A reflection on the education system in Northern Ireland…

In his 1942 Report, Sir William Beveridge described five Giant Evils, obstacles on the road to post-war reconstruction. These were Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.[1] They were to be tackled by action and legislation on Social Security, Health, Education, Housing and a policy of full employment. At that time, men were seen as the ‘breadwinner’ and women did the housework; this assumption is inherent in Beveridge’s thinking. RA Butler, the President of the Board of Education set up a committee to advise on how to proceed. Building on the work of previous committees in the 1920s and 1930s, the committee’s recommendations were legislated as the Education Act 1944; this covered England and Wales. Similar legislation followed in N Ireland.

At that time, primary education in England and Wales was in Elementary schools which taught the ‘elements’ or basics of the 3Rs — reading, writing and arithmetic up to 14. The equivalents in N Ireland were the National schools. There was no unified or uniform system of secondary education, provision being erratic and local. In the late 1930s, only about 13% of working-class children went to secondary schools. The middle classes sent their children to fee-paying grammar schools, the wealthy establishment elite to expensive public schools. (Originally, schools were run by the church who posed a religious test as a condition of entry; later, other schools, open to the public were opened.) The 1944 Act expanded on what provision was then available. Public schools were not affected.

The 1944 Act foresaw a tripartite system of secondary education; grammar schools for the academically able, technical grammar schools for the skilled, and secondary modern schools for the remainder.[2] There were very few technical grammar schools, and the cost of building and equipping new ones was unaffordable, so the system effectively became bipartite. An examination taken at 11-plus determined to which school the pupil would go; there was no concept of pass or fail. [3] Initially, all three types of schools were considered to be of equal merit. However, the 11+ was soon seen as the entrée to success in a grammar school; if you went to a secondary school you were a ‘failure’. The system in England keeps changing, with secondary schools becoming comprehensives, and more recently chains of Academy schools have been encouraged, effectively privatising part of the ‘market’. While the 11+ has been largely abandoned in England, some areas still use it.

N Ireland has retained the original grammar and secondary school system, but with the complication of two parallel systems based on religious (sectarian) divisions, one largely protestant and the other mostly Catholic. In addition, around 7% of school children here now attend an integrated school.[4] While the 11+ was abolished from 2008, grammar schools still select on the basis of external tests at this age; there are two providers. Up to 70% of school children sit these tests annually. If the concepts of selection, grammar and secondary schools represented the best of thinking in the 1940s, I think that today these principles are deeply problematic. What was the basis for selection used in the 11+?

Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, his theory of evolution in 1859. His cousin, Francis Galton recognised the utility of selective breeding in crops and animals, and reasoned that similar non-natural selection should benefit humans. He began the measurement of physical and mental characteristics of humans, analysing his data by statistical methods, some of his own devising. Intelligence was then seen as being primarily hereditary with ’nurture’ playing only a minor role. He investigated ‘mental defectives’ and thought of them as a sub-species of humans, and coined the term ‘eugenics’ meaning ‘well bred’ or ‘of good stock’.[5] Karl Pearson further developed this; it was then commonly thought that the Aryan or Nordic races (ethnicities) were superior to others, such as the Jews, who were considered ‘degenerate’. The educational psychologist Cyril Burt was attracted to these ideas, the inheritance of intelligence and intelligence testing. In an early paper, Burt concluded that, “upper-class children in private preparatory schools did better in the tests than those in the ordinary elementary schools, and that the difference was innate.” [emphasis added] In other words, the view was that the upper classes owed their position to superior inherited intelligence, and the poor and working classes were so because of inferior intelligence. These views, with their eugenic background, were an accepted and mainstream scientific field in the early 20th century. It was only when the practical expression of active eugenics in the horrors of the Holocaust became public knowledge that eugenics rapidly became persona non grata. After his death in 1971, much of Professor Sir Cyril Burt’s work was discredited after evidence emerged that he had falsified some of his data.

It was long thought that the brain was fully developed at birth or soon afterwards, and that there were no structural changes afterwards. This is now known to be incorrect; there are periods of significant alteration around the age of 5, and with the onset of puberty; teenagers are well-known for being ‘stroppy’. The brain is well developed by 25, though changes then and later are still possible, with the growth of new neurones or brain cells.

While hereditary has a distinct influence on intelligence and ability, the importance of nurture is increasingly recognised, particularly in the early years. Some children by the age of 5 will have heard several million more words than others. Early nurture develops and reinforces the child’s sense of identity, the idea of ‘self’; this is a largely permanent change. Aristotle said, “give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man”, words said to have been echoed by St Ignatius Loyola. In general, girls mature at an earlier age than boys; this is reflected in ‘adjustments’ made to the results of 11+ testing.

Given what we now know about the development of the brain and the importance of nurture, how can we be so sure that testing for ‘abilities’ at 11+ should define a person’s future? With the emphasis on success at GCSE and A level formal examinations, is that all that schooling is for, or is there more? What precisely are the benefits for N Ireland of segregation (selection) at 11+, and the further segregation by religion? Many schools are single-sex rather than ‘mixed’; again, what are the benefits of this?

There is surely more to schooling and education than the formal acquisition of academic knowledge. What of ‘life skills’ such as decision making and problem solving; creative and critical thinking; self-awareness; assertiveness and resilience to stress? What of interpersonal skills and empathy? A distinct advantage of ‘mixed sex’ schooling is the development of socialisation, not something that is specifically taught but that happens more by ‘osmosis’. Girls are said to ‘civilise’ boys; do they have greater ‘emotional intelligence’?

Segregation by religion is a form of ‘tribalism’, an attempt at maintaining the purity of any group, keeping it apart from the ‘other’. This has disconcerting nuances and echoes of racism and eugenics, and is reflected in the small numbers of exogamous or ‘mixed’ marriages and partnerships.

Compulsory education ends at age 16 when many kids leave school,  hopefully with a collection of GCSE results. Some children stay in education for two more years, attaining a number of A-levels as an entry to higher education in university. They study three or perhaps four subjects in a breadth and depth determined by the curriculum. Many here are proud that the A-level results are the highest in the UK; others see this as the result of ‘spoon feeding’, and that such children can have problems at university where independent study is new to them.

I see the education of children as a ‘common good’, and thus it is a responsibility of the state to provide for this. There are ways of educating children other than the system used on N Ireland. In Finland, nine years of education between 7 and 16 are compulsory. The schools are ‘comprehensive’, there is no real distinction between primary and secondary levels, there is neither selection nor streaming of the kids. All state schools are secular. There are no school fees. Transport to and from school, if needed, is free. All teachers must have a master’s degree. While the state sets a curriculum, the delivery and the methods of tuition are the responsibility of the teachers. There is minimal or no homework. There is only one state examination, taken at the end of compulsory education. Free nursery care is available for younger children.[6] The Finnish system is highly ranked in international comparisons.[7,8]

The International Baccalaureate has programmes of education for early years, for middle years up to 16, and a Diploma course subsequently.[9] While children start with the basics, subsequent programmes build successively on this; while initially they ‘learn to learn’, the Diploma then has a module on the Theory of Knowledge or epistemology. The ‘middle years’ curriculum is broadly based in eight subject groups, and students complete a long-term project. The Diploma Programme also includes a 4,000 word essay, and a section on Creativity, Action and Service.[10] No part of the IB programme is available in N Ireland.


[1]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beveridge_Report

[2]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tripartite_System_of_education_in_England,_Wales_and_Northern_Ireland

[3]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleven-plus

[4]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Northern_Ireland

[5]  https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0008zc5/eugenics-sciences-greatest-scandal-series-1-episode-1

[6]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Finland

[7]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Programme_for_International_Student_Assessment

[8]  http://reports.weforum.org/global-competitiveness-index-2017-2018/

[9]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Baccalaureate

[10]  https://www.ibo.org/

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