Noting Mr Gaskin’s reminiscences about A-Level exam results day, and the reported relative success of the Northern Ireland education system, I recalled another fragment of my ‘student’ days, when I would lie in bed smelling of kebab and listening to Radio Five Live phone-ins until it was time to go and have lunch.
On Radio 5, one of the most common criticisms of the British left, from regular commentators such as Peter Hitchens and Leo McKinstry, was the abolition of selection and grammar schools. Both men, among others, frequently cited the case of the Northern Ireland education system and its superior performance at ‘A’ Level as evidence of the inherent righteousness of the ancien regime.
In Northern Ireland, there are many people, perhaps a majority of Protestant and Roman Catholic alike, who have high regard for grammar schools and would prefer them to be kept.
However, it has been decided that the present system of selection at 11 should be scrapped. Both unionist parties disagree with the proposed actions and point out that this is all Martin McGuinness’s fault. Bad enough that he should have been in the IRA and simultaneously held Minister for Education in the devolved assembly, but, as I have heard cited by people questioning his competence, he also failed the 11+. Such is the nature of the 11+ among its supporters; there is nothing wrong with failing it, but if you actually do, it means there are certain things you should not be allowed to do.
A few weeks ago, a teacher proposed the removal of ‘failure’ from teachers’ vocabulary at the British Professional Association of Teachers’ conference. This was met with torrents of derision from the anti-PC lobby, which really does exist, unlike the PC lobby, which does not.
When I first saw the reports of the proposal, I thought that this was another fatuous piece of ‘anti-PC’ reporting; (I mean, political correctness these days, first thing you can’t call failure failure, and the next thing we’ll all be praying towards Mecca five times a day if we’re not all blown to smithereens beforehand because we’re too handwringingly PC to strip-search everyone wearing puffy jackets.) then I realised she really did think that this was a useful thing to do.
The news was just the sort of thing that would bolster any pro 11+ argument; if a dippy teacher thinks that the word ‘failure’ should be removed from a teacher’s vocabulary, then she’s obviously barking, as is anyone else who is unable to see that failure can actually be good for children. Kids need to know that life is tough as soon as possible, correct? And if it’s ok to fail, then there is surely nothing wrong with failing the 11+. It tightens you for the spuds. Sure fear of failure is bracing for the spirit, like a brisk jog round the school grounds with the House Master followed by a cold shower at 6 in the morning.
Further support for the 11 plus arrived in the form of an apparent recognition from British Education Secretary Ruth Kelly that comprehensive schools had not been as effective as bringing about social mobility as had been originally hoped.
The introduction of comprehensive schools is seen by many conservative commentators as a defining moment in post-war Britain, exemplifying what they consider the rampaging egalitarianism of Labour governments. For many, grammar schools meant true meritocracy: the most academically able got the education required for the higher paid professions, and the rest learned skills more suited to their level of ability, for work in manufacturing or manual labour.
It isn’t surprising that the idea of bringing back grammar schools has made a comeback; because a growing proportion of the population in Britain works in the services industry, it becomes more and more difficult to be socially mobile when nearly everyone goes to work and sits in front of a computer. New ways must be found for the middle-classes to measure their progress and distinguish themselves, and through the education of your children is as good a way as any. If your child goes to a grammar school, that is a measure of your position in a meritocratic society.
In the North, I think that the desire to preserve grammar schools has slightly different origins. Grammar schools have been part and parcel of life in the province for as long as anyone there can remember. Perhaps this explains the division along unionist/nationalist party political lines on the matter: the end of the 11+ may mean for many the removal of an essential component of Northern Ireland society. Post war, grammar schools provided education to both Protestant and Catholic working class children, enabling boys and girls from poorer families to enter professions not previously open to them. The 11+ was seen as a necessary mechanism, and passing it considered a worthy achievement.
When I was at school, most children knew what the function of the 11+ was: the smart boys went to the grammar, and the stupid boys went to the secondary school. Parties were thrown for children who passed, including those who passed with the aid of private tutors; those who didn’t pass, well, they failed, unless their parents were willing to pay up for their entry to grammar school, thus effacing the memory of their failure.
Onlookers may be surprised to see that a majority of people in the province are in favour of keeping the existing system of selection at 11, despite the fact a the majority of people have not passed the 11+. This isn’t really surprising: where you have the possibility, however remote, that your rather dull child has a can become a Lord Chief Justice by passing an exam at age 11, you are unlikely to want this possibility to be removed. No-one would say that they did not want their child to pass it. After all, there is always the chance that your child could turn out to be brighter than you are, or not make same mistakes that you did. Like failing the 11+.
UPDATE: The bould Chris Gaskin has told me that surveys say a majority of people are actually against it, which I was rather pleased to hear, although not for the purposes of this post.
UPDATE #2: The bould Pete Baker has told me that surveys say a majority of people are actually for it, which I was rather dismayed to hear, especially for the purposes of this post.
Facts are indeed the enemy of truth.