Failing the 11-plus (again)


Academic selection and the subsequent potential for a widening of class, gender and religious disparities in education.

John O’Farrell of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions writes in agendaNi about his disappointment at Education Minister Peter Weir’s support for academic selection and the subsequent potential for a widening of class, gender and religious disparities in education.

Eight years ago, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and eight affiliated unions who represent workers in the education sector sponsored full page newspaper advertisements calling for an end to academic selection. As well as trade unionists, mostly prominent educationalists, the advert was signed by a significant number of prominent professionals from across the entire education sector: state, controlled, integrated and Gaelscoileanna. The letter was also supported by practitioners in second chance education, such as tutors and union learning reps, who bring essential skills to workers previously failed by an education system which segregated them at 10 or 11. The three basic points argued were these:

  • Selection at the age of 11 is unfair to children, breeds social inequality and is insufficient for the future needs of our young people, economy and society;
  • There is a compelling case for better alternatives offering meaningful choice for all second level students and schools;
  • The time has come for a decision to be made.

The advert was too polite. What happened between 2008 and 2016 was the privatisation of the 11-plus, the enrichment of the companies who constructed the tests and the creation of a cottage industry to drill the children of the already squeezed middle classes in the techniques of mastering the exams.

The big picture did not change: grammar schools admitted, on average, far fewer children with Free School Meals Entitlement (FSME) than would have been allowed in without selection.

There have been some improvements in access, especially from Catholic schools pressured by their bishops and nationalist public opinion, with the interesting result that Catholic schools with higher proportions of poor children are doing better in the league tables than Protestant schools with very low proportions of kids with FSME.

The May 2016 A level table, published annually by the Belfast Telegraph, found that “not a single non-Catholic school has made it into the top 11 in Northern Ireland for A level results”. The top school was St Dominic’s Grammar School for Girls in west Belfast “where 94.9 per cent of pupils received three passes at A level”. Also worth noting was that 26.7 per cent of those pupils were FSME.

In contrast, take for example an arbitrary state (controlled) grammar selection, Bangor Grammar School came 37th, with 74.7 per cent of its students achieving three A levels while, comparatively, only 10.9 per cent of those were FSME kids. Its alumni includes the DUP Education Minister, Peter Weir, who recognises the obvious: “the main focus on educational underachievement should primarily be put on Protestant working class boys.”

It is strange then, that a party which never hesitates to highlight any injustice to the culture or ethos of the Protestant working class, should unilaterally and without notification of the Assembly or even the Executive, bring back the State approval for schools to focus a significant proportion of their attention on coaching nine and 10-year-olds for the 11-plus.

The evidence shows that the problems of educational under-attainment by Protestant boys are not partially improved by selection, but instead radically compounded.

In his third (and unfortunately final) Peace Monitoring Report, Professor Paul Nolan and his graphic artist Paul McDonnell illustrate the scale of the challenge the Education Minister is eschewing through his 11-plus decision (see graphic).

“The evidence shows that the problems of educational under-attainment by Protestant boys are not partially improved by selection, but instead radically compounded.”

It is like evolution in reverse. Girls do much better than boys at school, and Catholics do a bit better than Protestants. However, when you add the FSME divide, then the statistical abyss opens up to the point where, at one end of the scale, a middle class Catholic girl has a four-in-five chance of ‘progress’, compared to one-in-five working-class Protestant boys.

The outgoing Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) chief, Michael Wilshaw, has derided Theresa May’s idea that bringing back grammars to much of England will help social mobility as “tosh”. The Times dropped its slavish admiration for May by reminding the “ex-grammar school girl” that “autobiography in this case would be a poor guide to policy”.

The recent grammar debate in England serves to dually produce enlightenment on the subject and highlight how limited the debate is here. Some have pointed out that grammar schools have been undeservedly credited with social mobility in the 50s and 60s which in reality was the result of a booming economy, the creation of new white-collar jobs, the expansion of free university education and, grimly, the labour shortages which were a long-term consequence of 450,000 largely male fatalities in World War Two. Likewise, social mobility in Northern Ireland can be largely explained by the expansion of the public sector in the 70s and 80s.

Finally, it is part of the insidious nature of the debate that we miss the fact that the discussion is entirely premised on a very Tory vision of social mobility, that there is a certain limited space in ‘middle management’ for the deserving poor if they can prove themselves to be exceptional enough to join the mediocrities who are there by accident of birth, family connections and decent tutoring at nine and 10 years of age. Must try harder.

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