October 25, 2016

Grammar schools: look to Northern Ireland

Grammar schools: look to Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland offers a valuable lesson in the debate of Grammar Schools, says Henry James.

A common refrain of the grammar school naysayers is that selective education is ineffectual, not to say morally dubious, because it will fail to influence social mobility. Critics contend that any new institutions will be the preserve of social elites. They see this in some existing grammar schools and assume that such a situation will inevitably be replicated. The reasoning goes as follows: as current grammars are largely middle-class affairs this will be the case for new grammars too.

The problem with this argument is that it ignores the social geography of already existing grammars. If a disproportionate amount are in wealthy suburbs and stockbroker-belt commuter towns, and the remainder spread thinly, then it is no wonder they are swarmed by the children of sharp-elbowed parents. In poorer parts of the country nearby grammars are often absent. Bright but poor students are then forced to make do with an uninspiring comprehensive.

The spread of grammar schools in the East Midlands illustrates this. Looking specifically at Lincolnshire we can find them in well-heeled market towns like Bourne, Horncastle, Louth, and Sleaford. Yet in Grimsby and Cleethorpes, comparatively large urban areas, no such option is available. True, there are plans for expanding grammars to take on a quota of pupils from low-income households, but this is unlikely to have a dramatic effect on socially stratified schools. Put simply, when selective schools are located in places like Guildford and Royal Tunbridge Wells – hardly bywords for deprivation – then the class makeup will always be distorted towards the well-off. In places like these, would there be enough poor students available to even reach the quota?

Another conundrum presents itself when factoring the existence of what a 2013 Institute for Fiscal Studies paper referred to as ‘isolated’ grammar schools. These are schools, often stand-alone, in a local authority area where the percentage of grammar school pupils is below 10%. Isolated grammars can have a sizeable intake from outside the local authority area, especially in London. This is one reason why poorer pupils within the catchment area will be underrepresented. With an expansive selective system this issue could be ameliorated. Furthermore, an expansion in grammar school education might offer policymakers the leeway to be more imaginative. If outside pupils are a problem, why not introduce a measure restricting pupils from outside the local authority?

There is a curious omission in this debate. The discussion generally relies on the example of English grammar schools, which only appear in pockets of the country and are vulnerable to the problems described above. The more extensive grammar system in Northern Ireland is conveniently ignored. Currently there are 67 such schools, which is lower than the 164 in England, but more than would be expected when population is compared. Over 40% of Northern Irish pupils attend academically selective schools – a significantly higher proportion than their peers on the British mainland. A survey of Northern Irish grammars offers lessons for England. It reflects a trend so simple it ought to be obvious: the class structure of any given school is driven by the economic health of the surrounding catchment area.

In Belfast, schools like Methodist College, Royal Belfast Academical Institution and Victoria College are known to enrol students from largely affluent backgrounds. Significantly, they also come complete with fee-paying preparatory departments. Assuming a fair degree of prep pupils will continue to senior school, the socio-economic bias is no surprise. Meanwhile, at St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar in West Belfast it is a very different story. Here the number of pupils eligible to receive free school meals is – at 38% – comfortably above the national average of 30%. The existence of this selective school, far from being seen as something to be ashamed of, is actively preferred by the local community. In 2014 plans for a merger with a nearby non-grammar school (which would have ended selection) were struck down by governors in response to parental opposition.

Of course, in Northern Ireland, just like the rest of the country, selective education is far from universally celebrated. John O’Dowd, Minister for Education since 2011, is vocal about his disapproval – as is the wider Sinn Féin party. The local Catholic Church hierarchy also takes a dim view, apparently unswayed by the superb results of Catholic grammar schools. In practise these voices are nothing but howls in the wind. Overwhelmingly popular with parents, the Northern Irish grammar is not going away anytime soon. Test applications increased in 2015, with just one school undersubscribed – despite the discontinuation of national transfer tests in 2008. All this means that a Stormont government of any political stripe will have to accept them, even if grudgingly.

A contention against grammars is that they cruelly divide students between educational haves and have nots. To Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner, ‘toxic’ grammar schools are a form of segregation. But what could be more socially segregating than a situation where the wealthy purchase excellent schooling, those in the middle move house or fake religious beliefs, and parents towards the bottom of the social ladder can only send their children to a sub-standard comp? If lessons from Northern Ireland are learned and Theresa May is bold enough to implement an expanded English grammar system, more schools like St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar could still emerge.

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Henry James
Henry James is a Durham University graduate in Risk Studies.
  • Shadow Warrior

    Hammond is continuity Brown. He is a hand-wringing lefty looking for clever wheezes to raise more tax in ways that people don’t immediately notice.

  • captainslugwash

    I predict the Budget will attempt to show the Left how caring the Tories are, and it will be funded by screwing over the working man.
    If Corp Tax comes down, I bet Divi tax will be going up.
    I would love to be wrong.

  • skynine

    We really need to look at tax credits, in particular in work tax credits that encourage people to work part time to preserve the benefits. 45% of women work part time and I would hazard a guess that tax credits are the main cause. This leads to low pay, low skill work in supermarkets and the retail sector including coffee shops. The government needs to get back to the employer paying people to do a job for economic reasons rather than to get onto the tax credit ladder. Like all government benefits it distorts the market and diverts government expenditure into non productive areas.
    The refrain that the government has cut expenditure is not true, it increases every year as more and more goes into welfare.

  • MrVeryAngry

    fat chance

  • MrSauce

    So, when wouldn’t we want a ‘budget for growth’?

  • Rob

    I note that the UK Government has just slapped on a 25% tax charge for anyone moving abroad and wishing to move out their private pension from the UK.

  • SonofBoudica

    The Remoaners will do their utmost to sabotage the Government’s negotiating position. They do not want a successful outcome; they want a failure. They want to be able to scream “Told you so!” from the rooftops.

  • EnglandLaments

    Thank goodness for Andrew Neil, the one media hack who scares the pants off the established politicians. He was spot on with Heidi Allen!

  • joshuafalken

    I had a very long, hard, studied and considered look at the hope, care and aspirations of all Europeans, before I voted to get the UK out of the toxic grasp of Brussels.

    The European Union and it’s charge of “ever closer union” has borrowed and spent its way to oblivion, whilst enslaving the working and middle classes in debt.

    The central control mantra of the unaccountable Brussels ruling elite, delivered through a mixture of socialism, globalism and corporatism is entirely responsible for the populist revolt by the millions of “Just About Managings” across Europe.

    We must remember the ultimate goal of socialists, globalists and corporatists is control, not prosperity. see https://mises.org/blog/goal-socialists-socialism-—-not-prosperity.

    Social equality and economic growth always fail under central control and fighting against the Brussels doctrine on behalf of all Europeans is why I voted for Brexit.

    Britain has a long history of helping Europeans depose tyrants and Brussels is just the latest incarnation.

    Britain is the most racially advanced and accepting society on the planet. We welcome those in need and those that can help us with open arms and a smile; that will not change.

    We are also one of the most innovative, talented and open societies in the world, which why everyone wants to live here. However, we cannot fit everyone in, so we have to have clear, balanced and fair immigration policy which is where the arguments start between the monetarists and humanists will never be reconciled.

    I thought long and hard before coming to the conclusion that leaving the EU was in the best interest of all Europeans, as Brussels is toxic and cannot be reformed from within.

    Also, I find it insulting that people who voted Remain have insufficient faith in British ingenuity, compassion and skill to get a good deal for us and see the Europe that we love get a better deal from Brussels and the reform that European people deserve. https://mishtalk.com/2017/03/29/bad-brexit-deal-better-than-no-deal-mathematical-idiocy-odds-of-no-deal/ and https://www.worldheadlines.info/2017/03/after-brexit-9-reasons-to-be-bullish-on-great-britain/

    The politics of left verses right are dead because neither have delivered the promised economic growth and social mobility for anyone, but themselves. The populists are not selfish per-se, they just want to take back control of their own destiny that left/right politicians have freely given away and/or exploited for their own ends. In my constituency, the local residents group are taking over the councils as politicians ignore voters, so Westminster should beware of the well-organised, local resident independents at the next election. This is a peoples revolution which should be shouted from the rooftops, but liberals remained deafened by the socialist, globalist and corporatist “vested interests” that have spectacularly failed us and are obediently crying foul and fake.

    There will be an initial unpalatable inflationary cost to fighting globalism and rolling back central control that few appear to have factored in, but dismantling failed left/right vested interests should eventually free libertarian socially-conservative capitalism from the shackles of TBTF corporatism to feed economic growth and social mobility.

  • agdpa

    The EU usually makes the wrong decision – on immigration, on freedom of movement, on the euro, on the Ukraine, etc. etc. Little hope it will get Brexit right.

  • brownowl

    Eh? Reference please!

  • Neil2

    Sod caring. Screw the spongers and breeders. Kill HS2. Stop all “green” subsidies. Slash “foreign aid” and walk away from the EUSSR with immediate effect.

  • Rob
  • John C

    What a confused article. It conflates surveillance by the security services with poor defences against fraud.

  • John C

    Err, it’s the UK that’s leaving the EU, not vice versa.

  • John C

    Me, now. ‘Growth’ is a manic obsession.

  • La Face Nord

    Mr Redwood – are you aware of the Biased BBC website? It’s been exposing their agenda for a long time, but I imagine you’ve been well aware of the BBC’s agenda for quite some time…

  • Contact Rvtech

    The post is great

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