The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Selection at Eleven


Michael Gillespie • 29 April 2007

Now that the constitutional monstrosity at Stormont, the assembly, is in place (it is the belief of Federal Unionism-Early Sinn Fein that the monstrosity will soon collapse, and the sooner the better), in the meantime it should be appropriate to look at an issue of government in the 6 counties, namely selection at eleven. It is clear that Late Sinn Fein and Right Wing Union Jack Union Unionism are at loggerheads over this.

I first met up with the issue of selection in education during the Harold Wilson administration when selection was to be abolished and comprehensives were to be set up in the U.K. At that time I was President of the Irish National Teacher's Organisation in Belfast and dealing with selection and comprehensives was part of my remit as union president. It has to be realized that selection is a sine qua non of education; what remains to be decided is at what age selection should take place and who should do the selecting.

The age of eleven for selection is quite arbitrary. That age was set up in the 1948 Education Act which set up secondary schooling for all. At that time compulsory schooling ended at 14. In the new secondary schools, the government decreed the period of attendance in the new schools would have to be 3 years at least so the age set for selection was eleven. So selection at 11 is arbitrary, but even so, for Union Jack Unionism the age is sacred and is carved in stone.

The INTO at this time campaigned for abolition of selection and the introduction of comprehensives in N. Ireland but this was defeated by a powerful grammar school lobby. My personal position was that selection be abolished and that pupils be given the opportunity to select themselves at school and shouldn't be divided by the state into sheep and goats at the age of 11. With that in mind, the system of schooling I backed in the union was an all ability primary education with transfer at eleven to an all ability middle school education with compulsory schooling ending at 16. Those who wished to follow an academic bent in education could do so in 6th form colleges of education. The chief aim of the middle school was to turn out a school population at 16 that was highly literate and numerate; such a population is basic to a modern economy. The system of education outlined is similar to the system in Craigavon as of now. In such schools the pupils select themselves at 14+, the pupil being supported in the career route chosen by career counselling and vocational guidance and by individual academic profiles.

It is evident that Right Wing Union Jack Unionism is hellbent on retaining selection at 11 and it is rumoured that a deal has been struck on this in Scotland. Be that as it may, it is difficult to understand how Right Wing Unionism can reconcile State selection with Right Wing philosophy. It was the purpose of Margaret Thatcher's philosophy to roll back the State. If Right Wing Union Jack Unionism were consistent they would roll back the state out of the lives of children. Children should select themselves; the state should be kept out of it. The Right Wing is inconsistent in this but then their only consistency is sectarianism.

In all of this one must look at comprehensives in general and at education in the inner city and in the suburbs When looking at inner city education I have in mind Late Sinn Fein which has adopted a stance towards education in the Shankill that is blatantly sectarian. I have heard Late Sinn Fein claim on TV that there is a low level of educational attainment in the Shankill. More recently, I heard Caitriona Ruane repeat this on TV after attending a NAS/UWT conference in Belfast, but in singling out the Shankill in a problem that is an inner city problem in education Ms Ruane is being sectarian.

At the time I was President of the INTO in Belfast, I was doing research at the Faculty of Education, at Queen's, into numeracy levels in inner city schools in Belfast. The neighbourhoods selected for research were:

  • The Shankill
  • The Lower Falls
  • Donegall Pass
  • The Markets

The research looked at:

  • Basic Numeracy. This took as its criteria pupil ability to do simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division at the end of primary education. The research established that over one third of the school population in the inner city couldn't do these basic operations at the end of primary education and were thus innumerate. When the statistics were tested rigorously for significance, the performance of pupils in Maintained and Controlled Schools did not differ, so the levels of innumeracy in the Shankill and Donegall Pass are the same as the levels of innumeracy in the Lower Falls and The Markets. So why does Ms Ruane and Late Sinn Fein single out the Shankill when it comes to an inner city problem in education? Do they believe that innumeracy is connected with religion and politics?
  • Overall numeracy. This level of numeracy was established in a wide ranging test of mathematical knowledge at the end of primary schooling. When this overall test of numeracy was tested for significance between Maintained and Controlled schools, it was established that pupils in Controlled Schools significantly out- performed pupils in Maintained Schools. So this research suggests that pupils in the Shankill and Donegall Pass are overall more numerate than pupils in the Lower Falls and The Markets. There is other research at the Faculty of Education at Queen's that backs this up. So why does Late Sinn Fein knock the Shankill by singling it out? But there are swings and roundabouts in all of this. It has also been established in research that pupils in Maintained Schools out-perform pupils in Controlled Schools in verbal ability.

To take a still wider view of the matter, one must consider Inner City Schools in Belfast in relation to schools on the leafy Malone suburb of Belfast. Had the research outlined been also carried out in the Malone district it would have been found that the pupils of the Malone would have out-performed Inner City pupils. While this anomaly is true of Belfast, it is also true of cities in all of Ireland, in GB, and cities in the USA. It was originally thought that comprehensives would correct this anomaly in England and Wales but that did not prove to be the case. There is now talk of bog standard comprehensives in England, but the comprehensives thus described tend to be found in the inner city. Comprehensives in the suburbs fare well and have high academic standards. The current Labour Government has tried to raise standards all round by having the State invade the classroom in telling the classroom teacher what to teach and how to teach it, but this has proved ineffective so far. It could be that the cause of this anomaly is bound up with the relative values that suburban families and inner city families place on education.

This is the educational problem that Ms Ruane and the assembly will have to tackle in the 6 counties. The numeracy and literacy standards in rural schools will also have to be taken into account. So what is the point of Ms Ruane and Late Sinn Fein singling out the educational standards of the Shankill for special note? To do that is raw sectarianism. In light of that Federal Unionism-Early Sinn Fein would urge the people of the Shankill to demand an apology from Ms Ruane in the press and in the media for misrepresenting them. If that should fail the Shankill should go as a body to Stormont and make clear to all that sectarian Ms Ruane must go.






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