T Minus 11

While I’m in bellyachin’ mood, a long note on the education system in Northern Ireland.

OK, class, the way it is supposed to work is this: you have schools called grammar schools, which select brilliant students on the basis of their academic ability, determined via an exam, aged 11. Then -as far as important people are concerned- you have the other schools for all the dumbasses. When I was a lad, the system was split roughly 25% geniuses to 75% morons. These days there is a higher proportion of geniuses, maybe 35% to 40%. This could be down to the internationally recognised progressive brilliance of the Northern Ireland education system, or it could be down to falling rolls in grammar schools.

The system is called ‘academic selection’, but it is really academic rejection, since it is not concerned for the outcome for the majority. For those who call it academic selection with a straight face, it depends on a rather patrician sense of the word ‘academic’, according to which succesful exam candidates are selected for the academy, a grand old building in whose grounds they will spend many a dusky hour discussing parametric differentiation with a kindly old mentor, crunching the gravelly ground underfoot as they trace lazy circles in the cloister, whilst trying to put joyous thoughts of choir practice and 400 metre hurdles to the back of their mind. There is nothing academic for those who are not selected for the academy: they are said to attend secondary schools, secondary connoting hierarchy as well as chronology. At these secondary schools, they learn skills suitable to the powers of their humble minds: boys learn how to dig ditches, and girls -in order to meet the demands on the modern woman- learn needlework in order to build barrage balloons and mend their children’s longjohns.

What I said there about secondary schools is not true, but as far as those in the grammar-supporting establishment are concerned, it might as well be. However much they talk of campaigns for Quality Education, the real interest has been the preservation of grammar schools. If they were ever concerned with quality of education, they would not have bothered putting generations of children through a mind-blowingly tedious set of verbal reasoning exams tantamount to a set of manacles on a child’s imagination. At the very moment in a child’s life when she is starting to relate her own experiences to those of the wider world, open to the exploration of history, geography, literature, foreign languages, the 11-plus narrows their minds to the task at hand of fulfilling the perceived demands of the job market.

But my child said she loved doing the 11-plus!

Yes, because she wants to please you because you are a cruelly boring parent, and besides, you rewarded her with a pony on a bouncy castle for passing it. But you can content yourself that she’s turning out just like you.

Popular among geniuses who attended grammar schools and those whose children are also geniuses or show potential to be so, the system is supported by both Unionist parties, who quite like the idea of having a school system like this, perhaps because sending your child to a grammar school means that you can get some of the pedagogical prestige and brash attitude of British public schools (note to non-British Islanders: ‘public’ in this context means ‘private’) without having to pay through the nose for it.

It’s nearly a cultural heritage thing too. Back in the days of roadblocks, H-blocks and exploding Opera Houses, the reputation of the education system was one of the few things Northern Ireland had going for it. Whether that reputation was entirely deserved is another matter. True, plenty of working class Catholics in the 1960s, including my own parents, moved into what had been traditionally middle-class jobs after receiving a grammar school education. But it isn’t clear if there was a special grammar school recipe instrumental in creating this social mobility, or if it was just the plain facts of free secondary education brought about by the post-war Education Acts and the general conditions of an economic golden age. If the special recipe of grammar schools did indeed improve the lives of some (though I managed to wind up with straight As at A-level without setting foot in one and without any general bonecrunching effort or naked knife fights with savages in the boys’ showers), was it ever worth taking into account the psychological impact on nearly three generations of children getting labelled failures aged 11? How were teachers in the schools the rejects attended supposed to cope with the fact that each new year brought another wave of demoralised children? How do you build a school -or a decent society- on that?

To raise such objections was to rail against what Northern Irish society had declared to be self evidently true:

‘Children have to learn to cope with failure at some stage anyway! You can’t have a system where everyone is treated the same! A society will always need tyre fitters and plumbers! Not everyone can be an astronaut! I did the 11 plus and it never did me any harm!’

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people (but certainly not all of them) who went to grammar schools think that the system works well, just as many people think that generalised corporal punishment for children is a good thing because the regular beatings they received from their own parents never did them any harm.

Sending your child to a grammar school says something about where you are in society, and is considered an accurate predictor of where your child will end up. After grammar school, university beckons, followed by maybe a solidly middle-class profession, like accountancy or law, or maybe not. Falling rolls mean that the aspirational middle classes may be concerned that people who would have been previously considered morons and failures are wangling their way into the schools that are really for their children and other geniuses like them. For politicians, the middle class parents who vote for you to keep grammar schools and academic selection do so to rest assured that their children will not be devoured by savages while they learn to translate Twelfth Night into Ancient Greek. The barbarians must be kept beyond the gate.

Apparently some non-moronic poor people also get into grammar schools, but the percentage of children on free school meals in grammar schools is a lot lower than that in the other schools. 7% on average. In the other schools, it’s 20%. Take into account the fact that you’re bound to have a fair few cowboys who claim free school meals for their kids because they’re penny-pinching millionaires with highly competent accountants, the figure for grammar schools should probably be a bit lower. But when politicians come out against the proposal that academic selection should be removed, they often cite the fact that it is the deprived who will suffer even though, if your family is poor, you’re a lot more likely to end up in a non-grammar school, since, among other reasons, your parents will not be in a position to pay your private tuition fees for the test. One child who was in my class at school wasn’t the brightest, and got a mediocre grade, but the school did take fee-payers, so he got in. Another, much brighter, had no such sources of parental wealth to rely on, so off to the local secondary he went, and then on to prison. The first child ended up working in papa’s shop, bringing all his grammar school education to bear on operating a cash register.

Academic Billy Elliots will have the ladder kicked away from them!

The argument goes that once you abolish selection, either schools will start with their own admissions policy, charging fees and setting entrance exams of their own, or selection by postcode will occur, even though the grammar schools at the minute are mostly for middle class children these days anyway, and scant concern was ever shown for the deprived in the days prior to the first Northern Ireland assembly.

Until recently, the system of labelling the majority of children as failures at age 11 seemed to work fairly nicely, allowing as it did (and still does) the access of a limited number of children from lower-income families to have the path of middle-class professions open to them, thus giving the appearance that the system does not discriminate according to class. It also manages to turn out some formerly working-class people who think that grammar schools saved them -sensitive souls who loved Rachmaninov and Virgil- from a fate of brutish ignorance among the proles. I guess that when I say it worked fairly nicely, I mean of course that it worked fairly nicely for the middle-class.

So, it’s no surprise that there is much revving of Range Rovers at Caitriona Ruane’s glorious lack of detail for what happens once the 11-plus is abolished. Gruff menfolk bellow at the fact that this horrid woman is taking away their opportunity to put their children through two years of educational horseshit, with all the attendant pressure of not knowing if you’re going to end up getting labelled a failure for life.

It’s all very well saying that you’re no longer going to send children up the chimneys, but how on earth are we going to keep our chimneys clean?

This new system, however, which is, as I said, very short on detail other than to say that everyone should be allowed to attend a good school with transfer at age 14, threatens to do away with the arbitrary distinction between geniuses and morons for good! Goodbye, carpeted corridors! Farewell, parties with bouncy castles celebrating apparently intelligent children! So long, inferiority and superiority complexes!

I am tempted to celebrate the impending abolition of the 11-plus with a cry of ‘good fucking riddance’, were it not for the fact that I fear that this tale will have many a twist yet. Keep ‘er lit, Ms. Ruane.

9 Responses to “T Minus 11”

  1. 1 KevanB February 1, 2008 at 6:18 pm

    I passed the 11 plus and nobody bought me a pony. I found the whole thing, education as then organised, appalling. I did learn to play rugby, which I enjoyed for far to long afterwards so I now creak and groan on a dark winters day from all the batterings. No regrets there. I learnt to play a trumpet really badly and still enjoy it without any improvement in quality. I left at 15 as the whole thing was crap. No regrets there either.

    What the whole thing did was to give me distinct disadvantage as I discuss my own kids education with a teacher. There I sit thinking “nonsense” when I know the poor little sods needa Phd these days to get a job stacking shelves.

    One great advantage it did give me was a bullshit meter that never fails. It flicks into the red at the slightest hint of codollogy. Having been subjected to a great deal of that as a nipper at school as a result of all the pretensious arseholery of the grammar school my insticts are well honed in this area.

    Would I have been better of with all those horrid rough types at the secondary mod? No idea. I never did enjoy soccer so I would have missed a lot of sporting fun.

    I bet that no matter what happens with the so called “reforms” they still will not get it right. Many a twist indeed to come.

  2. 2 Gerry February 1, 2008 at 11:22 pm

    Wherever you went to school, you learned how to write a damned fine essay, young man. 🙂

  3. 3 Hugh Green February 4, 2008 at 8:29 am


    There I sit thinking “nonsense” when I know the poor little sods needa Phd these days to get a job stacking shelves.

    It seems to me that one of the things that makes people want a grammar school system nowadays is the fact that a university degree is required by employers these days for a huge range of jobs, particularly in service sectors, even when a university degree isn’t in fact needed to perform the tasks the job entails. So there is a clamour there for some sort of cast-iron guarantee of ‘quality education’, i.e. an educational record that -given the general ‘devaluation’ of qualifications- reflects some long-established and unassailable superiority in the holder.

    Cheers Gerry :).

  4. 4 Dean Nullec February 10, 2008 at 11:17 am

    As a “graduate” of a grammar school and having taught in an English second level school with pretentions of being private, I am now a secondary school headteacher in N Ireland. In this blog you have nailed exactly what is happening in N Ireland, “the barbarians must be kept beyond the gate”. The academic snobbery of the so called Catholic and Protestant middle class demands the retention of grammar schools that are, with the acceptance of C and D grades, actually patrician comprehensives. If you come from a monied background and obtain a D in the transfer buy the grammar blazer! That is my anecdotal experience and Prof Tony Gallager’s academic findings.
    Sorry for the rant, I only came on here to congratulate you on a pertinent and enjoyable summary of education in N Ireland.

  5. 5 Hugh Green February 10, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    Appreciate the comment Dean.

  6. 6 nerd. February 14, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    I don’t know where to start on this. I enjoyed a couple of your other posts where you take journos to task for flawed assumptions and then you come out with prejudiced crap like:

    “there is much revving of Range Rovers”
    “if your family is poor, you’re a lot more likely to end up in a non-grammar school, since, among other reasons, your parents will not be in a position to pay your private tuition fees for the test.”
    “It also manages to turn out some formerly working-class people who think that grammar schools saved them -sensitive souls who loved Rachmaninov and Virgil- from a fate of brutish ignorance among the proles.”

    I hate Range Rovers.

    You seem like an intelligent guy, so I’m sure you know Academic Selection does not start and stop at the 11+, but Ruane’s ignoring the other methods. Besides, you don’t need coaching for it. We did practice tests in school and my parents bought a few extra from the Edco shop in town, of which I completed a mere handful. That was the extent of my “coaching”.

    Going to a grammar school does not make you “formerly” working class. I don’t even know who Rachmaninov or Virgil are and I still hate rugby. However my interests were obscure enough that I would have almost certainly been guaranteed a regular kicking at the local secondary.

    The short of it is grammar school worked for me and none of my teenage friends (most of whom went to a local secondary) seemed to do too badly out of life, so I can only presume they weren’t traumatised and didn’t feel like failures for the rest of their lives.

  7. 7 Hugh Green February 14, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    It isn’t prejudiced. It’s an attempt to write humorously, if despairingly, about an educational system that impoverishes the imagination.

    The fact you hate Range Rovers doesn’t disprove what I was trying to say here: that middle-class parents don’t want their schools infiltrated by children from working-class backgrounds.

    I don’t really care if Caitriona Ruane is ignoring the other methods since I don’t agree with the principle of academic selection for children aged 11 at all. I don’t think that the state has a right to determine what is best for a child at that age.

    I know that going to a grammar school doesn’t necessarily make you ‘formerly’ working class, though I’m not quite sure if it makes sense to talk about a working class accountant, doctor, solicitor or pilot. What I was trying to say, by means of exaggeration, is that there are plenty of people who go to grammar schools and come out with the impression that the school saved them from the ravages of the secondary school (which is precisely what you say: ‘my interests were obscure enough that I would have almost certainly been guaranteed a regular kicking at the local secondary’), when what they are really saying is that it left them unable to imagine any other type of educational system.

    I never denied that grammar school ‘works’ for some people. The point is that it ‘works’ in the main for a particular class. Most people beaten by their parents rarely recognise the trauma it caused them: rather, they convince themselves that they deserve it. I’m pretty sure that a similar process applies when it comes to tests.

    Read this Save the Children report and tell me if your own experience of your teenage friends is sufficient evidence for you to you decide that it doesn’t do any harm.


  8. 8 pat into April 24, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    I thought your essay was incissive, thoughtful and cogently argued. The term grammar is outmoded, there are no separate grammar or secondary (vocational) curricula any longer, just the one. if the proponents of these type of schools look closely at what is being taught they will see that technology is the same in all schools and while there are academic subjects these are fast being watered down to be replaced by skills so that all can work in the call centres or sorry the information industries.

  9. 9 Hugh Green April 26, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    Thanks for the comment pat. Agree with your points about the term ‘grammar’, and also the move towards ‘nu-job’ subjects.

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