Most grammar schools are safe without selection – but what about the kids and parents?

Kathryn Torney‘s report with tables on the latest grammar school intake in the Bel Tel again shows that some grammar schools are a lot more popular than others. Campbell and my old school Coleraine Inst for instance now admit more D grades than As. Even the iconic Belfast Inst has a majority below A. Is a minority of grammar schools like these catering equally well for all their students? Should they be required to widen their curriculum range? The problem is that they cling to the grammar school “ethos” for fear of facing a sharper decline in demand. But overall these intakes show that the majority of grammars are secure and would survive without tests – provided parents would be able to exercise parental choice and opt for a category called “grammar”. The popularity of grammar schools is irresistible in both the State and Catholic sectors but the tests are not. We can see the pattern of demand already under selection; would scrapping the tests ( which is bound to happen sooner or later) really cause chaos? There will always be pressure points, ( eg Rathmore has a zero entry less than A), but common sense guidance from a robust pupil profile and liaison between primary and secondary heads and parents could ease tensions. This guidance should become part of the entry process. Now, when there’s a demographic window and the financial resources are just about present, is the time to produce area plans that rise to the challenge of parental and student ambitions. At the moment this is being held back by the selection deadlock. This so far narrowly bureaucratic exercise should be thrown open for public debate so parents can see what subjects are offered locally and precisely where. An open planning exercise would help achieve greater parental confidence in the system as a whole. The perhaps overambitious entitlement framework needs a better sell than the well-meaning waffle put out by the Northern Ireland Curriculum authority. Most parents want a range of rigorous subjects as well as pastoral care. That’s why grammar schools are popular in the first place. The trouble is, there’s no one around to lead the debate. The way ahead is blocked by all round stubborness in the Assembly. Listen guys, this is more important than the devolution of justice and policing.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London