Troubles ahead

3rd July 2009 at 01:00
Stalemate in Stormont and the abolition of the 11-plus have seen grammar schools across Northern Ireland setting their own entrance tests, effectively creating a two-tier education system

As the academic year draws to a close, teachers across Northern Ireland are busy organising sports days, putting on plays and looking forward to their summer holidays. But in primary playgrounds, children due to start their final year in September are asking each other: "Are you doing the Protestant test or the Catholic test?"

CJ Smith's eldest child, Matthew, is one of these children and CJ is deeply concerned about this growing divide.

"He came home from school telling me this a couple of weeks ago," says the Belfast parent. "It's awful really. We've moved on in terms of the Troubles, with the Good Friday agreement, and compromises have been made on both sides with the adults. But if the children are saying that, it doesn't bode well for the next generation."

Two years ago, photos of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and the Democratic Unionist Party's (DUP) Ian Paisley laughing and joking put a spring in the step of the province's power-sharing government, but recently things have been more turbulent. There were violent outbursts from dissident republicans in March and Kevin McDaid was killed by what is believed to have been a loyalist gang in Coleraine in May.

The Northern Ireland executive has remained united in its condemnation of sectarian violence, but when it comes to education the four-party executive is split. While Sats are the issue of the day in England and Wales, the bone of contention in Northern Ireland is the best route into secondary education.

Last year was supposed to see the end of the 11-plus transfer test, which is sat by P7 pupils to determine which secondary school they can go on to. So CJ thought Matthew would not have to sit any exams. But in the absence of any alternative system, grammar schools in Northern Ireland have all opted for an entrance exam and have divided - largely along sectarian lines - into two groups with two separate tests.

Schools in the Post Primary Transfer Consortium of grammars - 28 of which are Catholic, four non-denominational and two integrated (incorporates any religion) - will all use the same entrance test from GL Assessment. But the Association for Quality Education (AQE), which represents around 30 mainly Protestant state grammars, has commissioned an academic to write their exam. So the reality is a Catholic and Protestant test.

Like many parents and teachers, CJ is exasperated by politicians' failure to find a solution. "Things have changed from the word go - from when Caitriona Ruane (NI education minister) came out with the proposals," he says. "Everyone's now stumbling around, trying to find out what's happening on a weekly basis - and things are still changing."

Academic selection at 11 has been a hugely contentious issue in Northern Ireland ever since Mr McGuinness pledged to abolish it in 2002. During negotiations for the St Andrew's power-sharing agreement in 2006, the DUP secured a clause that selection could only be abolished with cross-party agreement. The DUP and Sinn Fein, already polar opposites on the orange to green political spectrum, have subsequently failed to come up with a workable compromise, so schools have taken matters into their own hands.

In Belfast, posters for the European elections still adorn lampposts across the city and it is clear that education has become the latest political battleground. A campaign advertisement by the SDLP nationalist party reads: "Our education system is in a mess. Pupils, parents and teachers still have no idea what the future holds - and are deeply worried . You deserve better - and so do our children."

In fact, the issue has become so divisive and politically sensitive that some teachers do not feel able to publicly admit their views. Primary teachers are under pressure from parents to prepare pupils for tests. Yet most teachers' unions and the Department of Education have ordered them not to co-operate with the grammar schools' plans.

Meanwhile, Catholic grammar school teachers who favour selection find themselves in conflict with Bishop Donal McKeown and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), who are opposed. And secondary teachers in controlled schools (mainly Protestant) who believe the current system is unfair are at odds with their political parties, the Ulster Unionist Party and the DUP, which favour selection.

But how does it affect schools and parents on the receiving end? Matthew and his dad have put a lot of thought into his choice of school, attending five open days. A tutor comes to the house every Friday and Matthew's results have gone from 60-70 per cent to 90 per cent.

But CJ is worried about how the wider situation will affect his son. "He could be doing four tests next autumn: the entrance test at (Catholic) Aquinas Grammar School on one day; then two tests on different days at Methodist College Belfast; then there's the possibility of a third for anyone who wants another shot at it," he says.

Matthew himself is getting anxious about it already. "My son's quite nervous anyway, and I think he might be feeling the pressure more than most. He's the youngest child in P6," CJ adds.

T ony Gallagher, head of the school of education at Queen's University Belfast, is exasperated by the situation. "This particular issue looks like a crushing failure of shared governance because it shouldn't be a sectarian issue. Politicians are supposed to take tricky public policy issues and find some way of dealing with them, and they have palpably failed," he says.

"This argument about whether to be giving kids one, two or three tests at 11 on English and maths, and assuming this can determine your future, seems Dickensian, to be honest. Yet this now seems to be the focus of debate."

This bitter dispute centres on class. Both the 2001 Burns Report and the 2004 Costello Report produced convincing evidence that the 11-plus is socially divisive. Both suggested alternative, more comprehensive collegiate-based systems.

Professor Gallagher, who contributed to both reports and has been has been a consultant to the executive for years, says: "If you have a high-stakes selection test at an early stage in an education system like this, what it does is act as a massive social class filter.

"You have the most awful level of social segregation, which is derived from the secondary and grammar schools . It's a system that heaps all these sorts of extra challenges on the secondary schools and allows the grammars to exist as these little middle-class islands above the system."

Michelle Marken, who retired last year as principal of St Joseph's College, a non-selective Catholic secondary right next to Aquinas Grammar in south Belfast, recalls the stark difference in attitudes towards the two schools.

"When I was principal, I would sometimes get people ringing up to complain about one of the pupils misbehaving in the street, even if they weren't sure of the uniform," she says. "They would presume that the pupil was from the secondary school rather than the grammar school.

"This is not what people will face up to. It is absolutely interwoven with class and status - where you are in the pecking order of society. We haven't evolved into a more open society where you're not judged by whether or not you've gone to a grammar school. That's why people want to retain a selective system - because it's an easy way of managing society."

According to Mrs Marken, parental perceptions about grammar schools often have a big impact on pupils' self-esteem. She says: "If you have three or four children and one of them doesn't get the 11-plus, where does that put them in the pecking order of the family? And their friends, and their friends' parents?"

Certainly, the free school meals figures highlight a striking contrast. Overall, 17 per cent of post-primary pupils take free meals, according to the most recent 2007 census (in England and Wales in 2008, the figure was 13 per cent). Of these children entitled to free school meals, 15 per cent attend grammars, while 85 per cent attend non-selective schools. The difference is most dramatic in Belfast, where secondaries have on average 43 per cent of pupils on free meals, while grammars have only 6 per cent.

T he school leavers statistics are also startling. Twenty per cent of young people leave school with less than the equivalent of one good GCSE at grade A*-C and it is this "tail of underachievement," as the teachers call it, that those opposed to selection at 11 want to address.

Paul (not his real name) is the principal of a primary in the predominantly Unionist area of east Belfast. While he is unwilling to ally himself with either side of the 11-plus debate, he acknowledges the inequalities in the system. "That needs to be addressed," he says. "There's absolutely no doubt about it, and that's where we need some creative thinking.

"My own view is that we need to keep the excellence at the top end, but also pull up that lower end - that 20 per cent who are in effect unqualified when they leave school."

At his school, an average of 55-60 per cent of the school population is entitled to free meals and most do not sit the 11-plus. Last year, just four pupils sat the test out of a year group of 27, and two of them are going to a grammar school. Paul says this is typical of schools like his in east Belfast.

One compromise proposed in government consultations was selection at 14 rather than 11, and many teachers and educationists considered this a workable solution to the stalemate.

Paul says: "There is an argument that children - boys especially - lag behind in terms of maturity at 11, and by 14 there's more of a level playing field. Children have more of an idea of what their aptitudes are by that age.

"But that (an exam at 14) would be a very big leap from our current situation . If 14 were chosen, it would mean a radical reorganisation of the school state system."

The only Unionist party to oppose selection at 11 is the Progressive Unionist Party, which represents the working class. Dawn Purvis, its leader and an MLA (member of the legislative assembly) for east Belfast, says: "I see the effects of a ticking time bomb in my community. It is most startlingly felt in the working-class Protestant areas, particularly among young Protestant males. There's high unemployment and increased criminality . Their start in life is unfair.

"Other countries that perform very well in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) ranking are Finland and Sweden, and they have a comprehensive system. With grammar schools now deciding to set their own tests, the gap between rich and poor is going to get worse, as parents who can afford it will pay for outside tutoring."

Another important factor in this debate is falling enrolment numbers across Northern Ireland, which means many grammar schools are offering an increasing number of places to pupils who achieve Bs, Cs and, in some cases, D grades in their entrance exams.

Ms Purvis says: "We don't have a system of academic selection here; we have a system of social selection. Grammar schools can pick and choose whoever they like."

Many children will travel miles to attend a reputable school, but enrolment in non-selective secondary schools is falling, resulting in closures.

Supporters of the 11-plus hold up Northern Ireland's excellent academic record as unequivocal proof of its success: 74.5 per cent of teenagers gained five top-grade GCSEs last year, compared with 65.5 per cent in England and 65 per cent in Wales.

One grammar school principal, who did not want to be named, believes that suddenly switching from selection to mixed ability would be a huge undertaking for any school.

"I have 90 teachers in that staffroom," he says. "What would happen if suddenly, as of tomorrow, we started taking all abilities? My staff just aren't used to teaching that way. For the good of the children, I'd have to do heaps of staff re-training."

Another grammar school teacher acknowledged that the system was unfair, but said introducing a comprehensive system would be going too far. "I know what a privileged position I'm in - that I get to come in every day and teach a subject that I love," she says. "But I don't think that having academic ability as one of the criteria, along with locality or siblings (at the same school), is all that bad."

Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, chair of the AQE, argues that there is room for both grammars and secondaries in the system.

"We think a lot of non-grammar schools do an excellent job," he says. "There ought to be room in the system for diversity, and one shouldn't try to echo the other; they should try to be excellent in their own right.

"In a competitive world, Northern Ireland needs a different set of skills. Of course, it needs vocational skills, but on the other hand . unless we fine tune our best talents, we are not going to succeed in the competitive world."

While the majority of educationists believe a selective system perpetuates class divisions, the AQE argues that grammars serve society as a whole and do not cater only for the middle classes.

S ir Kenneth says: "I'm chairman of the board at Royal Belfast Academical Institution (known locally as Ince) and I think there is a myth around that it's a rugby-playing school - that it's full of toffs.

"But if you actually came to any of the school events - any of the school's concerts or plays - you'd see a very wide cross-section of the community. Not all of them are prosperous by any means. We do our very best to encourage people from that sort of background to aspire to our school."

And yet, just 2 per cent of Ince's pupils are on free school meals - a figure that remained constant from 1992 to 2005.

Sir Kenneth argues that poor standards of literacy and numeracy should be tackled in early years and primary education, and that this has much more of an impact on academic achievement and social differentiation than selection at 11.

In September 2007, a revised curriculum was rolled out for P1, P5 and the first year of secondary school. Now in its second year, this skills-based curriculum has been welcomed by teachers, who say it brings critical thinking to the fore by encouraging children to find things out for themselves.

In a speech to primary principals in 2007, the educationist Professor John West-Burnham said the revised curriculum had the potential to be "world class", but that change and "quality of leadership" would be necessary if the benefits were to be realised.

From 2013, an "entitlement framework" for 14 to 19-year-olds will come into being. This will see schools working collaboratively with other schools and colleges to provide 24 traditional and vocational subjects at GCSE or diploma level and 27 subjects at A-level, so that pupils at different schools will all have access to the same subjects and facilities.

Reform of education administration is also in the pipeline, with the creation of a single Education and Skills Authority, which will oversee area-based planning developments.

These shifts will undoubtedly affect the underlying issues surrounding selection, but it is as yet unclear how this particular debate will be resolved.

Debates about the future of education rage around the world, but in the words of one primary principal in the province: "The difference in Northern Ireland is that, if you have 10 people in a room, you'll get 10 very different opinions."

The sheer number of opinions is one of the biggest challenges facing Northern Ireland's new government. As a result, debate about education has degenerated into a personal and political stand-off.

As Paul says: "People are often happier with what they know, and we have been in a state of flux recently. We're on a journey and I don't feel we're quite there yet."

How selection divides northern ireland

2001: The Burns Report, commissioned by the Government, finds that the 11- plus test is socially divisive and very damaging to pupils' self-esteem. The test is found to be disruptive to learning at an important stage and reinforces inequality of opportunity.

2002: Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, then minister for education, pledges to abolish the 11-plus.

2004: The Costello Report confirms findings in the Burns Report.

2006: The St Andrews Agreement paves the way for the restoration of the NI Assembly, but a clause ensures that any decision about post-primary education would have to win cross-party support.

December 2006: Publication of the Bain Review, which recommends an increased collaboration and sharing between schools.

May 2007: Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane appointed education minister of the new executive. Later that year she confirms the end of the 11-plus.

April 2008: The Association for Quality Education (AQE), made up of 30 schools at this stage, plans to create its own exams.

April 2009: The Catholic Heads Association (now named the Post Primary Transfer Consortium) announces it will use a different entrance exam, devised by GL Assessment.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today