Grammar schools and social mobility: a Northern Ireland contribution to the debate

Here’s something that won’t make relations between the Education and Finance ministers any easier.. An approving poll for a UK wide campaign to revive grammar schools has received a gushing review from Independent columnist Mary Anne Sieghart. It’s pegged to the general angst about stalled – even reversed – social mobility which all UK political parties share.  Nick Clegg will wring his hands about it again this week . If you wonder why the  references to Northern Ireland are unusually heavy for a UK wide theme when we’re usually ignored, look no further than at the website of the National Grammar Schools association which commissioned the ICM poll, chaired by our own socially mobile Shankill Road boy Bob McCartney. An astute and well- timed piece of publicity, whatever your views about a story of educational performance only half told.

So why doesn’t the thrusting Education Secretary for England Michael Gove  simply follow Bob’s line?  Well , he’s lifted the ban on grammar schools expanding where they already exist  Might he go further? The Blairtie columnist John Rentoul quotes admiringly  from a Gove interview in the right wing intellectual magazine Standpoint.

As long as the coalition lasts I don’t think there is any room for manoeuvre. I don’t think the Liberal Democrats would countenance any form of selection. Selection is an incendiary subject in England. My view is that it’s better to avoid it because you can make much more progress in other areas. Selection is not a necessary condition of having a successful education system. 

Pressure to restore the grammar schools pops up regularly – unsurprisingly given the lack of  confidence in secondary school standards, particularly in  the big cities.  But the Conservatives would be  wary of reintroducing selection into the present pattern of secondary schools even if they won a majority government. In practice it could prove to be more intensely divisive than any existing entry system even by lottery. That would invite  political disaster.

The clock cannot be rolled back to 1944.  Gove is going instead for greater transparency, choice and specialism through an academies programme and bearing down on teaching standards which many hope will recreate the best characteristics of grammar schools without academic selection on entry.  It’s no quick fix and may turn out to be only the latest half baked reform. But re-introducing selection is no magic bullet and would be politically incendiary.           

From the Sieghart piece.

Of course, the few grammar schools that are left (164 in England and 68 in Northern Ireland) educate a lot of well-off children. But they also offer fantastic opportunities for bright pupils from poor backgrounds, an opportunity that is denied to pupils in Scotland, Wales and four-fifths of England.

The highest ratio of acceptances to applications at Cambridge is from Northern Ireland. It is also the only part of the country that never introduced the comprehensive system..

When selection was first introduced, the secondary moderns were the neglected repositories for the 11-plus failures. Their pupils then spent more time on cooking or metalwork than Latin and weren’t expected to succeed. But a selective secondary school system doesn’t have to be like that.

In Northern Ireland, the non-grammar schools do well, too – a few of them better than their selective rivals. Overall, the province easily outperforms England: 88.5 per cent of Northern Irish pupils get three A-levels, compared with 82 per cent of English ones.

If we moved to more selection, the grammar/secondary-modern divide needn’t be nearly as stark as it used to be.

From the website

‘The popularity of politicians is at an extremely low level and a general election is due very soon’, said Robert McCartney QC, the chairman of the NGSA. ‘It’s unbelievable that none of our three largest political parties seriously supports either existing grammar schools or the idea of opening new ones where there’s parental demand. If they want our votes, they should offer what the public wants.’