Our grate skool system

Well, looks like it’s started again – if it ever stopped, that is. I mean the education debate. The new Education Minister, John O’Dowd, was on the BBC’s ‘Hearts and Minds’ last night and two things immediately became clear: Sinn Féin have no plans to row back on the abolition of the 11+ that began with Martin McGuinness; and the new Education minister will probably be a bit harder to push around.

Now, my blog yesterday got so many people hot and bothered, and in some cases into farmyard hissy-fits, I’m slightly nervous about raising today’s topic of education. It’s a real divider and not just along political lines: class is key. There are those who believe that telling two-thirds of the population they are educational failures at 11 is a bad idea, and there are those who treasure the grammar school system as it stands and will do anything to maintain it.

Maybe we should look at this under the doctrine (this column is getting doctrines these days like teenagers used to get spots – yesterday the doctrine of transferred malice and doctrine of secondary effect, today this)…where was I? Yes, it looks like the doctrine of the greatest good of the greatest number might be worth applying here. When and if you do, it becomes obvious that the 11+/grammar school system flies in the face of that doctrine, catering as it does for the greatest good of about 30% of the population, and even that’s debatable, if you think beyond exam success, as O’Dowd rightly did last night.

As I’ve said on other occasions, I feel uniquely qualified to talk about the 11+, having failed and passed it on the same day (sort of). When I did the exam, the Christian Brother said a letter would arrive home if you’d passed, no letter if you’d failed. I waited that morning for the letter, and waited, and waited. No go – I’d failed. I remember crouching behind our hayshed and bawling my heart out, certain I’d screwed up my life before it’d even got properly started. My mother’s consolation meant nothing. Eventually I was dried off and sent to school where, lo and behold, the Christian Brother had got it wrong. The results had in fact come to the school, I’d passed, and grief was transformed into euphoria. Passing? It’s sweet. Failing? It sucks.

I’ve taught in grammar schools or their equivalent and I’ve taught in comprehensive schools. The latter looked a better experience for several reasons, including the fact that there’s a wider social range among the youngsters and a less career-fixated atmosphere. But maybe I was just lucky in the schools that employed me.

Sinn Féin and, presumably, John O’Dowd’s position is that transfer is best done at 14 years of age, not 11. But why change schools at 11 OR 14? Why can’t they run from 5-18? Yes, it’d mean bigger schools. Nothing wrong with that. Most youngsters I’ve spoken to, and most teachers, tell me they prefer big schools – less of a goldfish bowl. Not perfect, of course, just as big cities aren’t perfect. But they offer a kind of freedom with their greater anonymity which many people enjoy.

The important thing is to delay funneling children along one route or another, one school or another, one selection of subjects, as long as possible. There’s no knowing when a kind word, a teacher gesture, a moment of insight will transform the reluctant, obtuse teenager into an eager, bright-eyed boy or girl. What matters in education, above brains and ability and all the rest of it, which we can’t measure anyway, is attitude. And when that becomes right, all things are possible.

But what hope of that, if the DUP and others are determined to keep sending two-thirds of youngsters to bawl at the back of the barn? You get a lovely view of your educational worth from there, I can tell you.

9 Responses to Our grate skool system

  1. Anonymous May 27, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    I think some of the more (ahem) colourful comments posted on yesterday’s blog speak volumes about the state of Education in NIreland…!

  2. Jude Collins May 27, 2011 at 10:58 am #

    Anon – you may say that, I couldn’t possibly you-know-what…

  3. Michael May 27, 2011 at 11:47 am #

    I enjoyed your piece on schooling, for its vividness as a portrait of what goes wrong for individuals, in the heat of 11+ ‘success’ or ‘failure’, but my own prejudice is that the subject, in NI especially, is too serious and far-reaching in its effects be illuminated by humour. The 11+ creates a culture by which the world is understood as naturally divided, ‘us and them’, whether that division is identified as race, or class, or wealth, or religion. I can think of no single measure, fully implemented, whatever that may need to entail, that could do more to create a political democracy in Ireland as a whole, than the creation of a single, unified, public school system like that of Germany, one of only two EU countries with 100% publicly run secondary schools.

  4. OneMore May 27, 2011 at 11:54 am #

    First trouble I have is the fact that not all children sat the 11+ (Wikipedia suggests 30% did not sit it), therefore it would be problematic to suggest these non-sitters could be considered part of the “two-thirds of the population” who are being told “they are educational failures at 11”.

    I also find myself struggling to reconcile your thought that the 11+ system catered “for the greatest good of about 30% of the population”, and your thought that the comprehensive system is a “better experience” anyway. So which school caters best for the children, grammar or comprehensive?

    Also the theme of this argument seems to seek to remove parental choice. Which is problematic in our “free society”. And whilst I believe that the pressure put on children is not the fault of the system – more often it’s the parents creating the pressure – I believe parents need to be given the option.

    Further, the notion that children who end up in non-grammar schools are put at a disadvantage in life is to completely disregard how much great work so many of the non-grammar schools do.

    We as a society need to learn that academia is not everything, but that for those who are academic, I believe they need to be allowed to choose a school where there is an academic focus.

  5. Jude Collins May 27, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

    Michael – thanks for kind words. However, while I shrink from mentioning myself in the same sentence as Jonathan Swift, if the good Dean could argue for cooking and eating babies as a solution to Ireland’s poverty of the time, I’m entitled to a little humour on the education topic. For the most part I’m with your argument – but (and I know this complicates things) if a parent wanted their child to be educated in a school of a particular religious denomination – Catholic being the obvious one here – I’d be reluctant to block that desire. But interesting contribution – and though-provoking. Thanks again.

    OneMore: you’re right, loads n loads of kids don’t sit the damned exam. I stand corrected. But I think it’s safe to say a majority still fail. My point about the comprehensive experience being better was based on my experience of it and thought about it. I’m particularly referring to its ’rounding’ effect – where different strata of society interact – it’s a class thing, because the middle class overwhelmingly occupy the seats of grammar schools – or did until grammar schools, as the Minister noted last night, began to inch towards comprehensivization. The grammar school traditionally is better in the narrower sense – it opens the doors to university more successfully and the careers that follow. You’re absolutely right about the excellent work non-grammar schools do – I’ve worked in one in my time and I know that to be true. But they are often working with (i) demotivated children who’ve had the failure stamp put on them and they know it; (ii) children who are more likely to come from homes where there’s little belief that the education system offers their child very much – in short, they’ve bought the story that their child is a ‘failure’, that he/she isn’t very bright, sooner out of the school and into work the better, etc. (iii) in areas where poverty is more obvious. I know these three points are huge generalisations but I think they need to be remembered none the less. In other words, it’s a damned sight harder being a teacher in a non-grammar school than in a grammar school, but in my experience the children were equally if not more loveable.

  6. Jude Collins May 27, 2011 at 1:59 pm #

    PS OneMore – I reject the idea that we’re all born with a fixed amount of brains that suit us to one system or another. I believe that intelligence, effectively, is dynamic – it changes when conditions/beliefs/attitudes change. Call me an optimistic old fool if you like – I’ve been called worse (cf. yesterday)…

  7. OneMore May 27, 2011 at 2:49 pm #

    Thanks for the response Jude.

    One of the thoughts you have alluded to is that non-grammar schools have a higher percentage of pupils from working class families and I would say this is undeniably true. The thing is that how much more then, would the comprehensive system accentuate this? A school in an affluent area, brings in children from affluent backgrounds, whose homes are generally more stable and provide an environment conducive to academic achievement. Those who are affluent move to this area to make sure their children can go to that school, whilst working class families cannot afford to move, and are left to send their kids to the local school, which has lots and lots of children from working class backgrounds, and many of the problems of unmotivated children, and failureism (please excuse the word invention) that you noted in your response.

    I don’t believe it is the system which has branded these children you speak of. I suspect if you looked at schools across the water, in the comprehensive system, you would find some schools where many of the children struggle to break the chains their working class background has set upon them. Similarly, you will find schools of higher academic achievement where many of the children come from middle class homes.

    I believe the notion of us being able to break this inherent structure is naive at best, and at worst an attempt to ruin the great quality grammar schools and high schools that we currently have.

  8. Anonymous May 28, 2011 at 4:10 am #

    If memory serves me right, St Jude is the patron saint of lost causes, so no better man to introduce the topic of the 11+ and failure than your own good self, Jude (and thanks also to OneMore for the term failureism).

    Your phrase “bawling at the back of the barn” nicely (and alliteratively) sums up an eleven-year-old’s response to failure, Jude. I know. I was that child, bawling at the back of a Belfast outhouse (we were deprived and didn’t have barns in the Lower Falls). I have a generally poor memory, but I can still clearly see my ma handing me the envelope with the disappointing results. That was over fifty years ago, and it still rankles. My psyche took a terrible smacking that day, and I still haven’t got over being branded a failure at that tender age. Some people will tell me to harden up, and fair enough I suppose but still …

    I went on to a secondary school (with a grammar school over the road as a daily reminder of the educational divide), never failed a single exam since then, and for a living, I teach and train teachers, so I made it academically. Big deal. But at the same time, I still doubt myself. I still don’t believe I’m good enough.

    Educators, politicians and parents can discuss the subject as much as they like, but I can only give the perspective of one eleven-year-old who was, as later years show, unjustifiably branded a failure.

    PS: Is there an organisation for 11+ survivors?

  9. Jude Collins May 28, 2011 at 9:53 am #

    Anon – you sum it up beautifully, as well as being a man/woman after my own heart. Thanks.