You know I’ve really tried to stay out of all this hoopla surrounding the Transfer test.
I mean, there are other voices, much more qualified than my own, to discuss the pros and cons of the selection procedure. Just for your information, I passed the test in 1979 and went to Loreto Convent Grammar School in Omagh. Well, Loreto taught me exquisite table manners, how to sing hymns in Latin, how to write beautifully with a fountain pen and that the contraceptive pill is regarded as an ‘abortion-facilitator’ by the Catholic Church. By the time I had 8 O-levels and 3 A-levels under my belt (and not much else, so to speak) I couldn’t wait to leave all the rules behind and go to college in heathen England.
I don’t regard myself as a practising Christian these days so I’m thankfully free of the ‘them and us’ mentality. My own child goes to a non-denominational grammar school where she routinely gets more than four hours of homework per night. Most weekends we’re traipsing round the shops buying study aid booklets, cookery ingredients, art materials, PE kits, new shoes, HB pencils and printout paper. But my child is happy at her school and I thank my lucky stars that the selection process is not something my family has to worry about any more.
And now I read that Education Minister Caitriona Ruane thinks it’d be a good idea to give preferential treatment to those children who are FSME (Free School Meals Entitled). And apparently the majority of FSME children here are Catholic.
Oh no, has it really come to this? Is the Minister really and truly going to fill up to 30% of grammar school places with FSME children?
Regardless of their academic ability? Does that mean that a working class Catholic family with, say, six FSME children will see them all into a top grammar school? While a middle class Protestant family with, say, two gifted children, will not have a hope in heck?
If preferential treatment is also given to families with a child already at the school, does that mean that ‘only’ children (my daughter is an only child) will also be turned away from the gates of Belfast’s Methodist College etc? You couldn’t make this up! The old test-based system was much fairer in that it rewarded those children who had worked hard at their books and had proved themselves academically capable. I suspect that Caitriona Ruane is rather missing the point about grammar school places. They are not Willy Wonka-style Golden Tickets to running a private dental practice on the Malone Road in Belfast. They are not Lotto tickets where the parents of the lucky winners can sit back and wait for the money to start rolling in.
I went on to art college, for example, and never made a penny from when I was 18 until I was 35 years old and gave up art to become a novelist. During those 17 ‘bohemian’ years where I wasted my time painting, I was supported financially by my devoted husband, who had the good sense to gain a degree in IT and then get on the housing ladder just before the boom. But I digress
Getting a place in a grammar school is only one more step on the long, hard road to success. There are seven years of non-stop study and homework to get through, then another 4-7 years in university, then another 5-10 years working one’s way up the career ladder. Often, your ‘child’ will be in his mid-30s before he can manage without regular handouts from the Bank of Mum and Dad. Occasionally, that ‘safe’ job will have disappeared by the time your child graduates and then he’ll have to go back to university and take a second degree and retrain. I know several people who have done this and they weren’t earning a decent wage until they were 35 or older.
So all this palaver about free school meals is sadly a mere distraction. And also hugely discriminatory: something Sinn Fein would claim they have always opposed with every fibre of their being. Well, Ms Caitriona Ruane, if you go ahead with this FSME plan, you will be discriminating against families with bright children, the majority of Protestant families, and families where one or both parents go out to work. You will be discriminating against families who give their children a packed lunch rather than claim free school meals, and families where there is only one child.
Dulce et Decorum Est: Schooldays are the best. See you in court!