Belfast Telegraph

Robert McCartney: SF worry over poor Protestant pupils is rich

Sinn Fein has shown a “touching sympathy” for the educational plight of Protestant children in north Belfast.

Their poor performance in the 11-plus is blamed on the selection principle. Sinn Fein claim that if selection and the grammar schools were abolished, these children would educationally flourish. “Nothing” could be further from the truth.

Educational researchers all share the view that the poor performance of children in deprived areas is overwhelmingly caused by socio-economic conditions.

Other relevant factors are the quality of teaching at primary level and a lack of educational aspiration among many parents who do not even enter their children for the examination.

It is these components that offer the true explanation for the lack of 11-plus success in north Belfast.

Success depends on three things. First, the intellectual ability of the child, second the quality of primary teaching and, finally, actual entry for the examination.

Even a bright child who is well taught will not pass if he or she does not sit the exam. There is no reason to believe that the percentage of bright children is significantly less in north Belfast than elsewhere.

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Yet in the period 1999/2008, only 28% of the children from the relevant schools who were on Free School Meals were entered for the 11-plus and, in some years, of the total number of eligible children, as little as 15% sat the exam, against a province-wide average of about 70%.

Since selection only becomes an issue at 11-plus one must examine factors during the children’s primary school experience.

Paramilitary activity and economic decline have damaged family and social infrastructure in the area. As a result, dependency on benefits has increased with the aspiration for upward social mobility falling.

This is reflected in the number of children actually entered for the 11-plus.

While this situation undoubtedly created problems for teachers, it was compounded in 2000 when the primary schools in North Belfast were the subject of an experimental “enriched curriculum”.

This was devised by the Council for Curriculum Education and Assessment (CCEA) monitored by the Queen’s University School of Psychology and sanctioned by the Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB).

Already disadvantaged children were to be further handicapped by this untested and unproven regime. Naturally, teachers in an already difficult situation willingly accepted what the “experts” offered as a solution.

Detailed analysis of the progress of children under this enriched curriculum compared with a similar group on the previous one demonstrated that over a six year period they performed worse and that in each successive year the gap widened.

While the enriched curriculum improved the results of better off children within the scheme, it worsened the scores of the more deprived. In educational terms, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.

The new curriculum delayed the formal teaching of reading until age 7.

In the gap between 5 and 7 the focus was on play and relationships said to increase the child’s participating and inquiry skills.

This was claimed to provide the children with “an improved positive learning disposition and consequently improved learning outcomes and higher levels of attainment. This assertion, repeated by the school heads in a recent letter to this newspaper, is without a shred of objective evidence to support it; and is not quantifiable by any recognised form of educational assessment.

A school visit to view happy children at play would scarcely offer proof of this unfounded claim. On the other hand, objective evidence of the schools’ results and attainments demonstrate a very different story.

The record of the number of pupils entered for the 11-plus let alone passing it is dismal. One school failed for two successive years to enter a single pupil for the 11-plus. Currently the Westminster Audit Committee is seeking to know why the expenditure of £40m on literacy and numeracy has failed to raise standards.

Teaching and improving the reading skills of children from disadvantaged homes has been the subject of much research.

The overwhelming conclusion in the US as well as the UK is the vital importance of children being taught at the earliest age to read using synthetic phonics and that the longer it is delayed the more probable it is that the child will never be a competent reader.

Professor Jeanne S Chall of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, after the most extensive research, concluded that early teaching by phonics based on sounds and the code of language was especially effective for children of lower socio/economic status; a conclusion supported in the UK by the Clackmannanshire and Rose Reports. Against this evidence, is it any wonder the “Enriched Curriculum” schools are having limited success.

A future employer or examiner will not ask a candidate if he has “an improved positive learning disposition”. He will want to know if he can read and count.

Children who have passed through six years of the “Enriched Curriculum” have been poorly served if judged by the school’s record of attainments.

Granted that there are as many innately bright children in north Belfast as elsewhere, the reason why so few reach grammar schools is a combination of socio-economic factors, flawed teaching methods, and a failure to even sit the 11-plus.

None of these have anything to do with the principle of selection or the pursuit of academic excellence in grammar schools by those children able to do so.

Diane Ravitch, one of America’s most eminent educationalists, has stated that the function of schools is to educate, not to advance any social or political ideology.

Sinn Fein and its supporters should take note.

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