By all accounts, the recent handling of the transfer test has been a disaster. Gerry Carroll argues that academic selection is outdated, unequal and it is high time for it to go.
At the onset of Covid-19, there was a clamour by wealthy do-gooders and establishment politicians to declare that things will never be the same again. Remember ‘we are all in it together’: the mantra repeated, ad nauseam, by the great and good at the beginning of this crisis?
Surveying a world today where millions of people have lost their lives to the virus, disproportionately from working class and oppressed backgrounds, you might draw the conclusion that ‘we are all in it together’ has about as much consistency as the edict from Orwell’s Animal Farm: ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’
Perhaps one measure we could use to judge our government, or any government for that matter, is the way it treats its young people. It would be kind to suggest that DUP Education Minister Peter Weir’s handling of the post-Covid education system has been a disaster. Pupils, parents/guardians, teachers and other education workers have been left dizzy by the constant zig-zagging in policy, a severe lack of communication with those on the front line and a complete absence of forward planning.
Many have been left disappointed, outraged even, by the Minister’s apparent unwillingness to heed the countless warnings from staff and pupils about opening schools in the middle of a global pandemic. Of course, you could argue that this is true to form for any DUP minister: “following the science” has never been their strong suit. Nevertheless, the recent failure of the Minister to intervene to halt post-primary academic selection has underscored just how committed the DUP are to putting their right-wing politics before the interests of young people.
Weir’s explanation for this inaction was that the organisations who run these examinations—the Association for Quality Education (AQE) and the Post Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC)—aren’t under the direct control of the Department. Aside from the fact that private companies should not be involved in our education system in the first place, this explanation smacks of typical politician deflection.
We are, after all, in the midst of a pandemic, where the Executive has ordered any number of private firms to cease operations. Where was this can-do attitude when it came to ensuring that young children would not be put through the life-changing psychological trauma of academic selection amidst a global pandemic?
You could be forgiven then for drawing the conclusion that Weir’s continuation of the transfer tests is in fact a calculated decision driven by the right-wing ideology of the DUP. You could be forgiven too for believing the Minister didn’t want to concede to cancelling post-primary tests, out of a fear that this would create a precedent for the cancellation of the transfer exam in the long run.
It is worth noting how many parties—on paper at least—are opposed to academic selection, or at minimum want to see the current system abolished. But some of them appear to have bought into the argument that the reasonable and politically prudent thing to do is not to “use” the pandemic to further the argument to eradicate academic selection.
I think this is a profoundly mistaken approach, which ignores the reality that those in power are very much “using” the pandemic to their own advantage.
The alternative argument is simple: in the midst of a pandemic, children under 11 should be guaranteed that their worlds will not be further turned upside down by sitting an examination that causes so much anxiety and distress.
And we should use this brief moment of introspection as an opportunity to do away with post-primary transfer tests for good. These examinations exist to determine success and failure; winners and losers. They are in place to determine who can attend the schools that usually over perform academically—meaning more often than not, Grammar schools.
Grammar schools very often reflect the class divisions and inequalities that already exist in our society. For example: “In 2015/16, 17% of all Year 8 pupils entitled to FSM [free school meals] attended a grammar, compared to 79% of their counterparts who attended a non-grammar”.1
Whilst there is no doubt that not everyone who attends grammar schools is wealthy, those with wealth in the North invariably send their kids to grammar schools.
And no amount of “success” stories of working class students coming from disadvantaged areas going through grammar school and receiving a successful university education can mask the fact that far too many are failed—not by teachers or classroom assistants, but by the way education is structured and funded in our society.
Data from the Department of Education shows that “around 95% of students at grammar schools achieve the GCSE threshold measure of five GCSEs at grades A*-C including English and maths, and that this has remained relatively static over the past seven years. In 2014/15 at non-grammars, less than half (45%) of students achieved this measure”.2
The figures above clearly demonstrate that there is an advantage to attending a grammar school. The fact that this is often shaped and determined by your class background makes it deeply unfair and unjust. If there is an advantage to attending one form of education, then it follows that another places people at a disadvantage.
There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that educating pupil of all abilities together—with the appropriate funding and support—is the only equitable and sustainable system of education. We can also learn a tremendous amount from places like Finland who have virtually no exams for students and is correspondingly one of the happiest places on the world to live.
Additionally, there is a glaring contradiction between the DUP’s claim to be committed to tackling educational underachievement in Protestant working class communities—something which is worrying and warrants serious attention—and their support for the very system that fails so many working class Protestants (as well those from Catholic, migrant and non-religious backgrounds).
In order to tackle educational inequality, including with those from a Protestant background, we have to urgently rid ourselves of the archaic system of academic election that blights our education system. That said, it should come as no surprise that the DUP want to defend a system that keeps people in their place and offers success to those more affluent. But we shouldn’t let them get away with it.
As bitter experience shows, academic selection won’t disappear by itself; it needs to be robustly and thoroughly challenged and dismantled. We have recently witnessed the power of teaching unions, parents and students, when they forced Peter Weir to finally act and close schools to keep people safe from the virus.
A similar spirit of people power is needed to dismantle academic selection. We should mobilise, virtually if required, the anger and opposition that exists out there, to build an education system that meets the needs of our young people in these trying times.