Grammar Schools – Do They Work? A Northern Irish Perspective

"Education has the power to change individuals and communities, and we cannot let a socially unjust narrative win. We owe the country more than that."

The Conservative Government under Theresa May seems set to bring back Grammar schools in England and Wales. As of now, 5% of secondary schools in England are grammar schools, and there are no selective schools in Wales or Scotland. However, Northern Ireland retained the grammar school system, and just over a third of schools in Northern Ireland are grammar schools. So why is it different? Is it proof that the system can work?

 The 11 plus exam was abolished in 2008 by Sinn Fein Minister Caitriona Ruane. However, this did not end selective education in Northern Ireland. Grammar schools simply banded to rely on a different test. Published figures over the last few years have shown that support for academic selection is increasing, and more pupils apply for places in grammar schools.

 Grammar schools in Northern Ireland, however, need to be viewed in the context of unofficial segregation. 90% of pupils in Northern Ireland attend a school that is majority Catholic or Protestant. Integration of schools has two main lines of opposition. The Democratic Unionist Party (voted for by the majority of protestants) opposes integration as they have little to gain from it (although the previous first minister paid some lip service to the policy).

 More interesting is the opposition that comes from the Catholic Church, supported by Sinn Fein. The Catholic church want to retain Church schools, but remove selection, opening the catholic grammars to all catholic pupils.

 The abolition of the transfer test in 2008 was nominally to increase integration. However, if one looks at the schools respectively signed up to the two tests, the GL and AQE, it becomes clear that the opposite has been achieved. When my younger sister sat her transfer test in 2010, the question ‘Are you sitting the Protestant Test or the Catholic Test?’ became common amongst 11 year olds. 

Many argue that the school system cannot be blamed, and that it simply reflects the divisions in society, rather than creating or encouraging them. This argument was opposed by the integration movement which began in the 70s. About 7% of children in Northern Ireland are educated in integrated schools, which have roughly 40% of children from each community, and 20% of pupils from other faiths. 

Having benefitted from the grammar school system, and grown up in a time and place relatively untouched by sectarian troubles, throughout my education, I remained sympathetic to the grammar school system. However, now that I can look back on my education, and that of my friends and family, I begin to notice a pervading element ignored in the debate which focuses on selection and integration – class.

 The situation in Northern Ireland also provides an argument against those who say that a grammar school system is at least better than a system which includes fee-paying schools. But the lack of private education in Northern Ireland has done little to equal the playing field across classes.  Northern Ireland does have a higher percentage of children in grammar schools who qualify for free school meals – 7.4%, but this is no achievement when it is noted that 28% of children in non-grammar schools qualify for free school meals.

 Many proponents of the grammar school system in Northern Ireland state that inequality and segregation will increase if the system is changed. However, there is no evidence to prove this point. What the evidence does show is that both Protestants and Catholics from middle class backgrounds are benefitting, and going on to university, where they experience integration in reality. At the same time, those form the least privileged backgrounds are becoming increasingly stuck. Northern Ireland has one of the highest rate of child poverty, lowest rates of living standards and widest gap in income in the UK. The wealthiest households in Northern Ireland earn 3.6 times more that the poorest. Whilst grammar schools cannot be wholly blamed for this situation, they do not appear to be helping.

 My success was built on the back of those left behind. I will not let the Tories use me, and people like me, as an example to entrench social injustice.

 We need good schools in all areas. And by good school, I don’t mean a school with the highest university admissions. I mean a school that has the backing and resources to bring out the best in every single pupil. Particularly in the case of Northern Ireland, but also across the UK, I mean a school that encourages integration in society and improves the whole community, not just sectors.

 Some will become academics, some will become lawyers, but just as important are those who wish to become small business owners, construction workers, hair dressers, chefs. We live in a society that put ultimate glory on grades gained through skewed systems, where many trades are viewed as second class. There is national celebration on A Level and GSCE results day, but no equivalent joy for NVQ or apprenticeship graduation.

 One of the pressing issues for the Labour party is to set out a clear programme for education. Whilst Labour MPs have strong views on education, none have set out a clear, coherent policy of how the education system could be reformed. Education has the power to change individuals and communities, and we cannot let a socially unjust narrative win. We owe the country more than that.

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