Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Proper school selection never adds up to failure

We don't need fewer grammar schools. We need more professional schools to replace our failing secondaries, says David McNarry

There is no ambiguity whatsoever about the United Kingdom Independence Party's position on grammar schools. We support grammar schools as engines of social mobility, enabling gifted children from all backgrounds to have a chance to get on in the world.

Grammar schools are among our best schools, producing excellent results. In fact, Ukip advocates the extension of grammar schools across the whole country to displace the failing comprehensive schools which have so blighted the life-chances of many children in England.

Five years ago, Sir Eric Anderson, the provost - or chair of governors - of Eton (and, incidentally, the former headmaster of both David Cameron at Eton and Tony Blair at Fettes in Edinburgh) praised Northern Ireland's grammar schools and the fact that, largely because of the social mobility they enabled, 42% of university entrants in Northern Ireland come from less-privileged backgrounds, compared to only 28% in England.

Sir Eric rightly identified the problem: it was not the grammar schools, he said, but the process of selection. Sinn Fein is determined to assassinate our grammar schools. In this inflexible and dialectically based approach, they are missing the point.

It is not the grammar schools themselves which are the problem, rather the process of transfer. We should not be abolishing selection. We should be refining it and improving it.

We have got one part of the selection process right. We are selecting children suited to education in the grammar schools.

What we are not doing is selecting children with other aptitudes for specialist schools, or 'professional schools', which we in Ukip call them.

These schools would focus on vocational education, which would underpin our skills-drive and our drive for apprenticeships in high-skill areas.

Our present selection tests need to be developed to identify different aptitudes in children. There should be no concept of 'passing', or 'failing' a selection test.

Rather, there should be a concept of everyone passing, but being selected for a specific type of education.

Intrinsic to this must be equality of esteem between different types of schools. It is not fewer grammar schools that we need; rather, it is more new professional schools to replace our current catch-all secondaries.

Our secondaries have no specific focus. The implication is that they are there for those pupils left over from the selection process.

We should be focusing, instead, on upgrading and rebuilding our secondary schools into specialist vocational schools, which would focus far earlier on specialist engineering and technological skills.

These could underpin our drive for highly-skilled apprenticeships, a critical consideration in rebuilding our economy. Education in this country went wrong about 1890. Back then, Joseph Chamberlain, the leader of the liberal unionists and the lord mayor of Birmingham, developed Birmingham University as the first of Britain's technological universities. In Germany, at the same time, new technological universities developed alongside their ancient academic universities.

The difference between Britain and Germany was that, in Germany, there was parity of esteem between the academic and technical universities, whereas in Britain the curse of class led to academic universities being valued, while technological universities were regarded as second-class.

We in Northern Ireland still have our grammar schools. We should be glad of them.

Now we should set about building a parallel and equally esteemed system of technology schools, upgrading our secondaries in the process and underpinning all with a refined and improved system of selection.

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