schools work (although I seem to recall hearing that OFSTED didn’t give them all a clean bill of health), but there’s no great mystery about why this is so. Likewise the point about the need to do more earlier on, but we should beware of letting the best become an enemy of the good: abolishing the 11+ won’t solve all our problems at a stroke, but it’s a probably a step in the right direction (Beano raises pertinent concerns here I think).

    Mick: two things occur to me about the meritocracy business (1) Democracy vs meritocracy: increasing the numbers of talented people across a range of activities is no doubt a good thing, but elite rule isn’t so attractive (2) meritocracy is a much narrower idea that eqaulity of opportunity, and involves the heaping of rewards upon those whose acheivements are in no small part secured through inherited advantage. Aiming for a genuinely equal opportunity to develop our talents, would necessitate a move in the direction of equality of outcome, so that each generation would start off in roughly the same place. Even so, the idea of having choices is still important, as individuals should be free to choose which of their capacities/talents to develop.

    Of course, we could take a more or less individualist line here: we could provide the opportunities to individuals to choose which talents to develop, which ought to increase the numbners of happy and fulfilled people out there, or we chould opt for a more centralised definition of ‘merit’ and reward acccordingly in line iwth priorities set by our ‘meritocratic elite’. As Watchman links meritocracy to the issue of global competitiveness, I have a sneaky (perhaps I’m being unfair here) feeling that he has something more like the latter in mind leaving us scant room for equality or, indeed for personal freedom.

  • Thanks everyone for the comments. I was well aware that there would be plenty of cyber cabbages heading my way and I would like to respond briefly to some postings, so long as I don’t lose too much lunchtime:

    Egailitarian Bigot (4.20 Wed): the poor do worse from comprehensives as shown by the decrease in social mobility in Britain since the grammar heyday, and the increasing dominance of private schools at elite universities in comparison to the old days.

    Garibaldy (4.42 Wed): read Melanie Phillips’s All Must Have Prizes and try to argue, in the face of all her evidence, that the Left has not dumbed down education over the last 40 years. There are middle class comprehensives in Britain that do well. However, the middle classes do use comprehensives and the problems have arisen even so. In any event, I argue that the GB middle classes do OK from comprehensives; the people who suffer are those who once would have benefited from the grammars.

    John EB (8.41 Wed): did you actually read my article or just skim through it? My point was that the GB middle classes can effectively segregate themselves at the moment simply by moving. I also said that reform is necessary to create entry and exit points other than at 11, because I concede that the 11-plus has failed to make selection as equitable as it should be.

    Alan (7.27 Thu): see my answer to John EB. I mentioned the comparison between the English grammars and the public schools to illustrate a plausible reason for the Left’s hatred of them. If you think I want to see the flogging and fagging in NI schools, please point out to me exactly where I said/implied it. Otherwise don’t be facetious.

    Thanks to Mick for zeroing on my key reason for writing: that society needs meritocratic elites and educational selection is the only way to get them. To conclude, I freely admit that there are many reasons for poor schools other than those I mentioned in my article, since to cover them would have turned an op-ed into a treatise. But doing away with selection will make the effect of these problems much worse.

  • willis


    Well done recognising that we enjoy a good old left-right slug-fest about ideology rather than the detail of the Govt’s plans.

    Here is a question though with regard to meritocratic elites.

    Why is it that N.I. with a selective system is much less dynamic in terms of reliance on public sector employment than Greater Manchester where the comprehensive system prevails?

  • Jo

    However, as the Indiy makes clear today the “meritocratic elites” are not drawn from the whole of society but from a self-perpetuating, rich and ever-acquisitive minority.

    So lets not rush to deliver three, two or even one cheer for the glories of such an unequal system.

  • Egalitarian bigot/Hmm…

    Watchman: I’m still not persuaded (surprise, surprise). Decreasing rates of social mobility may be explained by changes in the occupational structure (we’re all ‘middle class’ now). Mobility is a matter of available destinations as much as of qualifications (but I don’t have the data so I’m speculating here).

    Private Schools and elite universities: again, I haven’t seen the figures, but as there has been a vast increase in people going to university in the UK over the last 15 years, I’m going to demur: comprehensive education just isn’t stopping kids from poor backgrounds from going to universities (including the best ones).

    Private schools provide Oxbridge with a disproportionate number of classics students: what, I wonder, has this got to do with society’s needs for meritocratic elites? numbers o society needs all the private school-educated

  • Hmm…

    Argh! I should have been weeded out of education for my appalling typing/editing skills years ago… Please ignore the complete gobbledygook at the end of the last post (what you do with the rest of the gobbledygook is up to you).

  • All,

    Apologies for not being able to reply to these questions just yet. (Minor irritation of job.) Will reply to everything as much as possible this evening, if you can wait until then.

  • willis

    One event contributed to social mobility more than any other, WWII. So I would guess if there was a graph of social mobility it would have a step change in the forties with a reduction from then on as the non-meritocratic elites re-establish their dominance.

    Please prove me wrong!

  • Hmm…

    Well, here’s some data: http://cep.lse.ac.uk/about/news/IntergenerationalMobility.pdf

    If I’ve read this right:
    1. UK social mobility is down and in this it is exceptional, compared to Europe, & Canada (but not the US)
    2. The link between educational acheivement and mobility has increased.
    3. Educational acheivement explains about 35-40% of mobility.
    4. The increase in university places in the UK has disproportionately benefited the children of the better off, but even so, there has been an increase in the numbers of poorer children going to university (OK, only 3%).

  • Hmm (12.04, 1.56): policy directed toward equality of outcome, I’m afraid, still strikes me as creeping egalitarianism, and that’s normally found at the top of any slippery slope. It’s also the respectable case that some 1960s progressives made for the grammars’ abolition. I also believe that governments who engage in social engineering usually cannot resist the temptation to meddle more and more. In terms of your 2 definitions of merit, I’d lean toward the first. As to the later point about university admissions, son’t forget that these figures include the newer universities for which the admissions criteria, I suspect in many cases, are not very high. Undoubtedly many people from modest backgrounds still do go to top universities despite everything, but my point is that they have had more obstacles put in their way. As for Classics, I wish more state schools would offer them. They are a good grounding in many ways for other things.

    Willis (1.46): I don’t have figures for Greater Manchester, but I know that the North-West region has slightly less dependence on the public sector than NI. However, all regions lag far behind London and the South-East in this regard. Given this, I don’t believe that selective education is the reason for NI’s public sector dependency and I don’t think even Hain has said so in so many words.

    Jo (1.47): so few words, so little sense. You typed your silly message via a keyboard that you could only buy because a company offered it for sale and that company could only exist thanks to a “self-perpetuating, rich and ever-acquisitive minority”. We all depend on the entrepreneurial talents of a relative minority because their businesses fuel the economy, and the strength of that determines whether we are rich or poor. (If you want to see what happens in the absence of such people, look at Zimbabwe.) Actually, you help to make my point: if meritocratic elites are not open to enough people then the challenge must be to open them further. I believe that one such route is through selective education. As for the concept of inequality, so what? We all differ in many ways, not least, looking at your posting, in terms of articulating a sensible argument.

  • Crataegus

    The Belvedere Girls’ School in the Toxteth, Liverpool has been successful in raising attainment for a wide, socially diverse group of children. May be worth looking at? It is Britain’s only private day secondary school for all children based on ability rather than wealth through an open access scheme. I believe the Sutton Trust has an interest in this project.

  • something else

    There is another way.
    Increasing numbers of children in Ireland, the UK, the USA and elsewhere, are home-educated. They can get a really good education, moulded to fit their personal strengths and weaknesses, and there are none of the problems associated with schools.

  • Apologies if I don’t wade into previously unseen social research late in the day.

    The experience of war certainly contributed toward social mobility, but the impact of Rab Butler’s 1944 Act was also significant. The reforms of the 1940s heped to create the Catholic middle class at the heart of the Civil Rights movement, as well as enabling Bob McCartney to enter the legal profession, something previously unthinkable for a poor boy from the Shankill. If WWII was the only factor in this social mobility rise, then social mobility would have retreated soon afterwards, instead of only reversing from the 1960’s onward. An increased link between education and mobility is to be expected. And obviously there are more students from poorer backgrounds going to university, although given the variable quality of today’s universities, that may be a mixed blessing.

  • John East Belfast

    On the subject of meritocratic elites all I would say is that I am sure the opponents of Post War Grammar schools used it as an argument to try and keep people like me in my place.
    In a fast changing world social conservatives always like to keep things as they are if they are doing well out of it.

    I am motivated not by the ones doing well but by the vast majority the system is failing – ultimately that fails us – and as Watchman I know you see the importance of wealth creation in our community – then it ultimately fails all of us.

    Personally I dont see the point in a lot of the education I got at Grammar school and which I see being fed into my boys now. There is far too much emphasis on academic qualifications in subjects that bear no relevance to modern working.

    Anyhow less said by us northerners – I would be interested in the views of some of our Celtic Tiger brethern who’s system has certainly not failed their children or economy. What do you do down there with kids at 11 ?
    ie we dont have to look too far

  • JEB

    “On the subject of meritocratic elites all I would say is that I am sure the opponents of Post War Grammar schools used it as an argument to try and keep people like me in my place.”


    “In a fast changing world social conservatives always like to keep things as they are if they are doing well out of it.”

    Again have you actually READ my article? Look at my article’s penultimate paragraph again. I thought it was quite innovative.

    “I am motivated not by the ones doing well but by the vast majority the system is failing…”

    So how does creating a comprehensive system help the people you say are failing? As I’ve pointed out above – and you have not refuted it – the people in England who suffer the most educationally are those whose parents can’t use their income to live in a place with a good comprehensive school.

    The onus is on those who support the abolition of academic selection to show why the entire system in NI will not go downhill in the same way as England’s did.

    In regard to the Celtic tiger, I suspect Thatcherite economics might just have had something to do with it.

  • Alan

    *The onus is on those who support the abolition of academic selection to show why the entire system in NI will not go downhill in the same way as England’s did. *

    The onus is on those who support selection to prove that it is the best system. They have never done so, despite the opportunity offered on so many occasions. The best performing education systems in the world are all comprehensive. Northern Ireland’s wonderous selective system actually perfoms worse than the disparaged English system.

    Do you hear the squealing hinge, watchman? Meritocracy is a good thing, if we all get a chance to show our merit. Our selective system here stifles talent and distroys incentives to learn.

  • Alan,

    Sadly your post is typical of the knee-jerk egalitarian bigotry I’ve mentioned above. You’re fanatically opposed to any concept of selection but you cannot answer my central question: why is education to be the ONLY area of life where selection, whether it be by 11-plus or some other means, is totally unacceptable? Interesting to see your high opinion of the English comprehensive system. That alone is enough to discredit your thinking.

  • willis


    Pleeeease get a grip.

    There is a load of Academic Selection in Education, at Gcse, A level and Degree and no-one in favour of Comrpehensive Ed is opposed to it.

  • Academic selection in terms of admissions policy and “selection” or streaming within a comprehensive system are quite different.

  • willis

    Read what you wrote, not what you meant.

  • willis


    Actually now I think about it you may have a point.

    There should be selection in these two areas of life where currently none applies.

    Having children.

    What admissions criterion do you suggest?

  • Alan

    *You’re fanatically opposed to any concept of selection but you cannot answer my central question: why is education to be the ONLY area of life where selection, whether it be by 11-plus or some other means, is totally unacceptable?*

    I’m only opposed to selecting kids out of schools. You can select away once you get kids into the schools. Isn’t that what the old public schools did? Instead of Special needs, they called it *the remove*.

    Education is too important to be left to the vagaries of selection, because once you have been denied it, it is an uphill struggle to get it back.

    I thought my comparison with the English system was actually an example of how low our selective system had pushed us, but then some people will simply seek to defend the indefensible in order to force feed other people the patently unpalatable.

  • Willis,

    I refer you to the penultimate paragraph of my article. I don’t have any firm ideas on the types of selection because those will differ according to the type of school. Although I believe strongly in academic selection, I accept that technological/vocational selection is also desirable. My point of writing was to show that a workable meritocracy demands selection at every level, not to stipulate precise forms of criteria.


    I accepted in my article that the pre-comprehensive system in GB had its inequities. Likewise I concede that the NI education needs change. But I believe that change in any form of life only works where it goes with the grain of human nature and not against it. I also believe, as a good Tory, we should take care to conserve the good (NI’s grammar schools are superb) and not pursue a highly utopian path, especially where its problems have been so clear in England and to the detriment of the least well-off. If you don’t have selection by ability, then you have selection by post code, and, to rephrase one of your comments, education is too important to be left to that.

    Incidentally, this whole debate has proceeded on the basis of selection being top-down. But I also accept that selection could operate bottom-up, with parents having vouchers to spend on schools that are publicly funded. That might be a means of taking the sting out of the selection issue to ensure real choice, i.e. something very different from what Hain and Eagle propose.

  • willis

    Well Watchman it’s like this

    The grain of human nature is the those who already have the money and priveledges want to hold on to them.

    There are two debates going on here.

    1. Was the destruction of the English Grammar School system 1945 – 65 a good thing?

    2. Is New Labour trying to do the same here?

    I think Peter Hitchens has a case. Some Grammar schools aped the Public schools. Labour in the Sixties was idealogically driven to an extent we can only gasp in wonder at. I was around in the Seventies to appreciate the backlash in both Labour and Tory circles.

    I really think lessons have been learned.

    The current proposals may look idealogically driven but they are the result of considerable consultion.

    Pupil profiles could deliver some of the “bottom-up” choice you want – Watchman, however the lack of trust in the receiving school is a real worry.

    On the other hand the pro-11+ lobby have been a disgrace to honest debate, consistently mis-representing the options. They are supposed to represent the brightest and best and yet they harp on about “Post code Lottery” because they think this will best motivate their constituency.

    Simple Question

    Which area of outstanding educational underachievement is next door to RBAI? The Shankill perhaps?

    Thats the message then, not croppies lie down but spides – Know your place.

  • Garibaldy

    Some interesting comments on meritocracy and grammar schools, and privilege here


  • willis


    Thanks – That hit the spot.

    One thing though, and I’m not surprised it was missed. The decline of technology as a career path has also contributed to Britain’s regression to pre-war levels of social mobility. Virtually every other modern industrial nation values it’s engineers and technologists but England, and it is a uniquely English problem, deprecates technical and scientific knowledge.

  • Garibaldy


    I thought that was an excellent piece myself, even if it had a few holes. The British attitude to technology is weird. Academics and scientists are held in contempt, but the economy of the south-east affords a large number of people well-paid work in the IT sector. Can’t understand the disparity, particularly given all the guff about a knowledge economy.