Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

The Big Education Debate: What kids must rely on now is savvy parents

If Northern Ireland really wants to compete on a world stage, then it must retain the current schools and address the shortcomings of the secondary sector says David Shiels

Tesdting times - what's the way forward for pupils here
Tesdting times - what's the way forward for pupils here

Catriona Ruane wanted to cause a stir when announcing that she was going to ban academic selection, and she certainly got one. The Minister for Education claims that she has the best interests of our students at heart, although she did feel it necessary to point out that this was the 'biggest shake-up of the education system in the north of Ireland since Partition' (quite telling, that).

Unionists have, predictably, reacted with fury, or so the headline writers told us. Unionists are good at reacting with fury - they have had many years' experience.

After spending months telling us that abolition of selection would not be allowed under a DUP-led Executive, the party has, once again, been caught on the back foot. Mr Sammy Wilson - who has been, to his credit, one of the most vigorous supporters of grammar schools - could not contain his bitterness at the Minister's audacity of announcing something without first having secured his approval. He is, after all, the chairman of the Education Committee, and the DUP had insisted that they had secured increased powers of accountability for committee chairmen under the St Andrews Agreement.

Now there is a direct relationship between the volubility of the unionist protest and their inability to do anything about it.

There is no point in huffing and puffing after the announcement has been made. Unionists should have taken the initiative.

Instead it was left to the highly talented Sir Kenneth Bloomfield to throw down the gauntlet for the Education Minister. She has certainly picked it up.

The most frustrating thing about this whole row, however, has been the unionists' inability to get to grips with the arguments in favour of retaining the grammar schools. Opponents of academic selection, meanwhile, have their arguments down to perfection.

They will seize upon the apparent unfairness of the transfer procedure, claiming that it is wrong for children to be labelled 'failures' at the age of 11. This argument is particularly seductive because it is right. But what the liberal do-gooders cannot see is that it is they who are branding the academically less able pupils as failures. They will not accept that some children are better suited to a vocational course of education than others, and that there is no harm in this. Indeed, this fact should be celebrated. If we really wanted to address the shortcomings of the present system, we should look at how the secondary sector might be improved to ensure that all students have the opportunity to develop all their talents.

What will actually happen is that selection on academic ability will now be swapped for selection on parental ability.

Experience in England shows that this will be the case. The most savvy, tuned-in parents will now be able to secure a place for their children in the most prestigious schools, while other unfortunate children will languish in the poorer schools. Critics of the present system will no doubt insist that this happens already, and maybe they are right, but at least the ability of the child features in the decision.

All students from Northern Ireland who go across to university in England soon learn the extent of the divisions of the education system there. This is particularly clear in the top universities such as Cambridge and Oxford. Anyone who encounters the products of the English public schools cannot fail to be impressed by the extraordinary breadth of their talents and knowledge: they are fantastically well-read and are particularly driven to succeed. There are also many students who have been schooled internationally with fluency in several languages to prove it. They know all the hoops they must jump through to secure the top internships and best graduate jobs. They know, moreover, that - no matter unfair it may seem - selection based on ability is a reality of the modern world.

For Northern Irish students, this can be intimidating. Yet they continue to hold their own in all fields of education. If we really want to compete on a world stage, we must retain the current schools and address the shortcomings of the secondary sector.

These arguments were recognised in a debate about comprehensive schooling in the Cambridge Union debating society last week, when Northern Ireland was held up as an example to the rest of the country. (Alas, the debate went unreported. Oxford grabbed the headlines with their Holocaust-denier.) All speakers in the Cambridge debate were agreed that the present double-standards of the education system in England were quite unfair.

Mr Peter Hitchens pointed out that, whatever the defects of our system, it is only in Northern Ireland that pupils from state-schools can really rival those from the public schools. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the speakers also recognised that constant reform of the education system in Britain has led to chaos. All reforms - and we have seen many in the past 10 years - have unintended consequences.

By all means, then, let us have a debate about the nature and timing of selection. But we must not get caught up with whimsical fantasies about creating a 'world-class' education system in a province of just over 1.5m people. It is a big world out there. It would be a shame if our obsession with the issue of 'failure' made changes which hindered the chances of those who are successful.

David Shiels is a graduate historian at Peterhouse, Cambridge

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