Belfast Telegraph

'Grammar schools are houses built on sand'

Selection is frequently defended by the simplistic mantra 'the end justifies the means'. But our children deserve far better from us, argues Alastair Walker

Selection Challenged is a book sired by anger out of frustration. It stems from frustration with those who have failed in their responsibility to give people here good government.

The mess that education is in currently is equally the fault of the unilateralist actions of the current minister and of those, also in government, who refuse to co-operate in finding a solution.

The anger is because of the suffering being caused to young children who understand little of what is being imposed upon them or why.

I thought that I should try to set out the case against selection in a way that went beyond the parochial arguments of the moment that seem to characterise much of the public debate on the subject. I feel qualified to do so as someone who spent most of his career in educational testing and assessment and was involved in both administration and research.

It was an area I moved into on returning to Northern Ireland after experience teaching in grammar schools in the West Midlands. Towards the latter end of my career working with CCEA, in addition to GCSE and GCE examinations, I had responsibility for the development of the transfer tests and for the marking of them.

I had been a confirmed opponent of selection for many years before undertaking that role so it was accepted with some reluctance, but then public servants do not have the luxury of only implementing those policies with which they agree. If that were the case our government processes would quickly break down.

What I promised myself was that I would try to ensure that the system that I was given to operate would be carried through as fairly and efficiently as possible.

There was no way of judging how successfully that was achieved, but it did not surprise me when research published by Professor Gardner and Dr Cowan of QUB in 2003 demonstrated that the Department of Education's requirements for the transfer tests themselves resulted in major reliability problems.

The book is, therefore, an attempt to place the current situation in the context of what has happened here and elsewhere over the last 60 years since the experiment of mass testing of 11-year-olds for selection purposes began in the UK in the 1940s.

It was an experiment which was short-lived almost everywhere except in Northern Ireland and which never operated as its designers had intended.

Indeed, in Northern Ireland repeated attempts to find a method of carrying out selection reliably have failed - none of the methods tried have ever proved fit for the purpose.

We now send 40% of our children to grammar schools. That means that those who just manage to get a grammar school place are fairly average attainers. So are those who do not quite make it over the hurdle.

I am convinced that there is no testing system in existence that is capable of taking two quite average children and predicting reliably that, over the next five years, one will benefit from a grammar school place while the other will not. It is absurd that we are even making the attempt.

It is also worth remembering that the hurdle itself is set at different heights for different schools. Postcodes are as important as grades in our present system in determining who gets into grammar schools.

A number of myths have developed around our selective system - myths about exam performance and selection and about numbers of working-class children getting to university among others.

In the book I try to dispel these myths and also reflect on how our schools relate to our communities. In doing so, I make some comparisons with Scotland, where the non-selective education system is generally highly regarded and where none of the political parties has any desire to make changes. One of the bitterest accusations made against opponents of selection is that we are consumed by an insane desire to 'destroy our excellent grammar schools'.

I am reminded of the biblical parable of the man who built his house upon the sand. The problem was not with the house - possibly brilliant architecturally and offering superb accommodation. The problem was that the foundations were in moving sands and not in firm ground.

Likewise, grammar schools - however good - suffer from their dependence on the unreliable and shifting foundation of selection.

At the present time our grammar schools serve 40% of our community well. Transformed into excellent all-ability schools they would serve 100% of our community every bit as well.

That may represent change - but it does not in any sense mean destruction. We already have a number of first-class all-ability schools. We know they work.

We do not need selection with all of the trauma and stress that accompany it.

Finally, there is the thread of a moral argument running through the book. Those who support selection justify it by claims about results. Even if those claims could be shown to have some merit, that is not sufficient because ends alone do not justify means.

What we do to 10 and 11-year-old children in the name of selection is unacceptable in terms of the stress that is caused and the loss of self-esteem that some children suffer. That moral argument alone is, in my view, quite sufficient to make us want to put an end to the practice.

However, in doing so there is also a moral obligation to manage change with the utmost care for the sake of those children currently in our schools.

So far, there is little sign of that happening.

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