School selection ideas from England may offer a way out of deadlock

A renewed debate on school selection in England offers clues on how to proceed in Northern Ireland without the present transfer tests. The debate appeals to the Conservatives who have been forced to deny their instinct to restore grammar schools by the weight of public opinion against existing tests, never mind reviving the 11 plus. A Guardian piece makes the obvious point that other secondary schools should be improved without destroying the small number of remaining grammar schools. As criteria for selection, the present distinction between ability (bad) and aptitude (good) is wholly spurious, as the Times says. And how wide really is the difference between selection by academic ability and selection by aptitude for music, sport or anything else? The answer is two fold and could be applied to Northern Ireland. The basic split in NI schools between the grammar and secondary is too crude. Instead, all secondary schools could be configured for a range of specialisms. Aptitude tests could be set and the entry classes streamed according to ability – sorry – aptitude. Yes, I know that unlike England up to 40% of NI kids are educated in grammar schools. But many so-called grammars have lost their academic majority and many of the so called non-academic majority are poorly served. School reform should proceed urgently to take advantage of the existing surplus capacity and the small window remaining open before budgets are drastically cut.

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