National Grammar Schools Association
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by Robert McCartney QC, chairman of the NGSA

(An edited version of this article was published in the Belfast Telegraph on 12 March 2010 –
Alastair Walker’s philippic against the principle of selection and the grammar schools demonstrates all the frailties of the anti-selection lobby.  It is redolent with emotional assertion, optimistic aspiration and an almost total absence of objective facts which would support their case.

The elephant in the sitting room which Alastair chooses to ignore is the mainland experience of the comprehensive system.  Right on his doorstep and without doing a highly questionable tour of the world is the damning evidence which destroys his whole argument that the abolition of selective grammar schools would result in some utopian system of “excellent all ability schools that would serve our community every bit as well”.

There is no doubt that what he is arguing for is comprehensive education.  The term “all ability school” is a synonym for “comprehensive school” –  a term which for a very good reason he is unwilling to use.  It is generally recognised by objective commentators that the systematic destruction of most of the grammar schools in England and Wales has been a huge mistake though politicians are reluctant to admit it.

In the 21st Century the United Kingdom simply cannot afford to educate its most able children less well than the best in other countries, if it is to compete globally.  The comprehensive system is just not good enough to do that.  International results put Britain so far down the league tables that its future place as even a second rank country is open to question.  Since 2000 the rankings that compare the performance of children from different countries show that England has dropped from 8th place to 24th in mathematics and in literacy from 7th to 17th.  The results of those counties in England that have retained a selective system, and in Northern Ireland, show that selection works better both for the very able and for students as a whole.

The inference underlying Alastair Walker’s article is that the price of some fall in educational standards is worth paying if non-selective education leads to a society with greater equality including a rise in upward social mobility.  Sadly all available evidence shows that since the comprehensive system was begun not only have academic standards fallen but so has upward social mobility.  One study looked at the income progression of a sample of people born in 1958 with a similar group born in 1970.  It concluded that mobility fell markedly and that it was children from poorer homes who suffered disproportionately (London School of Economics, April 2005).

What the research demonstrates is that in many cases it is the affluence of the school’s catchment area rather than ability which is the determining factor of the school’s quality.  Good schools and high house prices have reinforced each other resulting in children from poorer families being excluded from good comprehensives.  The L.S.E. researchers found that just 3% of the children in the best performing comprehensives were receiving free school meals as against a national average of 17%.  They concluded that academic selection had been replaced by social selection - exactly  as it had been prior to the introduction of the qualifying selective system in the 1940’s which gave every child an equal opportunity on merit, not money.  Minister Ruane’s policy of all children at age 11 going to their neighbourhood comprehensive would simply rob children from disadvantaged areas of the
chance to go to a good school on merit.

Under Northern Ireland’s selective system, 42% of students going to university are from lower income groups as compared to the 28% from similar groups in England’s comprehensive system.  It has been suggested that the Northern Ireland figure is boosted by pupils coming from secondary modern schools but this merely demonstrates the quality of such schools which are far from being repositories of failure.  Not only can their pupils transfer after G.C.S.E. exams to a grammar school for specialist courses but they can also pursue their university entrance qualification at a sixth form college.

Another false argument beloved by the anti-selection lobby is that in areas where there are grammar schools, they cream off the best pupils with corresponding damage to secondary moderns.  Once again, research carried out by the Sutton Trust found no evidence of this occurring. On the contrary, many of England’s remaining secondary moderns are out-performing the comprehensives.  In the Bristol education area which is entirely comprehensive, the percentage of 15 year olds achieving 5+ G.C.S.E. grades A* to C in the area’s 18 schools was 35.1 compared with the national average for secondary moderns at 42.3 .
When the fact that the comprehensives all ability intake included the top 25% of the ability range is taken into account the excellence of  the secondary modern results is underlined.

Under a selective system, Northern Ireland has consistently out-performed England and Wales by 10% in it’s “A” level  and G.C.S.E. results.  In England, the remaining 164 grammar schools produced approximately the same number of grade A and B “A” level results in modern languages, physics, chemistry and mathematics as 1,500 comprehensives.  At the level of academic excellence and in terms of upward social mobility for poorer children, the comprehensive system has been a disaster.

Only by a series of deceptions has the government and the educational establishment managed to disguise the extent of their disaster.  First, they dumbed down the difficulty of the examinations.  Second, they introduced non-academic easy option “A” levels.  Third, they reduced the marking standards and, finally, they created school league tables in which they distorted academic excellence by equating an A grade in French or physics with an A in an easy option like media studies.

Anti-selection activists produce the same tired arguments that selection is a denial of social justice because it reflects not only intellectual ability but also environmental factors like home circumstances, neighbourhood and parental aspiration.  The question, however, is why should aspirational parents and a literate home be the subject of criticism?  The answer was supplied by Professor Brian Smith who declared that the comprehensive system was about equality and the selective system only about merit.  Professor Smith, Professor Tony
Gallagher, and Alastair Walker, demonstrate their foolishness by believing that the advantages a child has from having aspirational parents and a stable literate home will be negated by the simple abolition of the grammar schools.  All research in England establishes that the comprehensive system has widened social division as such parents buy houses near good schools or opt for some form of private education if they can afford it.

64% of parents told Martin Maguinness that they wished to retain the principle of selection.  In England an opinion poll two weeks ago showed that 70% wished to retain the existing grammar schools and 76% wanted new ones to be opened.  Perhaps Lord Adonis, until recently a Labour Minister in the Education Department, should have the last word.  In a book he co-authored entitled “A Class Act, the Myth of Britain’s Classless Society” he had this to say:

“Grammar schools formally opened to all (on merit) by Butler’s Act enabled a proportion of working class children to mix with their similarly able middle class peers.  The challenge for the next generation was to widen access to grammar schools.  The comprehensive revolution tragically destroyed much of the excellent without improving the rest.  Comprehensive schools have largely replaced selection by ability with selection by class and house price”.

Is this really an example for Northern Ireland to follow – a diminution in academic excellence, a rejection of ability and merit, a reduction in upward social mobility, and an increase in class division?  This is surely an end that no means can justify, not even those means at the disposal of the Q.U.B. Education Department, C.C.E.A., the Education
Minister and perhaps even the Hierarchy.