Ulster's big grammar test

19th November 2004 at 00:00
The Troubles may be over, but peace seems a long way off in the province's battle over selective education. Elaine Williams reports.

The heroic portrait of hunger striker Bobby Sands that's plastered across the wall outside Gerry Adams's Sinn Fein constituency offices on the Falls Road, Belfast, seems emblematic of another time, a fading memento of a tortured era; the impression is underlined by the "tour taxi" parked beside it. Sightseeing of the Troubles, a whistle-stop ride around the areas that gained notoriety during the conflict, is becoming a ghoulish industry.

Stetsoned heads strain inquisitively out of cab windows as they zip up and down the still-grim "peace" lines, the high-wire fences topped with rolls of barbed wire that keep Protestants and Catholics apart in the poverty-racked streets of north and west Belfast.

The congestion within the Sinn Fein offices confirms their status as a visitor attraction, packed as they are with Scandinavian students on a fact-finding mission. It's hard to believe that not so long ago men were being killed in the streets outside.

The heat is now all concentrated in the political process and Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein chief negotiator, MP (though he still refuses to take his seat in Parliament), member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and one-time IRA commander, is embroiled in yet another round of negotiations aimed at removing obstacles to the restoration of the power-sharing executive. But he finds time to express concern at the sluggish progress being made in implementing the momentous changes he set in train when he was education minister at Stormont.

Children are sitting the 11-plus all over Northern Ireland today, a system of "educational apartheid" that Mr McGuinness believed he had consigned to "the dustbin of history". But since that day back in October 2002 when he made the deeply controversial announcement that the exam, a fixture in the province for the past 50 years, was to be scrapped, and pupils would no longer be selected into post-primary education on academic grounds - the same day the Assembly was suspended and direct rule from Westminster reimposed - schools have been unclear as to what their future looks like.

Mr McGuinness's parting shot caused uproar among the powerful grammar school lobby and provoked the wrath of the Democratic Unionist Party, which remains committed to academic selection. Indeed, many believe the real sticking point in talks to resurrect the Assembly is not about guns and decommissioning but about politics and, in particular, the accountability of ministers. Mr McGuinness's guillotining of academic selection is paraded by opposition politicians as a prime example of ministers wielding too much power. He wanted selection to end this year, but the deadline has been put back to 2008. The Costello Group, a post-primary review working party set up after devolution, reported last January with a road map for dismantling the selective system.

Barry Gardiner, education minister at the Northern Ireland Office, has accepted the recommendations in full. They require transfer between primary and post-primary to be based on "informed" choice and a "pupil profile" built up during a child's primary years, and for selection on academic ability to be prohibited. Schools will also be required to collaborate and form partnerships with other schools and FE colleges to provide an "entitlement framework" - "equality of access for all pupils" - for a range of 24 courses at GCSE, of which one-third must be vocational and one-third academic; and 27 at A-level. Only a handful of schools can provide this, so school leaders across the province will have to start talking.

But there's little evidence of much discussion. Time is ticking away and even the later deadline seems ambitious. Consensus is yet to be found on the thorny issue of admissions criteria; little has been revealed about what funding is available, but everyone knows it will be costly. No one knows what will happen if and when the Assembly is restored (the DUP predicts it will happen "within months"), but if the DUP gets the education portfolio, many believe - and many grammar schools hope - Costello will be shelved.

A highly vocal section of the grammar school lobby argues that by abandoning selection, the Government is disregarding the wishes of most parents (in a recent household survey, 66 per cent voted for grammars to stay). Paul Hewitt, headteacher of the Royal School, Dungannon, maintains that Westminster's "imposition" of Costello against the wishes of the majority of local parents and politicians is deeply "anti-democratic" and possibly "contrary to human rights legislation".

There's a wait-and-see mentality among Northern Ireland's school leaders that worries Mr McGuinness. He recognises only too well the dangers of leaving the job unfinished. (The education portfolio is out of his hands, perhaps forever, as Sinn Fein is expected to nominate him as deputy first minister in a reconstituted Assembly.) "When I left the department it was a sad day. I was dealing with one of the most important issues to face Northern Ireland." He worked, he says, "from morning till night" to take all of the educational constituency along with him, grammar schools included. "I wanted to be there, working with all concerned to agree the new arrangements. Whenever there is an education system where nothing changes for 50 years, there will be apprehension about fundamental change.

That is unavoidable. You have to be very inclusive. I was asking everyone to look at their own situation and come up with ideas."

Indeed, this self-confessed former paramilitary impressed many in the educational establishment with his charm and commitment to his job.

Mr Gardiner lacks the time to be so hands-on, and he has other priorities.

Public administration is under scrutiny, and Northern Ireland's five cash-strapped education and library boards (equivalent to local education authorities) may well be merged into one. Then there is the question of political will. "We are under no illusions that direct-rule ministers are comfortable with taking decisions that affect the lives of people here in such a direct way. They would rather they were taken by locally accountable ministers," says Mr McGuinness. But he believes whoever takes on education in the Northern Ireland Assembly will be under "tremendous pressure" to carry the changes through. "There is an expectation that the 11-plus will go. To overturn that would be damaging to the education system, and to the morale of parents and the business community."

Kay McGuinness (no relation), headteacher of St Kevin's RC primary school at the top of the Falls, would certainly oppose a reversal on the 11-plus.

St Kevin's has just moved its more than 400 pupils into new multi-million-pound premises painted all the colours of the rainbow. The school draws from the Whiterock and St James districts of west Belfast, the city's poorest wards, former recruiting grounds of the IRA and where, today, drugs and crime rates are soaring and family cohesion weakening.

Alongside scrapping the 11-plus, Mr McGuinness pledged new buildings for schools in some of the province's poorest and most troubled areas. This state-of-the-art school, with its landscaping, and its curves of glass and steel, is evidence of that.

Ms McGuinness is determined that with a new school comes a new approach to teaching and learning that is all about building self-esteem, an ambition likely to be assisted by the reformed curriculum that will be rolled out from 2006. This moves away from the narrow emphasis on numeracy and literacy and brings in development and assessment of skills such as critical and creative thinking; expressive, physical and personal development; self-management; working with others; and attitudes and aptitudes.

Selection at 11 flies in the face of this approach, says Ms McGuinness.

"All the work we put in over the years building children up can be knocked down by the transfer test." But she remains "unclear and concerned" about the system that will replace it. "We will need to establish good relationships with parents. They will need to trust us and our professional judgment."

Geoffrey Donaldson, education spokesman for the DUP, which has vowed to halt if not reverse Costello, acknowledges the need for a "fairer" system, but says the academic stream should be protected. Academic selection, he says, is a more transparent mechanism than "selection by postcode" - buying into successful schools through housing - which would ensue if academic selection gave way to parental choice.

In his early days as education minister, Martin McGuinness drew heavily on research by an academic partnership, Tony Gallagher at Queen's University and Alan Smith at the University of Ulster. They had looked long and hard at the effects of the selective system, and the picture they painted made the case for change an "overwhelming imperative". This research, which underpins Costello, shows that pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds make up only 7 per cent of enrolments in grammar schools, and that, compared to their peers, the most disadvantaged pupils are only one-third as likely to achieve a grade A in the transfer test and only half as likely to achieve five or more GCSE passes. While the grammar schools cater successfully for their cohort - Northern Ireland has a reputation for producing more pupils with qualifications at the top end of the achievement scale than England - the gap between the highest and lowest scores is among the widest in the industrialised world.

Moreover, demographic trends are set to widen the gap further. By 2010 the number of post-primary pupils in Northern Ireland is projected to fall by 8 per cent or 12,600 pupils, and by 2040 the 11-18 population could be down by a quarter.

Grammar schools remain highly regarded by parents and can be expected to fill to capacity. As pupil numbers fall in the province, they are already widening their net to take in students with Cs and Ds at transfer, a trend that is exacerbating the social division. There is evidence that children from middle-class homes are more likely to get into grammar school than the socially disadvantaged, even if they are of equal ability. Critics of selection see this as proof that grammars are more interested in institutional survival than protecting academic integrity. Threats by grammar schools to go private provide further proof, they say, because entry would then rest on ability to pay rather than IQ. In any case, they doubt there is money enough in the province to make more than a few economically viable.

If nothing is done to end selection, says Dr Gallagher, the fallout will be "horrendous" for the poorest children in Northern Ireland. If grammar schools remain in their present form, coupled with the growth of the integrated and Irish-medium sectors, the socially disadvantaged, not least Protestant children in desperately deprived districts such as the Shankill, will end up increasingly beached in schools with falling rolls, high staff turnover and a narrow range of curriculum choices.

More than 30 post-primary schools have fewer than 300 pupils, and some offer just six GCSEs. Individual teachers in those areas are performing heroic feats to counteract disaffection, but the odds are stacked against them. Where there are no jobs and no respect for education, and schools struggle to maintain standards, the grip of the paramilitaries and their increasing criminality is drawing in rising numbers of young people. Even at the height of the Troubles the young were largely protected from involvement. Now they are being sucked into the youth wings, lured by drugs, extortion and gangsterism.

The Troubles may well be history, but danger is ever present. Membership of the paramilitaries is growing. According to the DUP, it is greater now on both sides of the sectarian divide than at the height of the Troubles, and new recruits get younger by the day; some are barely in their teens. The DUP believes the money to be spent on ending selection should be pumped into schools that serve those communities. Sinn Fein argues that education will never raise its profile while the self-esteem of children is so damaged by a system that categorises them as "failures".

But there is another twist. Across the border, the Republic of Ireland - the "green tiger" - has more business start-ups than any other country in the European Union. Northern Ireland has one of the lowest rates, lower even than England. The province's education system might be good at turning out high-achievers for the professions, good at producing doctors, lawyers and teachers, good at providing public servants, but it's not so good at producing business people. What Northern Ireland needs for a thriving economic future is people who also value commerce and trades; it needs doers as well as thinkers, says Mr McGuinness. "There will be children who will be academically gifted and children who will make good plumbers, and we don't believe in dividing them. We always hope that plumbers want to read books and that some of the academically gifted will choose a vocational route with parity of esteem. There has to be a joined-up approach."

A joined-up approach is hard to come by in a system that, according to Dr Gallagher, divides children in every conceivable fashion, "on grounds of religion, social class, language, academic ability". Grown men and women in Northern Ireland remember with frightening clarity the day they opened the envelope containing their 11-plus results. Mr McGuinness says people become confessional. "I know grammar school principals who failed, leaders in the business community, well-known politicians (himself among them)." He feels most deeply for the 10-year-old girl who told him: "If I pass I go to the smart school and if I fail I go to the stupid school." What he could not tolerate under any new arrangement is grammars and secondary schools sharing a campus but distinguished by separate uniforms. That, he says, "is out of the last century".

Uel McCrea, principal of Ballyclare secondary, which serves a largely Protestant dormitory town west of Belfast, is tired of children arriving at his doors feeling stupid, their self-esteem at rock bottom, because they failed the transfer test. His staff, he says, take pride in being able to teach across the ability range and work hard on children's self-belief, raising their attainment at the same time.

Last year 75 per cent of students who stayed on to take A-levels (about 25 per cent of the 960 cohort) achieved grades A-C. Up to 43 per cent attain five GCSE passes. "We tell students that anything is possible for them. If they want to go to university, we will give them the opportunity. But academic intelligence is only one commodity. There is a variety of intelligences, and we need to be reminded of that."

Mr McCrea is determined to end the experiences of students such as Cheryl Cairns, 18, now studying business studies, media studies and biology A-levels but who felt on entering the secondary that "there's no hope because most of your friends have gone to the grammar. I felt as if I was not good enough." He wants to end a system that still makes his students feel like second-class citizens when they walk through the town in their blue uniform.

There is surprising consensus among students across the grammarsecondary divide. Ross Coulter, 16, a student at Ballyclare high, the grammar just across the road, believes too many pupils are put under too much pressure, too much coaching, too many practice papers. Both schools look alike: a hotchpotch of 1950s, 1960s and more recent buildings. Both are over-subscribed; both clean, neat and well cared for - like many schools in Northern Ireland - and their pupils well groomed and respectful. In that sense they have a slightly old-fashioned air, again like many schools in the province. They are collaborating on a joint all-weather sports pitch, but that is as far as co-operation goes for now.

David Knox, Ballyclare high's headteacher, believes his school is already moving some way to Costello, offering outstanding IT provision (it has won an Institute of Information Technology gold award) and a clutch of AVCEs - vocational A-levels. He says the principle of Costello, "that all children should feel valued", is "worth striving for", but he is not ready to fraternise formally with Ballyclare secondary.

St Catherine's college in Armagh, a Catholic all-ability girls' school, believes it points the way to the future. St Catherine's was formed in 1973 when the nuns of the Society of the Sacred Heart pulled down the high hedge that separated the Sacred Heart grammar school from the neighbouring Sacred Heart secondary intermediate school and formed a non-selective, 11-18 school in the teeth of fierce opposition.

The imposing 19th-century stone convent frontage to the 1,000-strong school in the heart of this ancient city belies the dynamic, forward-thinking institution that thrives behind it. St Catherine's combines high academic standards - 72 per cent gain five GCSE passes, 51 per cent three A-levels at C or above; a good record for a school with 23 per cent of pupils entitled to free school meals - with vocational pathways and wide curricular and extracurricular choices. It has also absorbed a co-educational Irish-medium unit.

Deputy principal Deirdre McDonald says the whole school is programmed to help pupils "set the bar high for themselves" through detailed monitoring and strong pastoral support. The girls are certainly helped to broaden their horizons. For example, those planning to read law at Cambridge are sent off to a policing conference to look at how young people can help improve law enforcement. "Policing is contentious in Northern Ireland, and if they are studying law at a high level they need those experiences of involvement," she says.

Margaret Martin, principal for the past 14 years, is a member of the Costello board and regards the provision at St Catherine's as one blueprint for the future. Her deputy agrees. If the nuns could take the step in 1973, when Armagh was an exceedingly troubled community, surely, says Deirdre McDonald, people should be prepared to embrace change now. So what is everyone waiting for?


The Northern Ireland system is mind-bogglingly complex. Publicly funded or "grant-aided" schools come in five main varieties. Controlled schools - secondary and grammar - are predominantly Protestant, and are funded by the education and library boards, while maintained schools, predominantly Catholic, are managed by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and funded by the boards.

More than 4 per cent of children are now taught at integrated schools.

While these may be controlled or maintained, their aim, as the name implies, is to educate Catholic and Protestant together.

Finally, there are the voluntary grammar schools, which are largely inter-denominational, and are backed by voluntary bodies such as the main churches, and funded from a variety of public and voluntary sources, including limited fees. Many offer boarding.

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, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today