The right to read and write

I don’t even pretend to understand the complexities and nuances involved in the NI education debate. When I moved here in 1992, I was appalled at the prospect of my eldest child having to take an examination aged 11 that essentially would dictate the rest of her life. It was positively un-American. For the international readers, we have a range of schools here in the Provincelet: And would you be shocked to find out that they are categorised by religion?Your choice for post primary is Catholic Grammar, if you pass the 11-plus, Catholic secondary if you fail, State Secondary if you are a failing Protestant, Protestant Grammar if you are a smart one, and integrated for the progressive, but growing few who recognise the rest is a load of cobblers. Obviously, I am aware of some of the stakes for each of the sides in the argument. Indeed when I announced I was sending the eldest to Integrated, it was met with a visit from the Priest and I was made feel that I was putting the entire Church at risk.

Anyway, back to the point of the post. The Education Order was passed in the House of Lords, and the locals are none too pleased. However, Peter the (not so) Great has introduced his usual caveat: This is very good news for every child in Northern Ireland and if people disagree with this they have the remedy in their own hands by restoring devolved government to Northern Ireland by November 24.”

Lord Magennis was less than chirpy, indeed I was rather alarmed that: The Government may have applied a three-line whip and, with the support of the Liberal Democrats, may have won the vote, but the paucity of their argument is borne out by the fact that they represented the Northern Ireland community as being 40% illiterate,”

Personally, I thought it was good news, until he made the comment about restoring devolved government. In Northern Ireland terms, every time that is said, you know it’s a punishment for not being capable of self government.

  • slug

    You should have learnt by now that there are Maintained Secondaries, Maintained Grammars, Voluntary Grammars, Controlled Grammars, Controlled Secondaries, Controlled Integrated Secndaries, Integrated Secondaries. There is a reaonable amount of religious mixing in some of the Voluntary Grammars.

  • Miss Fitz

    I know this, but the point as I see it is more about the age at which this selection takes place, and the use of 2 exams. My eldest indeed failed her 11 plus, a fact that embarrasses her to this day, despite having gone to Queens.

    I would much more in favour of a more open type school where streaming can take place within the school itself, not before hand. In that way, there is less of this lumping people together, all the bright catholics in one corner, all the bright Protestants in another. I have never come to terms with this system

  • slug

    On the substance of the issue at hand.

    One thing that amazes me is to see people say that protestants don’t value education. I must have had the most pushy parents in NI protestantdom. But I think the middle class protestants do care about education, its our badge of distinction.

    The middle classes are hurting a bit at this Hain intiative. We liked the idea that you could get free high-quality exducation for your child provided your child was remotely academic and you got them to swat up for the 11+. Which seems understandable.

    I would be sad if some element of selection was lost and the grammars were to have postcode based intake. Do you want your kids mixing with a bunch of druggiies from the local sink estate? Didn’t think so.

    That said I recognise that the low income types in NI have appalling education. They really do. And thats part of NI’s problem. We have a very divided soeicty in NI. The idea to most middle class parents that their kid would go hang out with the paramilitary-oriented drugged up low achievers from the local estate…fills them with horror.

    People are already moving house on the basis of this.

  • Miss Fitz

    Whats more appalling, and more realistic Slug, is that if your next door neighbour who you’ve grown up with fails and you pass, you get separated then.

    Anyway, I think there is a certain amount of snobbery in what you are saying, I have to say I prefer to think my kids would mix with all sorts of other kids and find out what real life is all about.

  • slug

    Miss Fitz.

    Did you know that a lot of the demand for integrated education is for people who failed the 11+ but wanted to claim they were progressive?

    A wierd world we live in.

    I am all for the integration by religion, or buildling schools on the same site and sharing the facilities at the very least.

    As for selection by your opened-up within school idea; well ok but you will still get parents avoiding schools in bad areas.

    I guess we will end up with a half-dozen of our Volutary Grammars going independent unless there is some element of academic selection retained.

  • harpo

    ‘It was positively un-American.’

    Miss Fitz:

    No shit. Un-American.

    Did you assume that everything in the UK would be American?

  • slug

    Miss Fitz

    I agree there is snobbery in what I am saying. I am against snobbery, but I would have to accept that it would be a real worry for a lot of middle class parents.

  • Alan Law


    “That said I recognise that the low income types in NI have appalling education. They really do. And thats part of NI’s problem. We have a very divided soeicty in NI. The idea to most middle class parents that their kid would go hang out with the paramilitary-oriented drugged up low achievers from the local estate…fills them with horror

    People are already moving house on the basis of this.”

    What a load of shite…some of the alleged murderers of Michael McIlveen attend a very well respected Grammar school.

    The ending of the middle classes control of education in Northern Ireland is going to be Hain’s legacy. Something which should be applauded, the idea that this country can develop by leaving behind the have nots is beyond credulity.

  • Pete Baker


    As the example of Miss Fitz’s eldest – which she has kindly shared with us – shows, failing the 11 plus does not mean that a child will, as a result of that exam result, automatically be left behind – despite the frequent statements in the media to the contrary – statements which, in no small part, contribute to the embarrassment many feel in those circumstances.. incorrectly imo.

  • Pete Baker

    Miss Fitz

    I do think there are two separate issues here. One is the issue of academic selection, the other is over-provision, and overlapping provision, of schools.

    Neither Hain, nor Eagle, seem to have any concrete plans to deal with the second issue.. there have been pointed statements and vague plans about what may happen.. but they have, in effect, ducked the issue.

    On academic selection. Perhaps the best indicator of the muddled thinking on this is the pupil profiles.

    I had a little look at the plans for the profiles earlier.

    In short, parents will, on the basis of the pupil profile, compiled by the primary school, apply to the post-primary school ‘best suited’ to their child.

    They will not, obviously, simply apply to the school that they think will give their child the best education…

    The post-primary school will, under NO circumstances, be allowed to see that profile to assess whether the child is actually ‘best suited’ to the school applied for.

    That simply makes no sense to me at all – beyond keeping to the mantra of no academic selection.

    Then there’s the issue of specialist schools and how they are imagined to accept pupils…

    There’s a fundamental lack of understanding of the human condition going on in these governmental best laid plans..

  • Mr Kelly

    However some do get left behind – demoralised by the rejection they face at age 11; or even before that, when they are discouraged by their teachers from taking the exam, whpbelieve that they they may be unsuccessful.

  • slug

    Everyone will choose the grammar school; it will be oversubscribed; so they will go on who is closest; so parents who give a damn (and don’t go private) will buy property near to top grammars.

    The gainers? Those who own houses near good grammars.

    The losers? Those who own houses far from good grammars.

  • Miss Fitz

    I just think that people here are so unused to any other kind of system that they are terrified by this unknown.

    The gainers should and will be kids who get the chance to mix with other kids in their local area and community. Maybe a child isnt academic, but truly gifted at music or art. The positive thing about mixed ability schools is that each child knows that there are people with other abilities in the world, and they dont grow up with warped ideas that everyone is at their level of academic achievement

    Dont get me wrong. My daughter went on to Queens, but she did it against all the odds. My choice would have been to send her to a local shcool where she could have been perhaps in a lower stream for first year, and then re-assessed. As it was, she became highly stressed and we were finally able to put her into a local grammar school under medical grounds.

    I am not an education specialist, but as a mother I know that this system is rigid and in so many ways confining for the growth and overall development of children

  • Mr Kelly

    This argument about everyone buying property near to ‘top grammars’ is over-rated – where is the evidence?

    The more likely consequence, especially in rural areas is that local secondary schools will get a more mixed intake, and everyone will benefit.

    If there has to be selection, then it is fairer to do it by postcode than any other way.

  • Pete Baker

    Miss Fitz

    From my vague memory of the figures there are a surprising, to some, high level of students at Queens who did not follow the supposedly traditional route of 11 plus, O and A levels [or whatever they are these days – god I feel old..]

    My points remain though, in particular, the failure to tackle the over-provision of schools.

    And the failure to use the pupil profiles in a much more pro-active and useful way than is currently envisaged.

    Your point on children gifted in music and art is a good one. The pupil profiles could, and probably will, identify such children at an early stage.. but they will not be able to use that profile as part of an application to a school identified as a specialist in that area.

    It’s worth pointing out that the pupil profiles, compiled over time, could by themselves have replaced the one-off exam at 11. If the government were not driven by an abhorence of academic selection of any kind.

  • Mario el argentino

    US schools are brutally divided by class and race. Please read the amazing book by Jonathan Komozol, Savage inequalities. What you are describing is no different than what I saw in US schools, people divided by economic class and race instead of religion. Of course some US schools ( with the exception of the more rural schools didnt have the religous thing, but there is “tracking’ and there is seperation of students, and thousands of students destined to fail in underfunded schools. In US schools entire portions of cities are condemed to sub par and unequal educations while middle class and afluent communities receive the benefits of another. Numerous school districts in Urban areas have gone broke, and have been privatized, thousands of children drop out, most of them black and poor. Bush’s so called ” no child left behind” initiatives with their achievement tests are nothing more than a way to kick out the poor. It is a rather savage education system, no different than the classist system we have in Argentina.

    i think testing is not a way to teach children and help them achieve their full potential. Testing is a way for adults to feel like they are teaching when all theyre doing are teaching basic skills of memorization.

  • Mr Kelly

    True, Pete – lots of people are getting into Queens by ‘non-traditional routes'(ie having failed the 11+); so why did the Grammars have to reject them at age 11, Pete?

    Why can’t they all be educated under the same roof?

  • Pete Baker

    Arguably, the alternative to your labelling of their being rejected, Mr Kelly, is that for whatever reason they were not focused on their education at that time.

    The grammar schools took those who were focused, or whose ability enabled them to pass regardless.. and the ones who became focused later, despite not passing the 11 plus, did so because they were driven to achieve the best possible education for themselves – not necessarily a bad thing.

    But you’re still missing my point.. I’m not arguing that the 11 plus must be retained.. but I am saying that there is no need for the rejection of academic selection – see pupil profiles.

    By the way, they all can’t be educated under the same roof.. there isn’t a roof big enough ;o)

  • Mr Kelly

    Focussed children, Pete? Teachers and parents of young children know that the 11+ is usually passed by cramming; witness the number of ‘tutors’ operating in NI. Middle class parents avail of them in huge numbers. Working class parents, for obvious reasons, use them much less.Particularly in places like the Shankhill, where few children get a Grammar School place.

    And yes, there there are all ability schools which operate extemely sucessfully taking everyone from their local community. Both here and in The rest of the UK

  • Alan Law


    I am not sure your example of Miss Fitz’s child succeeding assists your argument, particularly since she mentions the acute embarrassment her child still feels at this failure to suceed at such a young age, anyway how could a child with Miss Fitz as a mother not succeed?

    NI education has failed the masses for decades and is rightly being reformed.

  • Sean Fear

    The English experience of abolishing grammar schools suggests that you reduce social mobility, and actually create schools that are much more rigidly divided by class and religion.

    A comprehensive school in a posh area is very different from one in a run-down area. And people will pay to live near to the former.

    Other people will pay to go privately.

    I, for one, have never understood why left wingers think that selection by religion and income is okay, but selection by academic ability is atrocious.

  • Pete Baker

    Mr Kelly

    It would help in any discussion if you read beyond the parts of the comments that deal with the one point you repeatedly wish to return to.


    Yes, Miss Fitz has already pointed that out.. although, in fairness, I did attempt to widen the issue from that individual example.

  • Sean Fear

    “NI education has failed the masses for decades and is rightly being reformed. ”

    Actually it’s the “masses” who will lose out from these changes. Up till now, NI GCSE and A Level scores have usually been better than those for the rest of the UK.

  • slug

    It is perhaps not all bad news for the middle classes provided that this means everyone has a private school in their area. Suppose Belfast gets 3 or 4 privates, and towns like Coleraine, Dungannon, Ballymena, Armagh, Enniskillen, all get one of their Voluntary Grammars to go private (I can think of brand-name schools in each of these areas). Then the middle class kid will not have to pass the 11+ to get a good education, you can get it if you pay for it. The question is whether enough parents will be willing to part with the £xxxx’s per year for them to break even.

  • willis

    Thanks Missfitz

    This is exactly the kick up the rear that this debate needed.

    Does anyone out there know what the hell Ken was quoting?

  • Mr Kelly

    Pete, those that support selection(and by inference, rejection) want to latch on to the pupil profile because every other form of testing at age 11 has been discredited; and is widely unpopular.

    If teachers were to use pupil profiles to ‘direct’ pupils towards either a grammar or secondary school, this would also cause outrage. It’s a road to bedlam!

    Lets get everyone under the same roof, wearing the same uniform! Demonstrating that we value children equally.

  • Pete Baker

    Mr Kelly

    Kindly leave the motivations you see in others to one side and look at the reasons I’ve given for my support for a more appropriate use of the pupil profiles than the one currently envisaged by the government – which prevents post-primary schools from seeing the profiles of the pupils, despite those profiles, supposedly, being used in the choice of school applied to.

  • Miss Fitz

    No one seems to have picked up on the fact that 40% of us are illiterate.

    Maybe thats cos 40% of us are illiterate.

  • Pete Baker

    The 40% don’t frequent Slugger, Miss Fitz..

    Well.. OK.. some do.. but that’s what we have moderators for! ;o)

  • slug

    I would agree that the biggest problem in education in NI is the ones who get the worst education. Theres a lot of inactivity in the labour market in NI – this is far higher in NI than any other UK region. Its a story of disadvantage begetting disadvantage because those people who are inactive have children but there is no culture of educational aspiration for the children to absorb.

    Where to begin on this I don’t know. Ending the 11+? Theres a lot more to it than that.

  • Mr Kelly

    Pete, I disagree with your suggestion that the pupil profile be used by the secondary school to select pupils because I oppose selective schools-for all of the reasons I have already outlined earlier in the debate.

    I am not alone in this – our little 6 counties is unique in the western world in having a selective system.

  • gg

    “This argument about everyone buying property near to ‘top grammars’ is over-rated – where is the evidence?”

    Anecdotal I know, but a member of my family did this a few years ago as a precaution.

    I wonder in the selection debate, if there is a point where selection is ok. I have worked in a system where there is a sort of selection at 10 based on primary school grade averages, but reselection at 15, where people can move up, or down, or leave at 16, as they so desire. It does pretty well in the PISA studies, as does NI, and has a very high HE uptake. Ability over a long term is measured, and if it improves, the pupil can take advantage of their learning. But ‘one size fits all’ is a mistake. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I look around at the English system and wonder why anyone would want to adopt it.

  • slug

    “”This argument about everyone buying property near to ‘top grammars’ is over-rated – where is the evidence?””

    There are lots of academic studies of how this puts lots onto the price of houses – using English data post comprehensivization.

  • gg

    “I am not alone in this – our little 6 counties is unique in the western world in having a selective system.”

    Not the case at all. Parts of England have retained an exam. Certain other European countries use continuous assessment.

  • slug

    “I am not alone in this – our little 6 counties is unique in the western world in having a selective system.”

    Don’t the Germans have an abitur. There are also some Grammar schools remaining in Kent and Buckinghamshire.

  • Mr Kelly

    Slug and gg are grasping at straws – there are very few Grammars left in England.Every attempt to reintroduce them has met widespread opposition.

    Tony Blair’s current difficulties stem from his proposal to introduce selection, and he has been forced to U-turn.

    It was under Thatcher (remember, Conservative) that comprehensivisation accelerated

    Cameron is not making promises to make a big extention of selection.

    Incidentally, it is Finland that has the highest Pisa score in Europe – and no selection.

    There is also very little selection in Germany.

    Yes, our wee country tops the selection league!

  • Nevin

    Miss Fitz, some of my relatives in Co Armagh were in a catchment area that had opted for the Dixon Plan. They transferred to a local Junior High School at age 11 and, if I remember correctly, had a local choice of grammar school or technical college at 14. They didn’t need to do the 11+.

    There are two so called comprehensive schools in Ballycastle: one State, the other Catholic.

  • It was positively un-American

    No shit, Sherlock. It seemed to be a holdover from days when there were jobs to go to after vocational training.
    Those jobs are now in Singiphore, Bangalore and Sri Lanka.
    It also seems so unnecessarily complicated.

    US schools are brutally divided by class and race.

    Oh Bullshit. You got too much booklarnin’, boy.

    US communities are divided by income and race. That’s where the bussing came in.

    Let’s just look at the highest and lowest high schools in Santa Clara county:

    Gunn in Palo Alto is the sixth highest ranked high school in the state. It’s students come from the technocratic elite serving Stanford, Hewlett-Packard and Varian. Enrollment is 59% European, 2% Black, 29% Asian and the rest Hispanic. Just like the community.

    Overfelt is in the barrio next to US 101 near my first apartment in San Jose. It’s nothing but strip malls, housing tracts and apartments. That’s the area where I saw my first lowrider. It is ranked 664 from the top. Enrollment is 2% European, 3% Black, 23% Asian and the rest Hispanic. Just like the community it serves.

    In both schools there are 19 students per teacher. It takes less than half an hour to go from one to the other.

    Get our racism straight, ferchristsakes.

  • Now the real test is whether the kids can spell Singapore.

  • Benny Cake

    What about those of us who made it out of the ghetto without having ever heard of the 11+.
    Primary school to Junior high school to Grammar school to a nice little course at QUB thank you very much. Ever heard of the Dickson Plan which operates in Craigavon/Armagh? It still retains selection but delays the age from 11 to 14.

    The standard of teaching in the junior high schools however is an absolute disgrace, especially after selection. Although the system in general is fairer to all.

  • It still retains selection but delays the age from 11 to 14.

    That makes a hell of a lot of sense. Boys are absolute bubbleheads until they get to 14.

    Then it’s like they are pod people.

    The VocEd track still trains them for jobs that only exist overseas.

  • gg

    “It still retains selection but delays the age from 11 to 14.”

    As I said above, I have experience of a similar system and think it is very fair. It retains mobility, takes ability into account, but does this over time.

    Selection at 11 is too early, but people do get ‘selected’ at some point in their lives. Not everyone gets the job.

  • Alan

    The defeat of Rogan’s amendment was the single best thing that could have happened for our children. It is only unfortunate that the DUP and UUP may be able to retain selection if the Assembly is returned. Still any proposals from a DUP or UUP Minister will still have to pass the Assembly as well.

    Looking at the figures, those supporting the bill achieved a staggering feat in that the final figures did not actually require the Lib Dem Vote in order to succeed. The Vote shows the labour party’s commitment to the ending of academic selection. Little wonder that Bloomfield and others were so down in the mouth when the support they had depended upon from the Conservative Party simply failed to turn up and vote.

    On Post Code lottery – forget it – this will only be an issue if it is included as a tie breaker, you can be sure that schools will be discouraged from that. If your aunt’s Uncle says he moved because of it, how are any of us to know what the implication of that is across the board?

    Comparisons with grammar schools in GB are spurious, only 4 % of pupils are served by grammars where they have been retained.

    On Pete’s point about rationalising schools, surely that is what Bain is there to recommend?

    Congratulations to everyone involved in the lobby to end selection.

  • Animus

    Slug – I know parents who set up one of the first, if not the first, integrated school and I can assure you they didn’t do it due to fear of failure of the 11+.

    It is true that children whose parents have money/comfort and a strong interest in education are more likely to perform well in school. In order to ensure a good mixed intake, why not set the admissions criteria (which are under discussion) to be socially inclusive as they are for nursery places? That way the postcode lottery doesn’t have as much of a sting.

    I may be unique, but I doubt it, but I would like my child to be able to learn in an environment where learning to respect one another and how to get along with others is as important as high academic achievement. In my own school, we were streamed after 13 into an academic stream for some subjects (English, maths) and not others. It was a good system. We didn’t have a choice of schools as I grew up in the country, but it worked very well for us. All students were considered and catered for and that’s what I want for my own child. I’m a left-winger and am opposed to religious segregation and income segregation as well as academic selection.

    Parents are much more competitive than their children and this fierce emphasis on performing well academically is a disservice to the children and the parents. It is indicative of of the damage of the selection system.

  • Congal Claen

    Hi Everyone,

    Strange that Labour are so keen on ending academic selection when not one Labour Leader has gone through the comprehensive system since the abolishion of selection in England. Making the system fairer? Nonsense.

    As for delaying selection – from my recollection of primary school, I (and everyone else) could have told you then who was going to “pass” the 11+ form P1.

    Wrapping kids in cotton wool will not prepare them for the harsh realities of working life. Doing the “best for every child” is Disneyland left wing mumbo jumbo. For a start it assumes all kids want to learn. This most certainly is not the case.

    Fix the secondaries. Don’t ballix the Grammars…

  • Alan

    *Don’t ballix the Grammars*

    It’s already happening. And they’re doing it themselves.

    As we have seen recently Grammars are increasingly taking C’s and D’s. Yet, there is no adverse impact on outcomes – which suggests that the Grammars don’t make the difference and you can teach all ability and succeed. Look at Inst – around 40% non A-B and still doing well.

    *Wrapping kids in cotton wool will not prepare them for the harsh realities of working life. *

    You clearly haven’t read the detail of the new curriculm – it’s hardly cotton wool.

  • Congal Claen

    Hi Alan,

    “no adverse impact on outcomes”

    I’ve taught in schools that have allowed admission criteria to slip. There certainly has been an impact on outcomes. Behaviour has certainly been adversely affected. Teenage pregnancies are not unusual anymore. Grades haven’t been affected but this is because easier exams have masked the decline of academic achievement.

  • Alan

    Easier exam marking? Was it McCartney or Ken McG who was leading the band on that one? It’s a slur on young people and the hard work that they put in.

    Aside from that, how many goalposts do you want to move?

    You decide, the sum will still come out the same.

  • Reader

    Alan: Aside from that, how many goalposts do you want to move?
    If the results from the securely placed grammars are climbing in line with national results, with frozen results from the compromising grammars, then there’s the evidence. And remember, there’s a 5 year lag between intake and GCSE results.
    Alan: It’s a slur on young people and the hard work that they put in.
    Only if it’s incorrect. If it’s correct, then the failure to challenge children during their developmental years is a betrayal of those children.

  • Congal Claen

    Hi Alan,

    “It’s a slur on young people and the hard work that they put in.”

    Nonsense. As far as I’m aware there hasn’t been any big genetic changes in humans in the last 20 years. Therefore, I’d expect to have roughly the same number of passes each year. Yet, every year, the exam results get better. This during a time when there have been teacher shortages. However, contrary to what you think I believe, the blame does not lie with the children.