Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Why 'one-size-fits-all' schools will not work

Changes to Northern Ireland's education system must be managed effectively. But all-ability secondary schools won't provide the answer, argues Billy Young

I read with much interest Dr Alastair Walker's article in the Belfast Telegraph entitled 'Grammar schools are houses built on sand'; it seems to me, on the examination of his remarks, that his arguments are based on shifting sands.

Dr Walker, at the start of his article, outlines his career as one spent in educational testing, assessment and research.

He notes that it did not surprise him when research by Professor Gardner and Dr Cowan demonstrated major reliability problems in the 11-plus.

This begs the question as to why, given his extensive experience, he did not realise that anything was wrong. One way of ensuring the demise of the 11-Plus was for it to drift on with its deficiencies and the accompanying effects on the children's results. I would have thought that his care for children would have motivated him to do something about it.

Secondly, Dr Walker speaks about how highly the Scottish education system is regarded within that country. This seems at odds with concerns expressed about a number of the schools there; indeed, it also is at odds with the growing numbers seeking independent education where, for example, in order to escape the state sector in Edinburgh up to 25% of children are educated in public schools, 15% in Glasgow and 20% in Perth.

Dr Walker refers to grammar schools suffering from their dependence on the unreliable and shifting foundation of selection.

As one who was involved with AQE in this year's Common Entrance Assessment, I do not agree with his comments: AQE spent a lot of time in the preparation of this year's assessments, made a number of improvements and took on board the recommendations of Gardner and Cowan. We judge that our assessments were of a high standard in terms of reliability and of validity and shall issue evidence of this in time.

Reference is made to the myths of our system being superior to the rest of the UK in terms of our results and in terms of the number of children from lower-income families who get to university.

Figures produced by DENI and other bodies consistently show that Northern Ireland's schools out-perform these in the rest of the United Kingdom. I shall be very interested to see from his work how these facts are described as myths.

I should add, at this point, the often forgotten element in this equation: the strength of Northern Ireland's education system depends not just on excellent grammar schools, but also upon excellent secondary schools. AQE believes that this differentiated system delivers for our children.

Nor is AQE against comprehensive schools, of which there are excellent examples here; rather, we oppose the imposition of this system upon the province.

Dr Walker's preference for all-ability schools also seems to fly in the face of all the evidence. In England and Wales, we see the demise of educational standards.

Here almost 90% of parents are happy with the choice of their post-primary school; the same cannot be said of the postcode lotteries which exist in England.

Highly regarded research by Richard Green of the University of Oxford demonstrates that comprehensive education has been powerless to enhance social mobility. A study of transfer in the Republic of Ireland by Maeve O'Brien produced similar conclusions.

In addition, a recent report comparing social mobility in the United Kingdom and a range of other developing countries, supported by the Sutton Trust, confirms that social mobility has declined since the introduction of a comprehensive system in Great Britain.

The article states that there is the thread of a model argument running through Dr Walker's book. "Those who support selection justify it by claims about results. Even if these claims could be shown to have some merit, that is not sufficient because ends alone do not justify means." He goes on to refer to the stress, trauma and suffering of the children.

The advantage of our differentiable system is that it provides appropriate pathways for children at that stage of their education.

The pace, at grammar and secondary, matches the development of the children and this is one of the reasons why a higher proportion of children from disadvantaged areas of Northern Ireland get to university than anywhere else in these islands.

Extremes of stress and trauma may be seen in the comprehensive systems elsewhere in the UK, where children are not being challenged and standards of behaviour are unacceptable.

The other, often ignored, element in all of this is the will of the people in Northern Ireland.

From the Household Response form and in a recent poll, almost two-thirds of the population have consistently stated that they favour academic selection. If the people did not want selection I, for one, would not now be involved in preserving it.

Important issues, for which AQE has always stood, which may be covered in Dr Walker's book are: much more financial support for primary schools to create smaller class sizes; a curriculum which will stretch our children; more being done to encourage technical education for those young people with practical gifts; more recognition of the success of secondary schools and more freedom for them to develop their sixth forms where appropriate.

The one area where I agree with Dr Walker is the need to manage change from the top effectively.

The sinking sands, however, are not to be found under the grammar schools, but under Dr Walker's proposals for a system of one-size-fits-all, all-ability schools and statements which appear to ignore both facts and evidence.

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