Abolish academic selection – Free, integrated and high-quality education for all

by Seán Burns

The announcement that the primary-secondary school transfer tests will proceed in the autumn is a source of anxiety for parents and pupils alike. School closures as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic have meant that the same level of preparation and teaching resources will not be available to those pupils scheduled to sit the tests. This is obviously a serious cause for concern, as the selection of secondary education is a major life event for young people. 

It is incredible that grammar school managements, the Education Authority and the Stormont Executive are willing to subject ten and eleven-year-olds to such pressure while cancelling GCSEs and A-Levels. Peter Weir’s statement that “there is no viable alternative” just does not wash. This crisis has shone a spotlight over the archaic and disjointed model of academic selection that continues to prevail in Northern Ireland, distinct from the rest of the UK and Ireland. The Socialist Party believes that, not only should the tests not happen in the autumn, they should be abolished entirely.

The current format

Much to the dismay of many parents and pupils, the abolition of the 11-plus by a Sinn Féin Education Minister in 2008 was never followed up with a coherent alternative. Instead, the matter of academic selection was left up to individual schools. As a result, the vacuum created by the abolition of the 11-plus has been filled by two different bodies offering their own transfer tests. The GL exam offered by the Post Primary Transfer Consortium is used by Catholic grammar schools, while the AQE-operated tests are used by most other schools. In effect this has created a system of ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ transfer tests.

Suiting children’s needs?

The first myth surrounding the transfer test is that academic ability is, in essence, fixed and that it can be accurately measured at the age of 11 in order to stream a pupil into the most “appropriate” level of education to suit their ability. This is a false narrative that is used to perpetuate the inherent inequality that is linked to the transfer test. It ignores mountains of research that academic performance fluctuates and is dependent upon environmental factors, and that social class – more than any natural ability – is the dominant factor determining performance in the tests. 

Having the “ability” to pay for private tuition, additional resources such as practice papers and so on, allows those who can afford it to gain a significant educational advantage. Research used in the Stormont Assembly’s own papers echoes this reality, stating, “Socio-economic background is one of the key predictors of academic performance at school.” That private tutoring has an impact on a child’s performance in the transfer test is testament enough that it is not a measurement of natural ability. 

The transfer test is a type of “streaming”, i.e. sorting children into classes or schools on the basis of a perceived ability. Schools without academic selection will often stream young people in English and Maths. The supposed justification is that young people with less “academic capability” would be unable to cope with the pressure, workload and expectations placed upon them in a grammar school or in a higher stream. The second myth is that streaming suits the needs of each individual child.

There is much research to suggest that both streaming and academic selection are setting young people up for failure. A well documented phenomena in education is the “Pygmalion effect”, whereby others’ expectations of a person affect the person’s performance. Research has found that high expectations from teachers lead to better performance and low expectations lead to worse, even when those expectations were based upon fabricated evidence. 

What this can mean in reality is that teachers can subconsciously adapt what they teach based upon a perception of the capabilities of the class, school or stream. This can mean over simplifying subjects and placing a sub-conscious roof upon what grade can be achieved i.e. only preparing them to hit middle-grades rather than the top. The failure of streaming is backed up by a recent UK Government paper which states: “Overall, the evidence indicates that streaming, particularly where it begins at a very early age, is likely to be counterproductive in reducing the attainment gap.” Of course the opposite is also true, that in schools, streams, or classes that are deemed as high ability, they benefit from a raised expectation of themselves and from teachers. They are taught to aim for the highest possible results, and a “successful” culture develops. 

Far from suiting the needs of pupils, research conducted by Comprehensive Future in England is quite damning in relation to the damage that selection tests have on children’s wellbeing: “with very few exceptions, headteachers reported that children were deeply affected by the test results, and consequently primary school staff had to devote considerable time to ‘picking up the pieces’, providing counselling and support for children who perceived themselves as failures.” 

The sense of being deemed a failure can negatively impact future academic performance, due to self-esteem issues and anxiety problems. This can lead to a cycle of low educational attainment as both a young person’s perception of their own ability and the expectations of their teachers are reduced.

Enabling social mobility?

The third myth put forward is that the transfer test gives pupils from working-class backgrounds a shot, based on their ability, at getting into a grammar school without the barrier that private fees would present. This myth is perpetuated by our local Executive, with the Department for Education stating that academic selection can “enable social mobility”. Theresa May, the former Tory Prime Minister, was a major advocate for academic selection, pledging to deliver “a grammar school in every town” as a way of assisting children from working-class backgrounds in educational attainment. Putting aside the problems highlighted above with measuring “ability”, reality flies in the face of these assertions. 

The high placing of Northern Ireland pupils from grammar schools masks a severe class disparity in educational attainment. According to government research, in Northern Ireland, there are greater concentrations of disadvantaged students (using the metric of free school meals) in non-grammar schools than in grammars. Data from the Department for Education illustrates this disparity in outcome: “95% of students at grammar schools achieve the GCSE threshold measure of five GCSEs at grades A*-C including English and maths…. In 2014/15 at non-grammar schools, less than half (45%) of students achieved this measure”

This is in no small part connected to the cyclical, negative effects of academic selection and streaming outlined earlier. However, added to this is the additional resources that grammar schools have access to. With chronic underfunding of the education system by Stormont and Westminster, schools with more pupils from a wealthier background have access to a pool of “voluntary donations” that constitutes a significant amount. This allows them to invest more thoroughly in teaching resources, facilities and equipment that assist in achieving higher exam results over schools with a higher concentration of working-class pupils that don’t have the same pool of “voluntary donations”. 

While it is true that working-class pupils who get entry into grammar schools by passing the transfer test fare better academically, they are less likely to get there. In 2015/16, 17% of all Year 8 pupils entitled to free school meals, attended a grammar school, compared to 79% of their counterparts who attended a non-grammar. Those who do get into a grammar school benefit from the extra financial assets available to grammar schools but also the positive element of the “Pygmalion effect” outlined earlier, i.e. that in grammar schools there is an expectation from teachers that all pupils are “high-achievers”. This feeds a cycle of success and high educational attainment. It is of course positive, but positive for the few that can gain entry. This route is closed off to most pupils from a working-class background. 

Transfer test – blind to race?

The transfer test is not “blind” and only based upon ability. It exacerbates existing inequality in society. While only limited data is available for Northern Ireland, England provides a look at this reality. In Buckinghamshire in 2015, only 10% of grammar school applicants from Pakistani heritage backgrounds passed the 11-plus, compared with 21% of children from white British backgrounds. There are similarly low figures for pupils from an Afro-Carribean background. Language barriers and lack of knowledge of the system can make it more difficult for some immigrant parents to assist their children. Likewise, migrant workers are often concentrated in more precarious, low-paid jobs and may not be able to afford the extra coaching that better-off pupils can get. 

Racism and bullying are also major factors in lower academic performance among ethnic minority groups. In an ARK survey from 2010, 59% of young people from a minority ethnic background said they had witnessed “racist bullying or harassment in their school”. Seven in every ten Travellers have experienced discrimination at school or in accessing services. One school student from Scotland, aged 12, summed up her experiences: “I don’t tell people at school that I’m a Traveller because I know I would get picked on… You have to act differently when you’re at school. You’re frightened that if they find out, you won’t get left alone.” There is no “fairness” when pupils’ ability to learn free from harassment or prejudice is non-existent. The racism that capitalism fosters has a direct impact upon education. Establishment politicians who  regularly play off divisions and seek to pit workers against each other bear a responsibility for racist attitudes in society. There is no even playing field under this system.  

Scrap the transfer test!

A legal challenge is being brought by a parent of a pupil to seek the suspension of the transfer test. The desire of parents and pupils alike to see these tests suspended and scrapped is very real. A similar battle was fought and won by young people in the South over the Leaving Cert (equivalent of A-Levels). The Southern government was pushed back on its intention to hold the exams regardless of the impact of the Covid-19 crisis. Young people took to social media and began to express their opposition to the exam going ahead. The pressure being placed on young people’s mental health as a result of these exams was an indictment of the disregard the Southern government had for the health & well being of students. Socialist Students, linked to the Socialist Party, played a key role in organising this opposition. Solidarity TD and Socialist Party member Mick Barry gave this anger a clear expression in the Dáil (Southern Parliament), adding to the mounting pressure. Fearing this developing any further, and faced with the practical difficulties of proceeding, the government backed down. This experience contains lessons for us. We cannot allow the Stormont politicians to wash their hands of the issue and say there is no alternative but to proceed. 

For integration, not segregation

The separate transfer tests being conducted by two bodies – in reality, for two religiously segregated schooling systems – compound sectarian division. In 2018, just 65 of Northern Ireland’s 1,153 schools were integrated. Not one of the main parties here are in favour of a genuinely integrated education system, reflected in their inaction on this issue. Almost all of a £50 million pot for promoting integrated education in 2017 was returned to the Treasury. What blatant hypocrisy from parties who continue to wax lyrical about their desire for integration! They all pay lip service to a shared future, but they have a vested interest in maintaining division, including among children and young people, to ensure that their position in power remains secure now but also in the future. Working-class people have a far more progressive view. Surveys of public opinion have found overwhelming support for integration, consistently above 70%, with only marginal differences between Catholic and Protestant respondents.

The Socialist Party is in favour of the integration of schools. This would be a positive step in tackling sectarian division. This must firstly be conducted with the full participation and agreement of local communities. To force an arrangement like this from above is a recipe for conflict and tension. On top of this, integration cannot be an excuse for cutbacks, as articulated in the line of argument from the Alliance Party that we need to “streamline” and avoid the “duplication of services”. 

But we also need broader integration in society. While children could attend an integrated school, simply returning to segregated communities would impair the effect in overcoming division. It must be accompanied by wider social change, bringing together working-class communities in their common class interests against a system that perpetuates poverty.

Abolish “exam factories”

The promotion of a rote learning method – rather than nurturing an inquisitive and understanding approach which allows pupils the freedom to explore and advance their understanding – greatly hinders the advancement of society and individual education. Education should be tailored to ability on a subject by subject basis, with the full freedom to explore various routes, subjects and topics without the pressure of being deemed a “failure”. 

For a fully funded, secular and all-inclusive education system

Under capitalism, the education system bases itself upon artificial scarcity and competition. Competition for places in the most prestigious secondary schools, with access to the most resources, is damaging to children and society as a whole. 

All schools should have access to the funding that they require in order to provide a quality education for all. The myth that there is not enough to go around is a lie. The money is there. There are 54 billionaires in the UK alone, sitting on huge amounts of wealth in private bank accounts. Those assets should be utilised in the public good, investing in the education system to ensure adequate resources are available. But this in and of itself does not address all of the issues.

We cannot consider alternative education systems in the abstract. We live in a capitalist society that is based upon inequality and division. The introduction of a comprehensive-style system is not a magic bullet in and of itself. In England and the US, where such systems predominate, a postcode lottery exists in reality. This has led to the cost of housing skyrocketing near schools that are seen as better, driving working-class people out through a rising cost of living and increasing class division in schooling. What this points towards is that, to create a fair education system where every child has equality of opportunity, there is a need to challenge capitalism as a whole, to replace the drive to make profit with the drive to provide for people’s needs, to replace market anarchy with rational and democratic planning of the economy, to replace the rule of a tiny elite with the rule of the majority.

We need to revolutionise our education system. As a starting point, all resources that are required to meet pupils’ needs should be provided. Secondly, we need the coming together of teachers, pupils and parents to discuss how exactly education is structured to best meet the needs of all children and young people. Thirdly, education at all levels should be free and accessible to all, liberated from the reins of commodification. This must also include the ending of religious control over schools and a secular, fact-based curriculum which respects all cultures introduced.