Grammars: an engine of social mobility

Eric Waugh argues that whilst other resources have been frittered away, Northern Ireland’s Grammar Schools remain the jewel in Northern Ireland’s educational crown. He argues that with educational policy facing a flux in a Blair/Cameron Britain, nothing should be rushed that forces the best of our schools to effectively move themselves outside the state sector.His primary reasoning arises from the record of Grammars in promoting kids from poor families to a good standard of education:

It is the grammar schools of Northern Ireland which have hoisted Queen’s University Belfast to top place as the UK university with the highest proportion of students from less affluent homes.

Before most of them were abolished in Great Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, the grammar schools provided nearly two entrants out of three to Oxford and Cambridge colleges – despite the undoubted advantages then enjoyed by specially-prepared rival candidates from the public schools.

Now, when universities face cuts in their funding if they fail to recruit enough state-educated pupils, and admissions officers strain to boost their intake, their proportion of the total has fallen below 50%.


  • Waugh is absolutely correct. There are 2 points to be rammed home again and again. First, the middle classes will not really lose out under comprehensivisation as they will be able to move house in search of schools or else pay to go private. The people who will lose out are those from poorer backgrounds who would have gone to grammar schools if not for these reforms. Second, England has been here before and it says something about the pig-headed class warriors in the NIO that they are happy to give to NI what has been shown to fail in England.

  • Hmm…

    No grammars no social mobility? Horrors! How have those poor devils in the Republic managed to get by without selective education???

  • Relaist

    Re the Republic – the send their kids to private schools or move to middle class areas!Relaist

  • Peking

    You are right. For years John Hume loved to sing the praises of the 11+ and how it got him into grammar school and allowed him to make something of himself. How many of those in his and the other parties had the same route into grammar school education but are now pulling the ladder up behind them on working class youngsters?
    The PC brigade on both sides of the schuck have messed up an education system that had really had very little wrong with it.

  • lib2016

    “The PC brigade on both sides of the schuck have messed up an education system that had really had very little wrong with it.”

    When Cameron took over the Conservatives one of his first moves was to endorse the Blairite goal of having 50% of the population reach third level education. The goal in the South is to reach a figure of 65%, they have already passed the 56% mark.

    The IDA (southern body for attracting jobs) has estimated that a minimum of 60% of future jobs will require third level education and earlier this year Amazon moved it’s European base from Britain to Ireland citing the availability of suitably qualified workers as the reason for their decision to move.

    Whatever about the past we need to concentrate on opening up acess to third level education.

  • Hmm…

    Grammar schools happened to be a key vehicle of social mobility for the post-war generation but it just doesn’t follow that they are needed to perform this role now.

    Talk of mass middle class migration within Northern Ireland is downright silly: this ain’t London folks! Last time I looked, the Republic had bugger all private schools and if the middle classes are sloshing around rural Ireland in search of good schools, it’s news to me. If the Republic can send great swathes of its youth to higher education in the absence of academic selection, then I can’t see why the North won’t be able to pull off the same trick. Nor can I see that the costs of selection here are worth paying in return for results that are only marginally better than those in the rest of the UK.

  • feismother

    It irritates me that Waugh thinks the number of pupils a school sends to Oxbridge is a measure of its success.

  • mnob

    well feismother seing as they are part of the *very* exclusive club of world class universities (of which there may be only 1 other in europe) i think its a good measure. (maybe not the only one – but not a bad one nonetheless)

  • mnob

    … and if that measure includes those from social groups who are now not going to get the opportunity then its an even better measure.

  • feismother

    Well, I’ve some experience of the admissions procedure to both of them and know there’s plenty of luck involved. It’s as much to do with contacts and knowing how to play the system as it is with academic ability. Methodist College is very good at that but it’s got nothing to do with how it functions as a grammar school.

  • Peking

    Let’s be honest here, many of the degree courses we’re talking about here are concocted and useless in a practical sense. Media studies and womens studies to name but a couple. We now have a situation where students, and who can blame them, are opting for these easier courses over the more traditional ones, which though much more difficult are at least of practical use and benefit.
    As for the movement of industry to the republic, that may just have something to do with the taxation system there as well.

    “Grammar schools happened to be a key vehicle of social mobility for the post-war generation but it just doesn’t follow that they are needed to perform this role now.”

    Why? Are there no more intelligent working class kids left living in squalid ghettos who need a leg up out of their social situation?

  • Hmm…

    Yes, but focus on social mobility. Mobility can actually be acheived without entry to Oxbridge (or the other world class UK institutions…). Given that Oxbridge recruits so many of the children of the privileged, those schools which send most of their pupils to other universities are probably more successful in terms of facilitating social mobility.

  • Hmm…

    Of course there are, but selective education restricts the numbers of them who will get that leg up, just as it did for John Hume’s generation. Hume et al. may have enjoyed more opportunities than their parents did, but just because grammars afforded many people an opportunity for social mobility, it doesn’t follow that this system afforded the maximum possible mobility even then, and it certainly doesn’t follow that this system is the only or even the best way to acheive this end today.

  • lib2016


    I’m what the Yanks call a highschool dropout myself but I understand from those who have been there that university has something to do with teaching people how to think rather than anything as mundane as vocational studies.

    Other factors may be involved but it will soon be necessary to have an ECDL just to be a security man. Society gets increasingly technological and people need the ability to cope with it.

  • inuit_goddess

    Two of the best education systems in the world – S Ireland and Canada – are almost entirely comprehensive, with just a thin upper crust of private schools for the uber rich.

    The current education system is failing Northern Ireland which has the worst exam results in the entire country, except for an elite of ‘A’ grade students who get coddled at the expense of everyone else.

    Comprehensives offer the flexibility of streaming by subject, rather than the blunt instrument of social segregation at the age of 11.

    It’s just nuts for politicians on all sides to talk loftily about solving the divisions in our society whilst upholding an education system which segregates our children by religion from the age of 4, and by class at the age of 11.

    Integrate all schools now.

  • This is timely from Waugh- I wonder did he watch Admission Impossible on Channel Four on Wednesday night? I did and it just confirmed what my English friends say about their version of selection at 11.

  • inuit_goddess

    “The current education system is failing Northern Ireland which has the worst exam results in the entire country”

    link for this lie please?

  • Peking

    We will have to differ on this one. I think there is a lot wrong with education beyond the removal of grammar schools.
    My experience is that primary school education has been messed up by on-high dictates constantly changing the curriculum and teaching methods on a whim. We even had a couple of generations who were taught using the phonetic method whereby spelling and grammatical construction was completely downplayed.
    Allied to this is the continued notion that equality means all children being equal in ability, whereas it is simply about providing equality of opportunity. The upshot of this has been that children are educated at the pace of the slowest in the class which results in everyone being dragged down as opposed to upwards. This everyone’s-a-winner nonsense, which has even crept into school sports days, in reality ensures that most are actually losers. The removal of selection at the pre-secondary stage and the bizarre array of degree courses now on offer is an extension of that sort of shit.
    Not only is all this bad in terms of scholastic education, it just doesn’t prepare people properly for ordinary life where losing is an everyday thing.

  • Peking


    Yes, it really is approaching the time when binmen will be required to have a degree. The question is, will we have smarter binmen when that day arrives. I doubt it.

  • Hmm…

    Well it seems we’re not entirely at loggerheads: my opposition to grammars is entirely on equality of oportunity grounds. No sensible supporter of equality would want to see people made worse off, just so that they could be equally badly off!

    I suspect you’re right about primary education. I only wish the grammar schools were more effective at teaching spelling and grammar 🙂

  • lib2016


    Maybe I didn’t explain my point properly. Without basic computer competency it is impossible to look after a modern factory building. You can’t even get a job as a nightwatchman now without some skills and as for working on building sites even as a labourer – you don’t want to know.

    There are increasingly few jobs which do not call for what I can only describe as technoliteracy, and that is a field where change is coming very fast.

    I quite agree that one can’t make stupid people smart but even smart people need to develop their skills, one of which is thinking.

  • Crataegus

    If you really want to improve the lot of children in areas of under achievement then target the primary schools, reduce the pupil teacher ratio in those areas and improve pre school facilities. Augment the skill their parents offer. Have homework clubs and make sure the children are properly fed, breakfast clubs etc. If equality of opportunity is your aim then that should be the priority. The grammar – secondary school debate has more to do with dogma and is secondary. There is no doubt in my mind that education needs to be streamed as not everyone has the same abilities. The question is how best to do it?

    I believe that one of the problems in NI is that we don’t take ourselves seriously enough. I have been at quite a few meetings over the summer, in London and elsewhere it most definitely is Mr Crataegus. In Belfast it is first name and “how are ye” Now old Crat is not a great one for formality and prefers people at their ease, but it occurred to me that this behaviour may be based on a feeling of insecurity and even inferiority (nervous dog wags tail and wants recognition). The reason why I mention this is because these modes of behaviour are learnt by our children and it doesn’t best suit in interviews or their perception of where they stand in the world. A lot of our children, especially those in difficult areas, need to feel good about themselves and confident and we really need to instil in them the idea that they are the equal of any, born to rule as it were, and that business like attitude needs to permeate into many sections of business life, like the twee local television programmes, the mechanics, joiners, bricklayers etc. As important as education and ability is confidence.

  • Alan

    Oh dear, what utter nonsense.

    Waugh is so wrong on this that it defies belief. Suffice to say that the success of the grammar schools over the past few years has been success with an increasingly diverse enrolment. Kids respond to well structured environments with strict boundaries and an atmosphere of motivation. There is no reason why that should be restricted to a cohort of supposedly bright pupils. Indeed, it was interesting to see Strathearn advertising for a Special Needs teacher on Tuesday last.

    Waugh should note that his figures are partial. The % of non- middle class going to Queens is larger because the figures ignore the 30 odd % who go to university in GB. The notion that Waugh’s figures argue for the strength of grammar education is haywire. Rather, it speaks of the success of FE and Secondaries.

    At the heart of this is the reality that we can no longer afford to educate our brightest to the highest only to lose them to imigration. We must recognise the shame of having 25% of the population who have problems with basic reading and writing. The end of selection has been a long time coming, it is time to look to the future and implement the policy.

  • tiny

    There is a lot of nonsense talked about grammar schools taking a ‘broad’ range of children at the minute, in Lisburn if you don’t get an A you don’t get in, as for C4’s ‘Admission Impossible’ it was a nightmare for parents of bright academic children, is that the future for us?

    Yes the present system isn’t perfect, but improve the worst bits, don’t destroy the good bits!

  • I wonder if this is the same Alan from the Shankill who was educated at Inst, and who now wants to remove that ladder of opportunity to the next Shankill generation. Seems a bit hypocritical to me.

  • tiny

    Admission Impossible was indeed the reality check we all need in this debate. Selection will remain only instead of being based on the ability of the child it will be based on the ability of the parents to pay (or move house).

    Nice one Labour.

  • Peking

    Labour, with their right-on tinkering, are well on the way to destroying education in the UK.
    The hypocrisy of those shouting for changes to the education system is laughable too. The same people will move heaven and earth to make sure their own youngsters don’t have to go to an ordinary state school. Tony and Cherie being the prime examples of that.

  • edjucayshun

    Get real. The present system aint perfect. The proposed system is worse.

    The grammar school system has been a brilliant way of getting working class kids into good schoos and getting a cracking education myself included.

    testing at 11 is clearly going to be unfair on some pupils but those that miss out can now go to secondaries with proper streaming and they can move onwards and upwards at a later stage. The current system works and does not need the radical and dogmatic changes currently proposed.

    And by the way too many kids now go to university. I went in 1988 and the figure was 1 in 7. What’s it now? …more than 1 in 2 which is an absolute nonsense……..

  • Hmm…

    Mr Crataegus is, I reckon, spot on with respect to the sorts of things that need to be done at the primary level, but is the idea of abolishing selection simply ‘dogma’ as has been repeatedly asserted here (dogmatically asserted perhaps?) Abolishing the 11+ won’t cure all educational ills at a stroke but even a small step in the right direction should be welcomed (the best shouldn’t be allowed to become an enemy of the good). Why isn’t primary education better at present? Well one clear reason is that the present system of selection gives the middle classes no incentive to take an interest in the educational opportunities of their fellow citizens. Abolish the 11+ and the middle classes will need to think more seriously about everyone’s education as they won’t be able to insulate their own children from the ill effects of unequal education. I just don’t buy the argument that everyone will simply go private: they haven’t in the south, and I doubt if the North could sustain a large private education sector. Even as it stands, those who do take this option elsewhere in the UK would prefer not to if they could be confident that their local state schools were properly run and funded (Labour’s failure to do anything sensible about resolving this collective action problem is a disgrace).

    Some people seem to think that the sky will fall down if the 11+ is abolished and that without selection they would have been left little better than illiterate. The rest of the UK is simply not doing as badly as these people think (although other countries do better). The phrase that springs to my mind while reading some of these high minded defences of ‘equal’ opportunity and the high educational standards of our grammar schools (which do not appear to be the envy of the outseide world to the best of my knowledge)is that old saw of Gore Vidal’s, that, ‘it is not enough that I succeed: others must fail.’ (OK I think the original may be ‘that my friends must fail’, but you get the picture).

  • Crataegus

    Sadly this debate tends to be based on ideology. Let us start with some reasonable statements.

    1 Our best students do exceedingly well and for them the existing system works.

    2 There is no question that a substantial section of the population obtain very poor qualifications. Many people are leaving school unable to properly read and write indeed it is worse than that many of them lack basic verbal skills as well. (How this can be allowed to happen is beyond me)

    3 The problems that cause this lack of attainment are wider than mere educational structures.

    We need to do is ask objectively if the proposals will in fact improve the opportunities for the low achievers without impinging on the achievement of those who currently do well. Is this a measure to address under achievement or is that a separate problem? If it is not properly addressing that problem then what exactly are we doing? What is our objective and what will the consequences of these actions be?

    Let me state my position I went to a dump of a Primary School, a hateful vindictive place. You were expected to fail. I was the only pupil in my year to pass. Were the rest of the class stupid, no they simply did not have the support at home. Like all classes some were very clever and some not so. Let me be very clear I detest the 11 plus, because it brands these children as failures, and believe me it is the last thing they need. 11 is far too young to make such a momentous decision in such a final manner.

    On the other side of the coin there were many children at grammar school, supported and coached to pass who were, well not the sharpest. They were sitting in seats that were not rightly theirs.

    I would love to see a new framework, but I would like to see one that firstly addresses underachievement as THE priority and then comprehensive revisions to address the short comings and only the shortcomings. For me you need selection of some sort, and it must be much easier to move up or down the streams. You need competition and you need to place pupils so that they are stretched but not out of their depth.

    That said I really doubt if the proposals will make one jot of a difference for most working class children. In my opinion they favour children in a middle class area who are of very average capability.


    And by the way too many kids now go to university. I went in 1988 and the figure was 1 in 7. What’s it now? …more than 1 in 2 which is an absolute nonsense……..

    I am totally unimpressed with the idea that 50% should go to university. An acerbic colleague reminded me that it means some students at University will be below average intelligence. I am less than sure that University is the most suitable form of education for many and many of the courses could best be described as inventive. Universities have an interest in promoting themselves, but the rest of us should have the wit to take what they say with a pinch of salt.

  • Crataegus


    It does not matter one jot to me or any member of my family what happens in NI schools. For many reasons I would like to see working class children, well all children, do a lot better and be given more equal opportunity. I genuinely do not think the proposals will do that.

    For me it is not a matter of class politics but a matter of fairness and enabling our young to make the most of their lives.

  • me

    I went to the best school(results wise??) in the ROI the year I got my leaving.4 guys got 800 points and another 2 600.The school was a public school in a middle class area. I can assure you a lot of the teachers were appalling and I dont know how our school did so well that year.The next year it was way down the rankings.I think that in NI there are a few good schools that do well year in year out cos of the +11 thing.but in the ROI theres more movement and the private schools while they do well certainly don,t dominate the scene.
    I think a lot of this probably boils down to the fact that every school whether good or bad gets an even mix of good,bad and average teachers.all the good teachers dont teach in good schools and vica versa

  • Hmm…

    I didn’t, of course, mean to suggest that you were amongst the ranks of the dogmatic 11+ supporters. The suggestion that abolition of the 11+ will result in drastically reduced opportunities for able (mostly middle-class) students without significantly increasing the opportunities for the disadvantaged seems to me to be unfounded. I’m not saying that we should sacrifice the able for some marginal gains for those at the bottom of the heap, but rather that the current system sacrifices those at the bottom for marginal gains at the top.

    Fairness vs class politics? Not sure what to make of that really. Levelling down to acheive equaity is pointless (and wrong). I would like to see substantively equal opportunities for everyone to excel in education. Some will, some won’t. The idea that all must have prizes is clearly absurd. The current system involves an unfair and inefficient amount of ‘wastage’. Too much specialisation and selection affords too few opportunities for those who’ve missed out at earlier stages to get back into education later on and is simply not very good at allowing able students to find the area in which they can excel.

    I don’t claim to have a crystal ball, but here’s how I see it: in a post 11+ NI more (though far from all) of the genuinely able students will have an opportunity to excel. Some of those who scrape by within grammar schools may not do as well as they might otherwise, but I see nothing unfair in that. Those who currently excel will continue to do so (and good luck to them). This scenario does not entail a trade-off between excellence and crude class dogma. The defence of the current system is not rooted in a belief in equal opportunity or in educational excellence, but rather in a fear that the less able but currently privileged may lose out (although they’ll not fare as badly as the losers under the current system).This doesn’t fill me with glee, but such losses would not be unjust. Maybe this is what explains the shrillness of some of the defences of the 11+? Good students will excel in any case… 🙂

  • Crataegus


    I agree with a lot of what you say, firstly with regard fairness vs class politics. I don’t like the ‘them and us’ type of equations. Set standards and apply them and try to improve opportunity and standards of care across the board, it’s a net for everyone.

    With regards the proposals I cannot see how selection based on proximity will help working class children and I totally fail to see the value of pupil profiles within this context. There is a lot of hogs wash in the proposals.

    Basic question why do children fail the 11 plus? Statistically I should have failed; I lived abroad much of my first 7 years, had an unusual grasp of English, was dyslexic and started school about 3 years late. So why did I pass?

    Firstly self esteem I was taught that no one was my better than anyone else and certainly not me, I had a family that had interests, many many interests, knowledge was regarded as power, I was taught to question and accept nothing at face value. My parents spent hours with me on spelling (still haven’t mastered it) but fortunately I could read and comprehend a lot better than I could spell, which the stupid brutish primary teachers seemed totally unable to grasp. (may they roast in hell) The support network I had as a child was second to none. That is the main reason why I passed the 11 plus.

    The children on the Shankill and Newlodge fail because their support network is virtually non existent. Their parents have limited educational attainment, limited interests and limited horizons and resources so what chance do their children have? Some of the children are not even properly fed. Unless we deal with these problems one generation of under attainment will follow the last. They are doomed long before the 11 plus. In my opinion these areas are now a lot worse than they were in my day. Another problem is the ethos in schools, in some the children are expected to fail, that is totally unacceptable and an excuse for poor teaching.

    Good students will excel in any case

    That’s an interesting one as we have all different abilities in different subjects, but have you ever sat in class and the teacher is repeating the same thing over and over and over? It is very difficult for teachers, but children need to be able to move at their own speed and if they are interested in a subject it can be a lot faster than the average person in the class. You need to stretch them and they need a bit of competition and other pupils of similar ability even just to bounce ideas off. You also have to bear in mind that some children are more capable than those teaching them.

  • aquifer

    Too many kids leave schools here with zero qualifications, and too many bright kids just leave NI and won’t come back. There have been basic failures to teach reading writing and arithmetic at primary level, with policymakers rediscovering the surprising benefits of ‘synthetics’. i.e. A B C’s to oldsters like me.

    Scottish research shows that social mobility depends more on the jobs people get rather than the comprehensive or grammar school choice, perhaps suggesting that there could be benefits in systems with vocational streams such as that in Germany.

    I remember being shocked at the low expectations the teachers in one secondary school had for their charges, and that stories of failure and unfair discrimination in the world outside were held as typical. There is a case for attitudinal screening for teachers, as subsequent experience with tend to confirm a prior view. i.e. Send the negative ones home, they are doing more harm than good, and recruit some optimistic ones who do not expect students to fail. Also, the lower the academic standard in a school, the deeper the devotion to our local cultural mythologies seemed to be. i.e. National struggles of one sort or another are not for the A stream.

    In my own view too many of the schools are too class and oxbridge obsessed, looking to outside references for success and handicapping students’ ability to think independently. Also kids repress each other, discouraging excellence. Quite unlike our politics of course.

    If we managed to get as many bright youngsters coming to study as those leaving, then we would have made progress.

    Now why are we underprovided with universities again? Capping the study of computing for example!

    If it was cheaper to keep the british army in ireland in the nineteenth century due to cheap agricultural produce and housing, and the need to keep the local economy inflated, would the same arguments not apply to students in the 21st?

    Or is the intellectual deflation of the North the agenda the irish separatists, biblical fundamentalists, and anglophiles can all agree on?