Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

O'Dowd triumphalism misplaced

Education Minister John O'Dowd is an astute, street-wise politician and it was inevitable that he would see this newspaper's research into the selection test grades accepted by grammar schools in Northern Ireland as heralding a diminution of their elite academic status. He has branded them as mixed ability schools in all but name.

But does the evidence support his claim? Yes, more grammar schools are accepting a wider range of grades for new students, some taking fewer A grades than in the past although also taking fewer D grades. However, that is a snapshot of one year's intake and there can be many factors at play in creating those results.

There is the aptitude of the children taking the tests last year, their socio-economic background, the support they received or any number of demographic influences. It is understandable that Mr O'Dowd sees the survey as vindication for his drive to end selection and create a province-wide comprehensive system. But he will still face huge opposition not only from the grammar schools themselves but from parents who see them as providing their children with the best tools for future careers.

Mr O'Dowd and other critics of the grammar/secondary school system have failed to convince many people that replacing grammar schools with a comprehensive system would serve children as well, never mind better. The present system is far from perfect, with many children leaving school with few if any qualifications while others are among the highest achieving on these islands.

Could a comprehensive system be flexible enough to ensure that the brightest pupils are properly streamed to allow them to fulfil their academic potential whilst simultaneously helping the less able to also maximise their talents? That is the fundamental weakness of the comprehensive argument. Proponents of that system of education are unable to persuade parents that it can achieve those aims. In the absence of such proof parents will continue to seek out what they see as the best option for their children and that will mean, in many cases, sending them to grammar schools.

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