Learn from the English experience in secondary schools

Interested parties would do well to examine battles over secondary school admission in England. The Northern Ireland debate, such as it is, is locked in parochialism and stand- off. Unwisely it seems to steer clear of the English experience – on political grounds?-  even though we have broadly the same schools system. The major difference is that in England, academic selection is prohibited in most areas but admissions policy still can be just as controversial. English secondary education, the argument runs, is badly underperforming, Thirty years of  “bog standard” comprehensives has widened, not narrowed education attainment. A familar story, although one that needs qualifying.          

The coalition’s Education Secretary Michael Gove has developed new Labour’s policy of allowing commercial firms and interest groups including “faiths” to set up “academies” or “free” schools outside  local council control. The idea is to introduce competition in an area to boost languishing standards. A leading light in the academies movement is Toby Young, a journalist who has started up an academy in West London in reaction to the beliefs of his late father Lord Michael Young, one of the theoreticians of comprehensive schools.  In the Daily Telegraph today, Toby Young  deplores what he sees as the self defeating egalitarian approach of the educational elite with whom Gove is struggling. The article concentrates on admissions rows in high performing comprehensive schools in mainly middle class areas not unlike parts of Northern Ireland where academic selection is kept going in defiance of the largely impotent will of the professional educationalists,  the unions and the Catholic establishment.    


For instance, there’s the now famous battle between the Diocese of Westminster and the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Holland Park. Once a grammar school, Cardinal Vaughan was forced to become a comprehensive in 1977, but it managed to retain its high standards thanks to a succession of great headmasters. It is currently the highest-performing state school in Kensington and Chelsea, and 13 of its pupils were offered places at Oxford or Cambridge last year.

A similar thing happened to Drayton Manor High School in Ealing. Like Cardinal Vaughan, Drayton Manor was too successful for its own good, incurring the wrath of its local education authority. In 2008, Ealing Council referred the school to the adjudicator, accusing it of operating a “discriminatory” admissions policy. The complaint was initially upheld, but subsequently overturned in the High Court.

The rationale in both cases was that the success of these “comprehensive grammars” was harmful to neighbouring schools. Thanks to their reputations for academic excellence, they were attracting more than their fair share of above-average pupils, thereby relegating the surrounding schools to secondary modern status. In the eyes of the progressive elite that controls our educational establishment, the best is the enemy of the good. Mediocrity for all is preferable to excellence for some.


Academies or free schools may be exempt from local council control but not from the essential objections. The case against them is that they attract funding at the expense of existing schools and will become new citadels of middle class privilege as have some comprehensives located in leafy suburbs. If a school is located in the opulent southern end of  Kensington and Cheslea, it’s natural catchment area will be high earners and possibly almost as high achievers.

Will middle class Londoners who in more prosperous times managed to afford private school fees now flock to the free school standard? What new opportunities will open up for working class kids? Many parts of London are  a patchwork quilt of mixed race, faith and and class, like Acton where Young has started his free school. Will it attract a mixed intake by class or will its admission rules be able to restrict the numbers of pushy middle class parents? If it does, will that not defeat its main aim and object, to give ambition a freer rein? ? The test is on.

The evolving English experience offers two lessons. One, that academic standards do not need academic selection at 11 to flourish; and two, whatever system replaces it is unlikely to abolish heartache and controversy.


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  • CharlieMcmenamin

    Your two final points are correct. But there are also perils in projecting ‘English’ experience when the experience of education and particularly admissions, varies so much across the country.

    At a first approximation – there are always lots of local exceptions – admissions criteria is a much hotter potato in the urban areas than in the shires and smaller towns, simply because geography and travel to school time dictate that more people see going to their local school as the only real alternative in many counties.

  • caseydog

    Although Brian has a haughty disdain for the education debate (“such as it is”) in N Ireland there is no getting away from the fact that the eradication of academic selection/rejection is a prerequisite to raising standards for all children and abolishing the long tail of underachievement that characterises the Northern Irish school system. All available research shows that the most equitable school systems benefit everyone.

    He would also do well to read the comments by the English Chief Inspector on the results achieved by the newly established academies. Writing in the Guardian last week he said ‘Last year alone 85 schools serving the most deprived communities in our societies were judged to be providing outstanding education….let me be clear: the vast majority of these schools are not academies. They are simple schools with Heads and staff, striving every day to provide the best possible education for their young people”.

    Perhaps Toby Young should revisit some his father’s old manuals?

  • Brian Walker

    caseydog, I know different sides have had something to say but have I missed a genuine debate – i.e an exchange of ideas and solutions to break deadklock. Can you tell me where I might find it?

  • It seems to me that the main problem in education in Northern Ireland is not the secondary schools, but the underperforming primary schools which allow 98% of their pupils to “fail” the selection test. Whether or not you agree with academic selection, that is a truly horrifying result, which illustrates a problem which “has not gone away”.

    The debade “such as it is” seems to be ignoring this huge problem. No tinkering with funding and admissions in the secondary sector will be able to make up this educational deficit.

  • PACE Parent

    notmyopinion You have highlighted the elephant in the room, so off handedly dismissed by Mr Walker Sr. with his ” parochialism and stand- offish” characterisation of the Northern Ireland education system.The abject failure of the teaching profession and the professional educationalists, the unions, politicians and the Catholic establishment among others to see to it that children leave primary school attaining the basic standards of numeracy and literacy. At least the 11-plus is a measure of attainment in numeracy and literacy. Brian Walker has consistently refused to tackle the role of some of his well-placed friends and persists in leaving unchallenged the progressive elite that controls our educational establishment Their collective mantra is summed up by the phrase “the best is the enemy of the good. Mediocrity for all is preferable to excellence for some.”
    Clearly the Catholic Church has learned an expensive six year lesson taught by parents supporting the “unregulted transfer tests”. Parents are the prime educators of their children and their three years of support for continued academic selection by valid and reliable testing demonstrates that they know better than the so-called experts.
    While keen to direct attention across the Irish Sea Mr Walker should also be quick to recognise that the current Chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association is none other than Robert McCartney QC, who highlighted concerns over the revised curriculum in primary schools and the “Enriched Curriculum” in particular for the damaging effects it would have on disadvantaged children.
    In what can only be described as the ultimate irony Gavin Boyd, the man with a flimsy control of the CCEA corporate cheque book was also the architect of the enriched curriculum project while at CCEA and also of more recent failures in exams and assessment (InCAS) has been awarded a five year contract as Chief Executive of ESA.
    Rewarding Learning was CCEA’s big sales pitch – Rewarding Failure is how the DENI and the Assembly have failed to protect parents and pupils.

  • caseydog

    Brian,you can’t have failed to notice the debate on the future of NI post primary education which is on the front pages of newspapers, and featured on a interview with John O’Dowd on Hearts and Minds this evening. The problem is not a lack of debate but the failure of the grammar lobby to consider the interests of 60% of pupils who are excluded from their schools, and separated from their friends, on the basis of a dodgy exam taken at the tender age of 10/11. Many of them are of course reunited with their friends when sit down beside them at Queens 7 years later. Which raises the question : why separate them in the first place, and do damage to their self confidence?

  • PACE Parent

    “tender age of 10/11” – I wonder where I’ve heard that before? In case you haven’t noticed the front page of the Irish News twice in the past week I’ll share the headlines(1) Catholic Church backs down on transfer tests and (2) We will never scrap the tests. As for your concern about self confidence – for only one in five to leave secondary school with English & Maths among their five GCSEs is a disgrace verging on abuse. Parents are the grammar lobby – they give direction to the likes of St Dominic’s principal, Carol McCann. You could learn from them.

  • Reader

    caseydog: Which raises the question : why separate them in the first place, and do damage to their self confidence?
    Well, I can see your opinion of selection, but what’s your opinion on streaming, setting, and a choice of subjects within a school? Those all split friends up. So does the distinction between the maintained and controlled sectors. Any problem with that?
    caseydog: Many of them are of course reunited with their friends when sit down beside them at Queens 7 years later.
    Whereas others do well and go to Durham, or Trinity, and others do badly, and go to Jordanstown. More than 50% of children don’t go to university at all. In fact, if the old neighbourhood gang sticks tight together, it usually means things have gone badly for all of them.

  • Brian Walker

    caseydog, what I’ve seen is a dialogue of the deaf with a few tactical feints and positioning. So whats the big idea?
    General agreement on choice at 14 to replace selection at 11?

  • PACE Parent

    Brian are you referring to Peter and Marty when you cite the deaf? Just as John O’Dowd doesn’t quite get his defeat by parents, you and your friends do not seem able to accept that (s)election at 14 is as dead as the Pupil Profile. The Entitlement Framework mentioned by O’Dowd on Hearts & Minds will be exposed as the Trojan horse which robbed thousands of pupils of the right to learn ( and be taught) numeracy and literacy

  • caseydog

    I believe in selection in schools nor between schools. St Dominics is a disgrace : a wall has been built to separate the children who are educated in St Dominics (14% fsm) from those in St Roses (60% fsm). I thought that in Northern Ireland we were in favour of removing walls? The Dominican order runs both schools but perpetuates social apartheid. Isn’t every young girl in West Belfast entitled to the excellent facilities of St Dominics? Why are the most less able and poorer children educated in the poorer facilities of St Roses? Pace Reader: Isn’t it obvious why St Roses cannot produce the high results achieved by St Dominics?

    I don’t understand Brians point about feints. – too subtle for me!

    In the fullness of time N Ireland will look back with embarrassment at this shameful period of it’s history. It will be hard to find anyone who will admit to supporting it.