Oxford trawling NI for top quality students…

We, eventually, had a reasonably erudite discussion on education yesterday on Slugger. The issue of Northern Ireland’s clearest educational virtue came up several times: its high scoring performance in A Level exam results. It coincides with an outreach from Oxford to draw in some of that considerable talent. Given that Queens recently joined the Russell Group of elite universities, is there a danger that, despite our many problems, we are taking some historical advantages for granted: ie, considerably higher levels of social mobility in its schools than those in Britain?


  • Julian Robertson

    Yes, and we are destined to repeat the failings of the English! No one on the previous thread who supports abolishing selection clearly outlined how doing so will actually improve social mobility…….

  • Liam Gordon

    Interesting article. I went to Oxford from NI in the late 80s. Northern Irish kids, especially from the better Catholic grammar schools were woefully under represented- entire years from Methody went up to colleges like Jesus due to long running historic connections.

    I was introduced to the idea of even going to Oxford via the target schools scheme. A polite well-spoken girl originally from a posh Belfast school braved the rigours of traveling west of the Bann, to spread the good word. Her sales pitch was easy- the average NI kid is smarter than the toffs walking in via public school coach in the English shires.

    I enjoyed my time there- a blessed relief from the grim crap in NI at the time. And not in the slightest bit like Brideshead Revisiting (no C & S mincing around front quad with a teddy bear). More importantly the tutorial system- weekly ego destruction by a man/woman who knows everything- really forced me to think.

    But do you know the biggest road block to my going to Oxford? My headmaster. I’d gotten an unconditional offer and was delighted. He spent the next three months, with increase vigour and anger, convincing me I should not go to the ‘home of the colonial system’, and muttered darkly about perfidious albion. Those last days before my A levels were unpleasant and tension filled as a result. I’ve never really forgiven the man.

  • But do you know the biggest road block to my going to Oxford? My headmaster.

    Funnily, in my case, in a Belfast Catholic grammar school in the early ’90s, it was exactly the reverse. The school targeted 8 of us who were expected to get straight As and be able to cope with the interview from about the New Year in Lower 6th to try and convince us to apply for Oxbridge. We watched videos of working-class geordie girls saying how great Cambridge was and had a joint session with the Protestant grammar school up the road with an academic from Sidney Sussex. The careers teacher badgered me mercilessly for months to apply.

    While there isn’t the same connection that, say, Methody has with Jesus, there is a long history of Catholic Northern Ireland kids getting into über-lefty King’s, Cambridge. It wasn’t like most of us didn’t know at least one ex-pupil who had gone to Cambridge.

    Anyway, what was the net result? Only one person actually applied for Oxbridge (and did get in). I think in my year, another three people went to England or Scotland by choice, none went down South and maybe half a dozen ended up across the water when their A levels weren’t good enough to get into Jordanstown. This was pre-tuition fees and with some student grant still being paid to working class kids like me.

    Basically, in Catholic grammar schools in Belfast, you go to Queen’s with your mates, unless you don’t get the A-levels, in which case you go to Jordanstown with your mates. Personally, I have no regrets, because of some of my extra-curricular activities, Queen’s was very good for me even though Oxford is one of my favourite places in the entire universe and I have to say I sometimes regret not doing a PhD there when I had the chance and going straight into a job instead.

    But I think my point is, you may have blamed schools like mine for not dragging their pupils out of a provincial middle-class mindset that said the be all and end all of life was to go to Queen’s, get a nice professional job, and join Fortwilliam Golf Club. But I don’t think your experience of anti-English bigotry is the order of the day in Catholic schools – at least in Belfast, they all would have killed to keep up with the Methodies in terms of Oxbridge entrance. Maybe it’s another one of those differences between Belfast and rural Catholic society?

    Anyway, you have motivated me to defend Catholic education in Northern Ireland which is something I never thought I’d see myself doing.

  • kensei

    “Basically, in Catholic grammar schools in Belfast, you go to Queen’s with your mates, unless you don’t get the A-levels, in which case you go to Jordanstown with your mates.”

    Lol. This is so, 100% true.

  • Lol. This is so, 100% true.

    Well, we did both go to St. Malachy’s, Ken.

  • Isn’t this one of the main arguments that has been consistently put forward by those fascists who are opposed to abolishing Northern Ireland’s grammar schools since the argument over academic selection began?

    But why listen to harsh truths when it’s much nicer to imagine some utopian fairytale being waffled on about by some nice do-gooders from New Labour and the supposed “left”.

  • kensei

    “Well, we did both go to St. Malachy’s, Ken.”

    Yeah, though a fair distance apart.

    In fairness, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to go to Queen’s and hang out with your mates. It is a good school after all, and it doesn’t preclude moving away after. I find more people do then.

  • Percival

    I had an offer to do International Relations at St. Andrews, I would have liked to have gone, but it was just too dear!

  • Alan

    ‘The strength of the relationship between educational attainment and family income, especially for access to higher education, is at the heart of Britain’s low mobility culture and what sets us apart from other European and North American countries.’

    Proof perhaps that the European social model aids in promoting mobility, while the Anglo-Saxon model restrains it. An argument for more left-ward leaning policies, surely.

  • willis


    Maybe I have missed something, but a quick scan through the Sotton Report does not seem to supply any evidence that there is a higher level of social mobility in schools here rather than in Britain.

    I think it is fair to ask the Government to think long and hard before destroying the Grammar schools but as far as I can see no-one cares much for the 11+. As Sammy said on the other thread.

    Q. Do you not think the demoralisation resulting from the branding of 75% of our children at the age of 11 has a lot to do with it ?

    A. Given that a high proportion of that 75% go on to university, and then particularly to well paid voluntary sector jobs where they talk about how terrible a trauma the 11+ was, no I don’t.

    Despite being an advocate of the 11+ he rightly points out how many people who “failed” it go on to University.

    There are a number of reasons for this.

    11 is far too early to select.

    Many Secondary schools – Ballyclare, Ashfield do a great job and as Uel McCrea from Ballyclare points out, the number of working class kids going to Queens is more down to those schools and the BIFHE’s etc than it is to the Grammar schools.

    Only 25% “pass” i.e get an A grade but in reality an academic education is suitable for 60%+ of students.

  • Mick Fealty

    I think it is better that ‘people’ think long and hard about it long before the government gets to make the decision.

    But the way the debate is currently being shaped makes it look like a binary choice. I am not convinced that that is the best way to do it. If we get a functioning Assembly, there has to be some scope for hammering out a bespoke solution for NI.

    I’ve worked in some of the comprehensive systems in Europe some work very well – the Scandivanian countries for instance (though it is starting to creak in Denmark, and not just in the bigger cities). Others have relatively high opt out rates from comps into private (mostly church) education: a large Parisian ‘sink’ Lycee has remarkably similar problems to its counterpart in London.

    It is feasible to make a transition or to rejig what we have. To an extent it is just about possible to be agnostic. It is also conceivable that the relatively low level of high achievers, and high level of low achievers (identified in yesterday’s report) could be dealt with, without necessarily clipping the performance of those at the very top.

  • willis


    Dunno about the low level of high achievers. There is certainly a low level of high achievement among the population, mainly due to migration and lack of really good jobs.

    Truth is we are actually in an enviable position. We could probably get by with 25% fewer schools. That is a huge number of teachers whose time could be focussed on improving results. The spending is already there, the economy is holding up.

    The sad fact is that our brightest and best want to leave. Strangely enough, given that one poster to the other thread thought that all of Methody decamped to Oxbridge, you will find an amazing number of last year’s Belfast Voluntary Grammar Sixth Form at Northumbria. No wonder, it has an enviable reputation for getting students good jobs.

  • willis


    I could probably be characterised as one who supports the abolition of academic selection, actually it is more complicated than that.

    It is probably correct that the most recent “reforms” in English secondary education have done little to improve social mobility. The only reform which really, profoundly, changed social mobility was the 1944 Education Act.

    However the key to understanding the failure of the post-war education settlement, and hence the introduction of the English Comprehensive system, is the parlous state of the British economy in the late 40’s. If the money had been available to provide quality education for all instead of the top 25% we would not be having this debate now.

  • liam gordon

    Nice point Sammy. I should add that the headmaster was a Christian Brother from deepest, darkest Kerry, and routinely refered to NI as the ‘occupied 26’ etc. You know the sort.

    A couple of things to add a bit of colour:
    -all the other teachers were super supportive, and primed me for the college interviews. Classic well-educated, motivated catholic (with a small ‘c’) Northern irish teachers. They were delighted when I got in
    -pretty every year since then at least one kid from my school has got into Oxford or that inferior place on the Fens
    -the school puts the new Oxbridgers front and centre in the local newspaper. In my day, at school prize giving publications, those that went over-the-water, were described as ‘at university in England’ reguardless of institution attended.

    Too true re:QUB. Most of my year did law, medicine or teaching…in Belfast. Not a good thing or a bad thing- just a thing.

    The education system in NI is top notch. While selection e.g. 11+, is fairly cruel, life is cruel. Some succeed and some fail. Imperfect world and the grammar school system is an imperfect solution. To butcher the Churchil quote:
    “It has been said that the grammar school is the worst form of education except all the others that have been tried.”

  • Alan

    “We could probably get by with 25% fewer schools. That is a huge number of teachers whose time could be focussed on improving results. The spending is already there, the economy is holding up.”

    There is no real relationship between numbers of schools and numbers of teachers, as funding follows the child. Smaller schools means smaller staff numbers. Smaller schools closing would mean the jobs would shift to other schools – except where more senior posts are concerned.

    Any additional monies would in the main come from sales of the estate and reduced establishment costs such as heating. We would still require additional teachers if we wanted to promote special measures such as assistance for the academically gifted – one example of a relatively simple and financially feasible project.

  • Alan

    “You will find an amazing number of last year’s Belfast Voluntary Grammar Sixth Form at Northumbria. ”

    And why ? Because of the Law Course there which allows you to access the Institute here. Another example of the Grammar schools taking the easy road and funnelling our children towards the professions. Who wants another lawyer when we could, indeed should, be growing entrepreneurs.

  • Lubby

    The proposed changing away from the 11+ system is one of the great shames of NI politics. The problem lay with parents and even then it’s not their fault. In the 60s, if you got your free place at ‘grammar’ school and university you were guaranteed a job for life. This has stayed in the psyche of NI parents so those who don’t “pass” are seen to “fail”. All our young people should be equally valued for whatever their gifts happen to be – some academic, some gifted in other directions. Shame on us!

  • willis


    Thanks for those two.

    I wouldn’t disagree about Grammars and Professions. You could see it as quaint and charming unless your child didn’t fit in.

    I dunno what it is about Nortumbria, and maybe some anectdotal research is appropriate, but it is bigger than just Law, my son is doing Graphic design. When I were a lad it was all Scotland.

  • willis


    “The proposed changing away from the 11+ system is one of the great shames of NI politics.”

    Great line.

    The rest was a non-sequiter.

    Please Explain