First, a brief history lesson. It’s not often realised that in Britain it was the middle class that pushed hard for the introduction of comprehensive schools, hence the situation under the Heath government when education secretary Margaret Thatcher (for it was she) was positively enthusiastic for closing grammars.
The reason for this was that the 11+, for all its manifold faults, was giving a leg up to a layer of working-class youth and the middle class suddenly found their grammars overrun with oiks. Trouble was, the new comps were even more full of oiks. Therefore you can see the last twenty-odd years of education reform as having a good deal to do with an unstated agenda of oik avoidance. John Major (remember him?) touted about the idea of a grammar school in every town, before realising that this would play well in the Daily Mail but wasn’t a runner in real life. Thus the big idea of grant-maintained schools opting out of democratic local control. More recently Mr Tony Blair, who has had many bad ideas about education, presided over an enormous expansion in faith schools. A handful of Muslim schools may have made the headlines, but literally hundreds of state schools being handed over to the Church of England has passed by pretty much unnoticed. Thus a huge rise in the number of parents faking religiosity to get their kids into good schools.
Got that? Now consider that the catchment area for Methody includes Sandy Row.
And this lends a little perspective to Caitríona Ruane’s announcement of her plans for the future of post-primary education. The Stormont Executive being what it is, and ministers not actually making any decisions, what this amounts to is Caitríona’s “I have a dream” statement, with even the minister admitting that the detail is to be filled in later. What has grabbed all the headlines is Caitríona’s plan to abolish the 11+. This would be the second time it’s been abolished, Martin McGuinness having signed an order to that effect whilst being bundled out the door as the first Executive collapsed. On the other hand, Sammy the Streaker says there’s no way a non-selective system will be brought in. We shall see.
What catches the eye is Caitríona’s pledge that the Department of Education won’t fund any transfer test. This leaves a rather obvious loophole, which is why some grammars are threatening to run their own private tests. And then there’s the possibility of selection by interview, which would be the worst of all worlds – ossifying class boundaries in education by reinforcing middle-class snobs’ ability to offload their dopy offspring onto the grammar sector while shutting out the children of the hewers of wood and drawers of water.
Actually, Caitríona’s statement is an unholy mess in a whole lot of ways, not least because of the effort she’s put into placating the various lobbies. So selection at eleven is ruled out, but there’s provision for selection – sorry, election – at fourteen, with not much clue as to what the kids will do in the interim. And there’s the plan for local groups of schools, thus allowing the different schools in each group to maintain their Catholic ethos, grammar ethos etc. The theory seems to be that, within each local group, any eleven-year-old will be able to pauchle along to any school he pleases. Again, we’ll see about that.
Actually, if we could get past the incredible amounts of humbug coming from the grammar lobby, the 11+ has already been undermined long-term by demographics. With a shrinking school-age population, not a few grammars have been relaxing their entrance requirements on the sly so as to stay viable. A cunning strategy suggests itself of bunging more and more kids into the grammars as the years go by. Except that it might cause some loss of face, why not?