Belfast Telegraph

Comprehensive failure

The sorry lesson from England exposes the flaws in the arguments of those who want to see an end to selection at 11, writes Robert McCartney QC

Alastair Walker's philippic against the principle of selection and the grammar schools demonstrates all the frailties of the anti-selection lobby.

The elephant in the sitting room which Alastair chooses to ignore is the mainland experience of the comprehensive system.

Right on his doorstep and without doing a highly questionable tour of the world is the damning evidence which destroys his whole argument that the abolition of selective grammar schools would result in some utopian system of "excellent all-ability schools that would serve our community every bit as well".

There is no doubt that what he is arguing for is comprehensive education. The term 'all-ability school' is a synonym for 'comprehensive school'; a term which, for a very good reason, he is unwilling to use. In the 21st century, the UK simply cannot afford to educate its most able children less well than the best in other countries if it is to compete globally. The comprehensive system is just not good enough to do that. International results put Britain so far down the league tables, its future place as even a second-rank country is open to question.

Since 2000 the rankings that compare the performance of children from different countries show England has dropped from 8th place to 24th in mathematics and in literacy from 7th to 17th. The results of those counties in England that have retained a selective system, and in Northern Ireland, show that selection works better both for the very able and for students as a whole.

The inference underlying Alastair Walker's article is that the price of some fall in educational standards is worth paying if non-selective education leads to a society with greater equality including a rise in upward social mobility.

Sadly, all available evidence shows since the comprehensive system began, not only have academic standards fallen, but so has upward social mobility.

One study looked at the income progression of a sample of people born in 1958 with a similar group born in 1970. It concluded mobility fell markedly and that it was children from poorer homes who suffered disproportionately (London School of Economics April 2005).

What the research demonstrates is that, in many cases, it is the affluence of the school's catchment area rather than ability which is the determining factor of the school's quality. Good schools and high house prices have reinforced each other, resulting in children from poorer families being excluded from good comprehensives.

The LSE researchers found just 3% of children in the best-performing comprehensives were receiving free school meals as against a national average of 17%. They concluded academic selection had been replaced by social selection - exactly as it had been prior to the introduction of the qualifying selective system in the 1940s, which gave every child an equal opportunity on merit, not money.

Minister Ruane's policy of all children at age 11 going to their neighbourhood comprehensive would simply rob children from disadvantaged areas of the chance to go to a good school on merit.

Under Northern Ireland's selective system, 42% of students going to university are from lower income groups as compared to the 28% from similar groups in England's comprehensive system.

It has been suggested the Northern Ireland figure is boosted by pupils coming from secondary modern schools, but this merely demonstrates the quality of such schools which are far from being repositories of failure. Not only can their pupils transfer after GCSE exams to a grammar school for courses, they can also pursue their university entrance qualification at a sixth-form college.

Another false argument beloved by the anti-selection lobby is that in areas where there are grammar schools, they cream off the best pupils, with corresponding damage to secondary moderns.

Once again, research carried out by the Sutton Trust found no evidence of this occurring. On the contrary, many of England's remaining secondary moderns are often out-performing the comprehensives.

Under a selective system, Northern Ireland has consistently out-performed England and Wales by 10% in it's A-level and GCSE results. At the level of academic excellence and in terms of upward social mobility for poorer children, the comprehensive system has been a disaster.

Anti-selection activists produce the same tired arguments that selection is a denial of social justice because it reflects not only intellectual ability but also environmental factors like neighbourhood and parental aspiration.

The question, however, is why should aspirational parents and a literate home be the subject of criticism?

The answer was supplied by Professor Brian Smith, who declared the comprehensive system was about equality and the selective system only about merit.

Professor Smith, Professor Tony Gallagher and Alastair Walker demonstrate their foolishness by believing the advantages a child has from having aspirational parents and a stable, literate home will be negated by the simple abolition of the grammar schools.

Perhaps Lord Adonis, until recently a Labour minister in the Education Department, should have the last word.

In a book he co-authored, A Class Act, the Myth of Britain's Classless Society, he wrote:

"Grammar schools formally opened to all (on merit) by Butler's Act enabled a proportion of working-class children to mix with their similarly able middle-class peers. The challenge for the next generation was to widen access to grammar schools. The comprehensive revolution tragically destroyed much of the excellent without improving the rest. Comprehensive schools have largely replaced selection by ability with selection by class and house price."

Is this really an example for Northern Ireland to follow - a diminution in academic excellence, a rejection of ability and merit, a reduction in upward social mobility and an increase in class division?

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