London Letter: Do we have the wrong idea about teaching and elitism in Northern Ireland?

Cool isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you think of an English public school headmaster, but Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington, and Tony Little, head of Eton, are teetering dangerously close to it being an accurate description.

The old stereotype only goes as far as their plummy voices, or if we’re being pernickety, then Little’s perfectly coiffed moustache deserves a mention.

As an Irish woman from a modest background, I found myself feeling both shocked and surprised at a great deal during The Sunday Times Festival of Education, which was held at the cinematically beautiful Wellington College where each term costs up to almost £10,000.

Perhaps most startling was that these headmasters of posh, elite public schools weren’t quite the stuffy, groaning antiques I imagined them to be.

For many, the idea of elitism carries negative connotations and an inherent unfairness, discrimination or haughtiness. However, Little says that the word ‘elite’ needs to be reclaimed, and that it should be solely about the pursuit of excellence, which he says can only be a good thing. That defence is a hard one to argue with; why should the determination to be great be stifled or interfered with?

And what a jaw dropper to hear that these men happily have teachers in their schools that don’t have PGCEs, when young people are scrambling to get on to courses year on year, believing it’s the only way to teaching success.

Rod Liddle, interviewing Little, suggested that teaching is a career some people turn to when their other options are no longer viable. This would support Seldon and Little’s notion that the best teacher isn’t necessarily the one that has a special qualification; Not when there’s a process in which quite frankly anyone with average ability can complete a course, become qualified and be seen by the system as the right person for the job.

Nowadays it seems that aspiring teachers are examined and overwrought with work just as much as the pupils they will teach in future. Catholic schools in Northern Ireland ideally want teachers who can teach GAA. Why? What if some children in the class are more interested in knitting, golf, mechanics, cooking, netball or film studies? Why should the school pick a specific “extra-curricular” skill to be taught to everyone?

Before they even get into a teacher training college, students are expected to complete an impressive litany of placements which show off their enthusiasm for their career choice. However, mandatory exercises such as these become very much ‘tick the box’ toil as a means to achieving the end goal – getting a much coveted place on a course. However, this is hardly an overly exciting prospect in Northern Ireland when there are reportedly 7500 currently unemployed teachers.

I would bet that other working class people, or those outside the private school system, who heard Seldon and Little speak about this issue would agree that they have a point. How wonderful it must be to have the freedom to look for a great teacher who hasn’t been shaped and manufactured in a production line.

I’d suggest that their ideas about education are less elite and more based in common sense. Plus, how could Seldon express anything other than common sense when he’s mates with Bob Geldof who closed this year’s festival? A scenario which is, in itself, just a tad cool.


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  • Rory Carr

    I hate to to disillusion you, Catherine but, even I who am approaching 70 years on this planet, knows that Bob Geldof is not cool and really never has been since shortly after his hey-day with I Don’t Like Mondays (which was cool). Indeed he has been decidely uncool and very much “establishment man” ever since his role with BandAid and all that that quite wicked campaign to detract from the true causes of famine and help perpetuate multi-national cash-cropping and dependence upon aid* stood for. Cool people don’t accept gongs from the uncool.

    Did you by any chance determine how much of the curriculum in Eton, for example, is set aside for those pursuits that you feel might benefit NI Catholic schools:”knitting, golf, mechanics, cooking, netball or film studies” ? Why, who knows, with such a “cool” headmaster, GAA sports might even be availabe at Eton along with Real Tennis and the Wall Game, which sports I am assured are elitist only in the sense of the spirit of striving for excellence that is such a hallmark of a public school education as exemplified by the present intake in the House of Commons.

    * (“Aid” = a system of charitable donation whereby the poor of the rich countries contribute a portion of their wealth to the rich of the poor countries so that the rich of the rich countries might grow even richer from the poor of the poor countries.)

  • Nunoftheabove


    Your standards are only marginally higher if you regarded ‘Monday’s’ as cool; the Rats were a dreadful band and never at any stage approached coolness other than among impressionable English school children or desperate Irish culchies in the more ‘dangerous’ ballrooms of romance still left standing at the time.

    For the life of me I cannot locate any purpose which might explain the writing of this article nor indeed any possible rationale for publishing it. Dear, dear me. Desperate shite altogether.

  • I was in Kenya working in an Appropriate Technology Centre when Band Aid started. It was a response to Mohamed Amin’s photographs of the Ethiopian famine that appeared in papers around the world. Once Geldof had persuaded other musicians to play for charity, he organised the aid distribution directly, to avoid the existing aid agencies, and particularly the Ethiopian government who had been trying to starve the tribes opposed to it. This was hardly pandering to the establishment.

    As for the main points of the article, it is an important subject, but I wonder if some other speakers at the Festival of Education might have had more to say that was backed by some evidence. I realise Slugger is trying to get more articles on issues outside Northern Ireland, but at present they seem to be less detailed, and less cynically accurate, than the usual NI stuff.

  • Zig70

    Sure, strive for excellence but don’t trample on the less well of to get it. There are some thicko’s out there with degrees who have been funded the whole way. It’s not ideal for our society that they get more access to education than those more deserving.
    I liked the Rats
    Currently torturing my eldest for the 11+ so that he gets the benefit of NI elite. Is it not true that NI has the poorest literacy rates?

  • Mark McGregor

    Others are picking many holes in this blog so I’ll go easy and politely note the point on Catholic schools seeking those that can teach GAA is almost 100% nonsense.

  • pippakin

    No Geldof was not cool and its debatable how good for Africa Band Aid was. But Head teachers of public schools may well be cool, or at least well able to give a good facsimile of cool, their job is all the usual but with an added element of salesmanship that most schools don’t need. The ability to sell the school not just to the parents of potential pupils but also to the wider public is essential.

  • wee buns

    Geldof, not v.respected in the Irish overseas aid community, nor is Bono for the same reason: egotistic outweighs altruistic.
    Rat Trap was as cool as Bob was ever going to get, in ’78, and mainly because it slaughtered that Summer Loving nonsense from Grease off the charts.

    I had to read this paragraph a few times:

    ‘’As an Irish woman from a modest background, I found myself feeling both shocked and surprised at a great deal during The Sunday Times Festival of Education, which was held at the cinematically beautiful Wellington College where each term costs up to almost £10,000.’’

    Does the author mean 10,000 per term is a great deal??

    We have recently employed a new principal. Out of untold numbers of unemployed teachers, there were only five candidates. They had Irish sufficiently fluent to head a gaelscoill and were prepared to move & live ‘sauvage’ in the west.

    You could say we are ‘elite’ or you could say the circumstances are tight.
    If ‘excellence’ = to learn in our native language, then standards are horribly low.

  • wild turkey


    your post has to be one of the most insipid and self indulgent i have yet to read on slugger. As “Irish woman from a modest background” perhaps your double-barreled victimhood should elicit some sympathy and creditbility.

    It does not. For your comments, to paraphrase Jon Stewart, are fluff and laziness.

    It is opinion with no real insight. Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding.
    Through home inteventions and a committment to integrated educated i have tried to show my two beloved childred that the highest form of knowledge is empathy.

    For empathy requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world. It requires profound, purpose-larger-than-the-self kind of understanding.

    an understanding which your post singulary lacks


  • wild turkey

    well well well

    i do not wish to receive a red card, but perhaps, just perhaps, if it is within the rules of the game

    two questions and a comment, ok?

    1. on what criteria was my comment yellow carded?
    2. do i have the right and facility to know who yellow carded me?

    comment: although my comment was addressed to the poster (is that ok?) it was directed at the post, not the poster. i have a breached a protocol? written or unwritten?

    l would be grateful for a full clear and simple response.

    if that is not forthcoming, so be it.

    and now, let us all now sleep in peace

    oiche m’haith

  • pippakin

    Its foolish to deny that education does have to be paid for and I wonder if enough thought is given to that. The socialist in me believes that all education should be free but the truth is that nothing the government gives is a gift. It all has to be paid for.

    I don’t know why tempers are so frayed on this thread, whilst I’m convinced you won’t find many tories on Slugger the level of vitriol here suggests some of us are not even open to debate with what might be called ‘conservative’ ideas.

    Geldof was not cool, he was actually not much more than a one hit wonder, but from this distance and with his saintly PR how many of the younger generation would know?

    Two very professional heads of very professional organisations give a good impression of cool. Is that so surprising? Its almost part of their job description!

    The other unpalatable truth is I believe most of us would, if we could afford it, be happy to pay for our children to go to such schools.

  • @wild turkey I mentioned my nationality to point out that, until last weekend, I wasn’t familiar with much of the English education system. It was hardly a cry for sympathy. That would be ridiculous.

    @wee buns I get your point re the confusion over the ‘great deal’ part of the following:

    ‘’As an Irish woman from a modest background, I found myself feeling both shocked and surprised at a great deal during The Sunday Times Festival of Education, which was held at the cinematically beautiful Wellington College where each term costs up to almost £10,000.’’

    To clarify, I meant that I learnt a great deal of ‘new stuff’ for want of a better way to put it. I wasn’t referring to the fees being a great deal at Wellington. Obviously. Although if I had the money then I’d certainly send my own children (if I have them), unless of course the same quality of education was offered at an alternative free school or state school.

    @pippakin Thanks for the support 😉 And yeah, us young ‘uns are only pretenders when it comes to the Geldof/coolness knowledge… something which was NOT meant to be the main point here! Maybe I just wanted to mention someone you would all definitely know. Ahem.

  • pippakin

    Catherine Wylie

    Well some of us know of Geldof and of course everyone has an opinion…

  • wee buns

    IF we could just get with the real world for a moment. IF we could afford it and IF private education offered more than public, and IF we had children….
    Where does your actual experience for this argument spring?

  • wee buns

    Spring from, even?

  • Given my own experience of the weekend, at which I attended a vast number of sessions, plus my own experience of primary, secondary and university education in Northern Ireland, plus a taster in London, I feel that I am entitled to make an argument and have an opinion.

  • wee buns

    Knock yourself out. I can’t afford it. Even if I could and even if private education was better, I wouldn’t pay for it on principle.

  • I wasn’t promoting private education per se. I was suggesting that we could use some of their ideas, primarily re teachers and how they’re trained.

  • pippakin

    I have to be honest. I hold no principle, no idea or value higher than the children. If I had the money? I’d pay for the best and I’d fight for the right to do that. In the UK Labour MPs have been in trouble for sending their children to public schools but I understand where they are coming from, rhetoric is fine, so is theory, but if I had the money? I would put my child’s education ahead of any ideology any day. I must say though that the education system in the south is imo better than in the UK especially those huge, appalling comprehensives.

  • I’m completely with @pippakin. If you were wealthy, why would you give your child a lesser education just because of your own notions and principles? That actually reminds me of the faith schools debate which was held during the festival…ie. forcing something on to your child.

  • Harry Flashman

    “Even if I could and even if private education was better, I wouldn’t pay for it on principle.”

    Why ever not? You pay for your clothes, your food, your home, you pay for your transport and countless other essential things every single day.

    What marks out education as a factor in your life that you insist must be provided by the state and government workers?

    If the state provided food and housing would you in principle only eat what the government gave you or live where the government told you you could live?

    Why such abject faith in the ability of bureaucrats and government workers to provide one of the most essential element’s of a child’s life when they are so incapable of providing other services efficiently?

    Are you really such a hopeless parent that you can’t decide for yourself how your children should be educated but rely instead on faceless pen-pushers to make such basic decisions in your family’s live for you?

  • wee buns

    I’m all ears & waiting to be sold the ‘ideas’.

    The child comes first and no lack of money can deter committed parents who fundraise like crazy.
    Parents jump from airplanes, relentlessly host events; even mister w. buns does against his beliefs charade as Santa.
    This is to subsidize the running costs of the school, to furnish with computers (only 2 yrs ago we had none) and new reading books and such fundamentals. You could call it a form of fee paying.

    The point is= we improve the school for all the children, not just our precious own.

  • wee buns

    your last post assumes that to principle is a passive position, when indeed the opposite is true. Perhaps in gravy trained north has disabled parents from feeling they have any power to improve on what is granted, other than ‘go private’.

  • @Harry Flashman

    Excellently put.

    @wee buns

    You sound more and more like someone who thinks he/she’s really hard done by. Nobody is saying parents at non-private schools don’t fundraise like crazy and nobody is saying that people like you aren’t working hard to improve the education of children. Relax.

  • wee buns

    Rest assured Catherine I do not in the least feel ‘hard done by’.
    On the contrary I am privileged.
    Interesting that the principle of solidarity, to care & provide for ALL children, evokes such judgmental & defensive tripe.
    Feel free to expand on your ideas on education anytime.

  • @wee buns I have done so in the blog post above. If you want my opinion on other specific issues within education then I suggest you pop them in your next comment and I’ll be happy to give my opinion.

  • wee buns

    Obtuse, that in your demand that ‘elite’ be reviewed, you’ve omitted your opinion on ALL children being entitled to the best possible education; please elaborate.

  • Harry Flashman

    “Perhaps in gravy trained north has disabled parents from feeling…”

    Could you explain that again in English?

    Again I ask why does your “solidarity” extend only to education?

    If the government provided food and told you what you could eat or provided clothes and expected you to wear what they told you, would you abide by their decisions out of some sort of solidarity with other eaters and clothes wearers?

  • @wee buns

    Elite RECLAIMED are my words, and what I meant was the actual real original meaning of the ‘elite’ brought back to play….ie. the pursuit of excellence. And yes, my point is that this should be the case in ALL schools for ALL children. Not quite sure where or how you misuderstood me on that one. To further this point, it is inevitable that this pursuit of excellence will NOT occur in all schools. Also, on the principle thing again and my stance of sending a child to a private school if I could easily afford it – Me/you/anyone standing up and refusing because of principles isn’t going to change anything or stop private schools existing. There would need to be a movement and there won’t be. And sometimes you just have to accept the reality of the way things are and will probably always be.

  • wee buns

    ”If the government provided food and told you what you could eat or provided clothes and expected you to wear what they told you, would you abide by their decisions out of some sort of solidarity with other eaters and clothes wearers?”

    Are you saying parents have absolutely no influence or input?

    I mean Solidarity with other parents, not with the government.

    We started our own school from scratch because we didn’t like the existing models.
    What I said was that perhaps the northern gravy train has spoiled and disempowered people from doing things for themselves.

  • tuatha

    Tri caindle forosnat cach ndorcha: fir, aicned, ecna.

  • @wee buns

    I love the fact you and others have started your own school. It fits right in with my view…so not sure where the disagreement is to be honest.

  • @wee buns

    …apart from the principles thing, which I guess is pretty key.

    It’s late though. Sleepy!

  • Harry Flashman

    “We started our own school from scratch because we didn’t like the existing models.”

    Good for you but that doesn’t address why you would refuse to pay for a better education for your children because of your principles. Why do your principles trump your childrens’ education?

    Would you refuse to live in a better house than someone else or eat food that was better than someone else’s too?

    Why uniquely is education the only thing that you will refuse to accept something better than someone else has?

  • “For many, the idea of elitism carries negative connotations and an inherent unfairness, discrimination or haughtiness. However, Little says that the word ‘elite’ needs to be reclaimed, and that it should be solely about the pursuit of excellence, which he says can only be a good thing. That defence is a hard one to argue with; why should the determination to be great be stifled or interfered with?”

    From these words, I got the impression that the post was partly about Northern Ireland’s grammar school system.

    For the first 13 years of my life, my family lived in England, then moved to Ireland but all of my education was private. Did I benefit? I am not sure. I did suffer from being away from my parents. I think I would have been better off being educated at home in Limerick instead of Boarding school.

    Having seen my three children educated in Northern Ireland’s grammar schools, I can say that their education was vastly superior to mine. Grammar Schools do have an elitist element to them but unlike the English Public Schools they enable bright children from poor families to thrive. In fact, as a vehicle for social mobility, the Grammar school system is unrivalled.

  • DC

    @harry flashman

    Re paying for education – to each according to his or her needs, trouble is those in need of a decent education are those with the most complex needs.

    Try getting a privately funded school to set up in working class areas and deliver – for instance – good GCSE results – it could I suppose deliver good results but it would be prohibitively expensive for those working class kids wanting to go there. Simply because there would be a lot of additional teaching support required and costs, when compared with upper-middle class schools.

    Same for those children with disabilities.

    A bit like private healthcare in USA – try getting an affordable policy if you are person born with a disability and will require a lot of treatment throughout your life.

    Also such people are less likely to be top earners – whether it is working class parents and children and indeed the disabled.

    That’s why you need a bit of the state to supply education – it is blanket protection from market-type approaches – sure you can afford a car and t-shirt etc, but could you afford a car and t-shirt and ipod today if you had to pay for your schooling and healthcare as well?

    A wee bit of redistrubition from the wealthy to the less off is necessary if you value keeping society together.

  • Harry Flashman


    Where I grew up, Derry in the 1970’s not exactly a beacon of privilege, bright working class children from perhaps the most disadvantaged areas in western Europe, Creggan, Bogside, Brandywell etc. got quite simply one of the best educations possible in the Catholic grammar schools and they got it for free.

    Remind me again about the “principled”, “solidarity” based objections to those schools again will you?

    Anyway that’s not my point, I am asking why it’s acceptable to buy better food for your children, give them better clothes, provide them with a better home but apparently it’s unacceptable to pay for a better education for them?

    Unless one is a communist and prepared to accept a one size fits all, government knows best what you need life style, where the entire population is subjected to state enforced egalitarianism (a society which has never actually been achieved oddly enough), I fail to see what the particularly priggish, holier than thou opposition to paying for education outside the state sector is based on.

    If people wish to send their children to government schools that’s their right and they can spend the money they save on new plasma tv’s and cheap booze. However if others wish to scrimp and save and spend the money they have earned, after it has been taxed to pay for the government schools incidentally, to send their children to private schools I really don’t see why anyone else needs to get their knickers in a twist.

    It couldn’t actually be because schools run by the government are, like everything run by government workers, total shite could it?

  • wee buns

    As I said, knock yourselves out, if your idea of liberty is fee paying schools.

    Many families including mine clothe their kids from the local thrift shop: a source of good, serviceable, clean, cheap clothes. Food is grown at home where possible and otherwise diligently sourced at lowest prices. Where a child’s life might be at risk, for example, because of lack of adequate care, this might force a family into debt. The education system on the other hand, where it has been lacking,has been shown to be fought, worked with and successfully improved upon. That is: for the whole community, for free.
    There is a clear difference between this grassroots model and one which caters exclusively for fee payers.

    To ‘reclaim’ the term ‘elite’ is a joke when couched in terms of fee paying schooling, as it is here. That can never equate to anything other than excellence for the rich.

    Meanwhile see Lumen Christi College in Derry whose Board of Governers announced their intention to continue academic selection after the abolition of the 11-plus examination in 2008 despite criticism. Elitism is alive and well on Bishop Street so no need to worry.