Belfast Telegraph

The future of education cannot be compromised

The search for a consensus in the debate over post-primary education is flawed, simplistic and anti-democratic, says Robert McCartney QC. Either we retain selection, or we don't

While the good intentions of the Belfast Telegraph in attempting to resolve the chaos in education are praiseworthy, it is doubtful if its Sit Down, Sort It Out campaign will provide the solution.

Sentiments such as 'agreement' and 'consensus' invest their users with a halo of goodness, but rarely address the complexities of the issues.

The popular belief that every problem is capable of solution by getting people to sit around a table to achieve compromise consensus is both flawed and simplistic. It is also the antithesis in many cases of the democratic process. True representative democracy accepts that the electorate may make a choice between conflicting policies and offers procedures for a decision between them in the absence of agreement.

In place of real democracy, Northern Ireland has a permanent mandatory consensual requirement so in the absence of agreement nothing is decided and chaos prevails.

The DUP claims that at St Andrews it preserved the principle of selective education. Sinn Fein and the SDLP, having removed the 11-Plus as the method of selection can however effectively block any alternative form, thereby rendering any regulated implementation of the principle impossible.

For a newspaper to advocate a particular consensual solution that would require one or other of the conflicting opinions to prevail, is a course of action fraught with danger.

The present crisis in education centres on the differences between those who believe in selection and those who oppose it.

The former see the purpose of an educational system as one which provides every child an equal opportunity to attend a school best suited to the fullest realisation of its potential. This requires a selective process.

Those who oppose selection believe that the purpose of a school system is not simply to provide appropriate excellent education; it is a means of implementing a system of social engineering to advance some ideological idea or political policy of which they approve. They do not believe in the liberal concept of equality of opportunity - they advocate the Marxist idea of equality of results.

Divested of any political content and viewed objectively, the selection system in Northern Ireland has for years produced the best GCSE and A-Level results in the United Kingdom and totally outperformed its comprehensive counterparts.

In terms of upward social mobility which education is supposed to promote, 42% of the Northern Ireland students going to university are from the lower income groups compared with some 28% from the comprehensives in England and Wales.

In terms of quality education, the demise of the grammar schools is now almost universally acknowledged as a mistake which it is nearly impossible to reverse. The eminent sociologist and educationalist Musgrove described the Labour Party's betrayal of the working class by the introduction of the comprehensive system in the following terms:

"The Labour Party did not abolish the Great Public Schools, the obvious stronghold of upper class privilege. With unbelievable perversity they extinguished the only serious hope of working class parity. The upper class kept their public schools, the working class lost theirs."

Critics of selection, forced to accept the excellent results of the grammar schools, counter by alleging the system produces a long tail of under-achievers. This is not even supported by the minister's Education Department. In the department's report for the year ending 2008 it confirms that of some 24,000 school leavers, only 850 left without a GSCE - a result that compares favourably with mainland Britain's comprehensive system.

Northern Ireland's grammar schools have demonstrated their determination to maintain their commitment to academic excellence in the face of pressure from political parties, clerical institutions, and those progressive educationalists whose theories have failed on both sides of the Atlantic.

Parents exercising the choice offered to them by the grammar schools have shown their support by the number of their children they have submitted to the tests provided. Before the introduction of the foundation curriculum designed to abolish the free preparation for the 11-Plus provided by the primary schools, lower-income parents did not need to pay for coaching. It is these parents whose children could possibly suffer some future disadvantage.

Insofar as it can be discerned the Belfast Telegraph's Sit Down, Sort It Out campaign seems to have settled on transfer at 14 as the preferred option. In support of this, an array of educational experts was assembled.

Of the few that are professionally engaged in education, both Professors Smyth and Gallagher are publicly declared anti-selection activists. At this point, it should be noted transfer at 14 can be effected either by a selective process, as in the Dickson Plan, operating in Craigavon, or an elective process by parents, as proposed by the minister.

Under the Dickson Plan, pupils at age 11 left primary school without sitting the 11-Plus, but having sat year-end tests used for streaming them when they moved to junior high schools for years 11-14.

At age 14, based on tests and streaming, they progressed either to senior 11-16 high schools for the lower streams or grammar schools for the higher-stream pupils. Research indicated that those in the lower streams underachieved.

In November 1998, the Department of Education commissioned Queen's University Education Department to evaluate the Dickson Plan as an alternative to the 11-Plus. This research was led by none other than Professor Tony Gallagher.

It concluded the Dickson Plan was both too porous and small to provide a comparative position vis-a-vis the 11-Plus. In any event, the Dickson Plan was a selective one and completely different from the elective transfer at 14 proposed by Minister Ruane.

The minister's proposal is that, at 11, each child would transfer to its nearest neighbourhood school whether a grammar or secondary modern. There would be no selection and each school's intake would be 'all ability' as in the comprehensive system.

At age 14, the child's parents would elect if it would remain at that school, or move to a school more suited to its abilities. The basis of assessment for such election remains unclear, but the consequences can be imagined.

For example, a child of modest ability from a middle-class suburban home goes to his or her nearest neighbourhood school which is a grammar. At age 14, its parents elect that it will remain there since it is close, discipline is good and they find it socially acceptable.

Their position is, in parental terms, understandable. In an inner-city secondary modern with an indifferent record, the parents of an exceedingly bright child from a public housing estate find it impossible to get a place in a school that will maximise its abilities due to 'desk blocking'.

The problems that have plagued the comprehensive system will be repeated in Northern Ireland and upward social mobility from lower income group children will plummet. Money, postcode and coaching will replace merit and ability as the basis for selection.

The real objection to elective transfer at 14 is the fact that since every 'neighbourhood' school will have to take an unselected 'all-ability intake' it will become, by definition, a comprehensive school.

In effect, the grammar school system based on selected pupils will be permanently destroyed; hardly the material for an acceptable consensual compromise!

Over the years, I have been grateful to the Belfast Telegraph for publishing a series of detailed articles on various aspects of education. The contents of this article are, to a degree, critical of the Sit Down, Sort It Out campaign and the consensus principle upon which it moves. In these circumstances, and as United Kingdom Chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association, I offer my sincere thanks to the editor for permitting me to restore, in my view, a degree of balance to the debate.

Consensus is not in every circumstance possible for, as Winston Churchill once remarked, "Where is the point of compromise between the fireman and the arsonist'', or in the circumstances of this debate, between those who seek to preserve the demonstrably excellent and those who seek to destroy it.

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