Peter Weir – broaden the scope of your underachievement report…

The announcement by Peter Weir of a new report into the underachievement of working-class protestant boys will (as noted by Brian) stack up on a dusty old shelf in the Department of Education, the eighth since 2011 and these official reports are not isolated in the wider discussion on the issue.

It got me thinking when Deirdre Heenan this week said about having a ‘philosophical debate’ about what we actually want from education in NI, as noted by many Slugger contributors the Republic had this debate many years ago and it collects the dividends of this progressive and reformist era. More recently in Scotland the devolved government there has made it a part of their overarching strategy which has meant they have abolished tuition fees for Scottish students and have been able to maintain the world-class standing of its higher education institutions.

Back in plucky old Ulster we live with the effect of years of non-reform, whether you support academic selection or religious segregation or not it is undeniable that we are not here by design but by default. Grammar schools are a product of the 1940s, at the time they did much to advance the mobility of those bright young people in the industrial working classes. But it has run its course, it is no longer a social mobiliser as has been evidenced by report after report and is a product like our wider education system of 20th century standards (see also Sarah Creighton’s excellent personal account).

I cannot make comparators between the two communities that some seem so quick to jump to, but I think we are a society still defined by socio-economic class. My own Anglican ‘Ulster British’ background is soaked with this class conflict. Unlike the stereotype of Irish history my family are not titled aristocrats plucking at the harp in our drawing-room, nor are we the vengeful west Ulster Episcopalians descending upon Belfast to split our Presbyterian neighbours from their Catholic dissenter comrades.

My grandparents were from land, small farms in the County Londonderry and County Tyrone hills now long gone and littered only with wind turbines were once cattle grazed and turf was cut. My parents had to find urban professions, they were not university educated nor attendees of Grammar school but they managed to get by and become property owners in their own right when I had reached primary school age, but before this, they had lived in a social house where I was born. But due to the disruption of my father’s death, we had to sell up and move into again social housing as my mother could not hope to keep up mortgage payments alone. It was the responsible thing to do and to this day my mother is debt-free and lives a frugal lifestyle within her means.

I did not attend grammar school but rather I was part of the cohort which entered the newly amalgamated sixth-form college which had be formed by the combination of two high schools that ceased education at 16 (this was in 2008). To have such modern facilities and all completed during the crash was the kind of luck of the draw that I still think about today. What if I had of been born a few years earlier and had to seek an alternative route to third-level education?

After my secondary education, I was able to get the A level results required to undertake an undergraduate degree in law. A slight majority of my year had received university offers, of this however the minority stayed to study at Ulster and QUB with most going to England. Why did so many go to England? It had never dawned on me until Paul Gosling made the following point on radio ulster just this week:

In my opinion, the current system provides and extra layer of middle class advantage because actually if you look at the figures the majority of the people who can meet the higher grade expectations of NI universities because of the insufficient places, they are typically people who went to grammar school and those people are typically from higher income backgrounds

This is in turn pushing many out, pushing them towards tuition fees more than double those in NI and living costs that are eye watering. This is only when one considers access to higher education which was the route I was fortunate enough to take. Those desiring an alternative route still need to achieve their five GCSEs at 16 which gives them a rounded and general education that is suitable not only for the economy but also in being a functioning citizen.

Perhaps instead of a philosophical discussion about education, we need something even more fundamental to become the centre of debate; merit. Meritocracy is a term is so rarely spoken of now, especially as it can be easily hijacked or blinkered by those who reduce it in scope – whether it is passing a single transfer test or being awarded a training contract. By looking holistically at merit in NI society Peter Weir might be able to more accurately identify the changes needed to get protestant boys (also working class children as a whole) socially mobile again.

I have had social advantage and disadvantage in my continuing journey of life. I have slipped up and down the social ladder as many millennials of the 2008 crash generation have, but this isn’t just a discussion about inequality rather it is inherently a discussion about merit. When the grammar school system was originally designed it seemed like the ultimate meritocracy would result, but again we have a report (written by Henderson, L., Harris, J., Purdy, N. and Walsh, G.) from Stranmillis University College reiterating nearly verbatim the view of Paul Gosling (and the 7 reports outlined by Brian):

“For our present purposes the area of greatest concern is the finding that the most important factor which influenced student achievement at GCSE was whether individuals had been placed in a grammar school or not,”

“This is a particular concern given that access to and performance in the transfer tests, and eventual placement in a grammar school were found to be mediated by socio-economic status.”

Photo by Pixabay is licensed under CC0

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