Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

The Big Education Debate: Why we're talking about a class war

There are two distinct camps in the selection debate - do it when children are 11 or wait until they are 14. But, says Jude Collins, they share the same unpleasant motivation

Jude Collins

In recent days, commentators on the 11-plus show signs that they share a knack possessed by President Bill Clinton, only in a bad way. Clinton was able to compartmentalise: shut off one disturbing area of his life while operating calmly and efficiently in another. Our wise men and women who pronounce on the 11-plus seem able to keep a part of their brains marked 'Contradictions' sealed off from the part containing their tidy 11-plus arguments.

Take the Not-An-Inchers. This group, mainly unionist, insists that our present grammar school/secondary school system is the envy of the rest of the UK and beyond, and that to tamper with it is to try fixing what isn't broken.

Unfortunately, this 'we get great A-levels' argument collapses once you allow yourself to think about Belfast's Shankill Road. That area is just the most glaring example of the havoc the 11-plus wreaks on Protestant working class districts. Success levels in the examination are minimal; the traditional route into manufacturing jobs is closed off; economic and social deprivation sets in.

The 11-plus hasn't done many favours for working class Catholic children either, but it did allow the emergence of a line of political leaders - John Hume, Bernadette Devlin, Eamonn McCann - who were central in the agitation for civil rights.

So, we have the odd situation of unionist politicians arguing for the retention of a system which if it favours either side, favours the nationalist population rather than the unionist people they represent.

Then there are the Wait-Three-Yearsers. These people argue that 11 is too early to set children on different paths into different schools. Wait until 14, they say, when children are more mature and can make a reasoned choice. Hello? At 14? When hormones howl at gale force levels? At 11 you don't know your elbow from your armpit; at 14 you're too busy thinking about other body bits to care. But none of this gets to enter the thought processes of the Wait-Three-Yearsers.

A deeply reasonable group of people which includes the Minister for Education, the Wait-Three-Yearsers have bolted, locked and sealed off the memory of what it was like to be 14. Safe from self-contradiction, they tell anyone who'll listen that '14 is better'.

Except that it's not. The delusion both Not-An-Inchers and Wait-Three-Yearsers cling to is that ability is a fixed commodity, something you're born with. It's like that song from Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe - "Every boy and every girl that's born alive/Is a little Liberal or else a little Conservative". In reality you don't become a Liberal or Conservative, or a unionist or republican, at birth, or at 11 or 14 either. It can happen at any stage in life - there's no cut-off point. Likewise, ability doesn't come at birth, or 11 or 14 . Given proper conditions, it will burst into flower at any point in your life.

The fact is, we become good at doing things because of the experiences we have, and experiences don't stop happening when we're 11 or 14. They go on happening. We undergo change all the days we are alive. If that change is favourable, we become better; if it's unfavourable, we become worse. Talk to people who've become successful in any field and they'll tell you. that teacher, that chance encounter, that opportunity made the difference between success and failure in life.

Cleverness and talent aren't little fixed amounts of material that are lodged in our heads, with the trick being to find out how much and what kind we have, so we can be slotted into the appropriate box. I once did a radio documentary for BBC Radio Ulster called Varying Degrees. It was about people who, as mature adults, went back to school and then university. The youngest was in her thirties, the oldest was in his seventies. All of them said getting a degree mattered to them, not because of new job opportunities, although those came too, but because it helped them see themselves in a new light. "I never thought somebody like me could get a degree," one former hairdresser told me.

Besides, if we don't need to divide children on ability grounds and send them to separate primary schools, why do we need to divide them and send them to separate secondary schools? The south of Ireland doesn't divide at 11 or 14, and it's got an educated workforce that's drawn investment from around the world.

Other countries like Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand don't have our daft division either.

But the secret, shameful reason that really motivates Not-An-Inchers and Wait-Three-Yearsers stays locked in a double-sealed, double-bricked-in compartment at the back of their heads. They can barely acknowledge its existence even to themselves. Because inside that compartment a little devil capers and gibbers and shrieks, and if you listen carefully you'll hear the message he sends to the brain of the Not-An-Inchers and the Wait-Three-Yearsers.

It's as unmistakable as it's unforgivable: "Keep our nice kids away from the working class scruff!"

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