Well, I didn’t hear it, but apparently the Education minister John O’Dowd let rip this morning on the Nolan Show (42 minutes).
But some time earlier, his party colleague Daithi McKay gave a fairly calm account of the Department’s request to school inspectors to report primary schools found to be giving special tuition to pupils sitting grammar school entrance exams:
I know of no situation in Europe where it is seen as okay to leave a whole policy area half undone and try to
bungle manage matters at one remove [think, Troika, IMF, frau bundeskanzlerin, or Ms Legarde’s big umbrella? – Ed]. Yet that’s what we have regarding the unfinished business of education reform.
To be fair the current incumbents, the mess began with direct rule ministers and their response to legal challenge from parents that Grammars which had still had free places could not refuse their kids entry on the basis passing or failing of a single exam. Thus the grading system allows some Grammars only to accept As, or As and Bs, and some even as low as Cs.
But rather than liberalising access to higher levels of education, it has allowed a complacent middle class to jump their less intellectually gifted children from what we used to call secondary modern schools (latterly ‘High Schools’) into a Grammar stream. Some private schools like Campbell College even make their comprehensive status a key part of their appeal to such aspiring parents.
I don’t have any figures on social mobility to hand, but this softening of lines has led many grammar schools to be less of the automatic route out of poverty or limited prospect for poorer kids than was historically the case. Largely because they can no longer get access in the world where private tuition trumps raw intelligence.
Indeed, the JRF monitoring report last week noted that the attainment gap between students who have free school meals and those who don’t is ‘substantial and not closing’.
Now the minister is stuck in a Groundhog Day argument about a single policy instrument, academic selection. There is little space for politicians or even policy makers to thoughtfully consider outcomes and what the local administration at a policy level might actually do to improve them.
You’d think that with both parties in OFMdFM enjoying a large working class support, that they’d be more motivated to actually look for a functional solution to the social exclusion question.
As a result, with no useful policy instruments to hand, the Minister is now condemned to trying to micro manage micro outcomes on a case by case basis in the one policy area where the public have hugely combustable feelings about the future of their kids.
In the meantime, the kids whom the ending of academic selection was supposed to help are floundering against the private purchasing power of an increasingly established and comfortable middle class…
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty