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Unfair school system failing poorer pupils

By Liam Clarke

Published 10/12/2015

The nearest thing I encountered to comprehensive education was in the 1960s at Dundalk Grammar School, which accepted all-comers.

There, the ablest pupils gravitated towards the front of the classroom. This was sometimes also a punishment posting so the teacher could keep an eye on you, but those who couldn't keep up were usually allowed to stay at the back provided they kept reasonably quiet.

One boy, who probably had special needs, was even sent out to help the groundsman with the grass-cutting.

Most of us in the middle got a good education. It was a good school and class numbers were reasonable, but a minority just put in their time. One size did not fit all.

I saw a different system at Dungannon Royal, the next school I attended, which was a local grammar school.

At that time it had a boarding department, which thought it was Rugby School.

There I was in the last class to sit the old junior certificate at the age of about 15.

At that point, the end of third form, several kids moved in from the intermediate school (which also offered the junior) and others moved out, generally to work or to technical college.

The message was loud and clear: the 11-plus, which I never took, did not provide the best outcomes.

People fell through the net and had a bad or a good day. However, giving them a second chance at 15 caught many of these cases.

The leaked draft report - Investigating Links in Achievement and Deprivation (Iliad) - was commissioned by the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister and makes sensible points.

The current system does lead to "privilege and disadvantage". The better-off can pay for coaching and better facilities in the home for study; the cards are already stacked against the children of the low- paid and the economically inactive.

It contributes to a lack of social mobility, with house prices going up around "good schools" and the rich feeling - with good reason - that they can pass on their social privilege to the young.

That is natural instinct for parents. It is not, however, in the interests of society as a whole. Overall, we need people not to feel excluded and we need the wider talent pool that giving everyone a chance provides.

That means continuing to stream within schools, but having regular review mechanisms. That is the way to ensure that everyone is getting the courses, attention and help that they will need to fulfil their potential as useful members of society.

Starting with that objective as the first and last priority, rather than arguing over the historic interests of particular Churches and schools, is the way to build a society that is fairer to the young than what went before.

That is what politics is for - giving this generation and the next an even break.

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