Academic selection: a system of failure…

As education minister Peter Weir bumbled his way through a ministerial statement on Wednesday afternoon one would be forgiven for confusing the ad hoc COVID 19 response committee with a debate on academic selection.

The long-running debate has reared its head again as AQE subscribing grammar schools finally took the decision to delay testing in the face of a 1.8 reproductive rate in the virus here. Whatever your view on academic selection, it smacked of rank arrogance for these 32 schools to push ahead with exams (which could create COVID clusters) at the expense of another public institution; the crippled health service now overcapacity.

Without a vice-like grip on entry to university and with class barriers breaking down in our society, the argument for the very existence of these institutions has become increasingly tenuous without even a debate on testing. As noted by Matthew O’Toole in the assembly, the attitude of the minster, AQE and the schools have done more to make the case against academic selection than any of its opponents have achieved – what does that say about our politics?

Rather than play out the same lines of debate I will instead present a case study from England extracted from Melissa Benn’s excellent book, ‘life lessons, the case for a national education service:’

It was clear from the start that the eleven-plus exam – used to divide children at the end of primary stage and determine entry into grammar school – was (and indeed remains) an unreliable test. It was largely working-class children who lost out, sent to less-well resourced schools offering a narrower curriculum with far fewer opportunities to gain qualifications.

While a few young people from working-class and lower-middle-class homes did spectacularly well in grammars, and found their lives transformed, particularly if they went to Oxbridge, many selective schools were of poor quality.

 Now to put some meat on the bones, from the Crowther Report established in the late 1950s which led in the 1960s to a comprehensive model (followed in RoI at the same time):

            38% of grammar school pupils failed to achieve more than three passes at O-level [now GCSE]… Of the entire cohort of 16 year olds at this time, only about 9% achieved 5 or more O-levels and… less than half of those who attended grammar schools reached this benchmark.

What perhaps moved the debate on so quickly in England was that middle-class parents (as the dominant participants in the Grammar sector – similar to NI) could benchmark against fee-paying schools and with a wider array of schools due to England’s larger population it was clear early on that the system resulted only in mass segregation for little to no benefit.

As Benn herself notes, there is a failure in English political discourse to recognise the huge impact that comprehensive education brought to bear on generations of people. Take this example quoted from Peter Housden’s study of a town in Shropshire (market towns such as this make up the great body of the NI population):

            In 1958-60, just 17.5% of the pupils of the town’s grammar and secondary modern schools had left school ‘with a meaning basket of qualifications’ [5 or more O-levels]. In 2014 the equivalent figure for the Grove, the comprehensive that replaced the grammar and secondary modern, was 55%.


            In 1958-60, 6% of pupils had achieved at lease one ‘A’ Level pass; in 2014, 22% did so.

It is true that in the brief period up to the late 1950s when England operated our (still existent) model there was a monopoly on working-class and middle-class children entering university through this route. But today multiple routes exist such as my own 6th form college in Londonderry which was well resourced and well-staffed to cater for every kind of need. Schools like there are probably going to be the death knell on academic selection as more generations of us go through them.

Many believe education should be kept limited (in terms of outcome) because its ‘value’ is improved through competition and scarcity of qualifications. However, fear of grade inflation has made examinations more difficult, so the argument that it’s “just easier now” doesn’t hold weight. School assessment is done on a national basis with highly competitive young people seeking entry into university. So why cleave them off at 11 from their future fellow citizens to double the cost and widen the outcome gap?

Third level education isn’t everything and one doesn’t need it in life, but in a knowledge-based economy (which exists now, not in some distant future) NI needs to get a grip of this – Mick has quoted the figure of there being 60,000 people in Tech here, this compares to the same number in hospitality. Our educational attainment is very low, middling and less able pupils are effectively abandoned (by design) while those high performers leave our shores for economies of scale. In the digital age building scale is about building skills and we have failed miserably, I think it is not unfair to say that we have a 1950s education system in dire need of reform.

Photo by klimkin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA