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?

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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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