23 February 2006

Martin McGuinness challenges advocates of selection At 11 during Youth Parliament address

Sinn Féin

Published: 23 February, 2006

Sinn Féin MP and former Education Minister Martin McGuinness this morning addressed a session of the Youth parliament in the City Hall in Belfast. Mr McGuinness spoke on the plans for post primary reform in a session also addressed by leading advocate of selection Ken Bloomfield.

In the course of a wide ranging address Mr McGuinness challenged head on the arguments being put forward by those supporting academic selection at 11. He used international examples of good practice to put forward his vision of an education system which delivers for all children.

"The changes proposed in our education system will, with proper planning and effective implementation, have an immediate and positive effect. Of course one of the greatest obstacles to the delivery of a first class education system is the availability of adequate resources and money. That is a difficulty which every department and aspect of the public sector faces. But setting that aside for the minute, if we look at the inherent flaws in the system itself, rather than the impact of outside factors, we cannot but conclude that academic selection, its negative impact at every level of our education system and the consequent inequality and additional segregation it generates is the single greatest flaw in our current arrangements and I welcome its long over due demise.

"The mush disliked 11+ and academic selection are inextricably linked. The sole reason for the 11+ is to provide a means of academic selection for grammar schools. The reason why parents, teachers and pupils feel under such pressure and children feel failures has little to do with the 11+ and everything to do with getting a place in a grammar school. The issue is not simply about the injustice of the test thought in my view that is in itself a massive issue. Branding any child a failure at the age of 11 is an indictment of any modern society. Branding the majority of our children as failures at age 11 is entirely unacceptable as is the creation of an academic elite. The reality is that academic selection for the minority means academic rejection for the majority. Academic selection crates an education system based on academic apartheid.

"The supporters of the current system, or some less offensive version of it, have peddled three key myths to support their position. I want to tackle those myths directly. The cold facts do not support the myths that we have a world-class education system, or that academic selection is a ladder to success for working class children, or that grammar schools are an essential route for entry to higher education and university. The first myth is that we have a world-class education system. Yes we do have a high proportion of pupils achieving good examination results, but Scotland has as many pupils as we do achieving 5+ GCSEs at A*-C and markedly more young people entering higher education. England has more pupils achieving 5 GCSE passes and we still have the highest proportion of children with low qualifications in these islands.

"In the key areas of reading, maths and science we perform on a par with England and Scotland but we perform substantially worse than the top performers - Finland, Korea, New Zealand and Canada - all of which have non-selective education systems. And critically, the variation between our best and worst scores is among the widest in the world, highlighting again the recurring theme of an education system with high achievement and substantial low achievement - a system that does well for some and does not deliver for the rest.

"The second myth holds that academic selection provides a ladder for "more able" children - and I take issue with that very offensive term - from disadvantaged backgrounds. Recent statistic show that only 8% of pupils in grammar schools are from low-income families and the proportion has been falling over recent years. If this is a ladder it is an extremely narrow one!

"More advantaged pupils are over 4 times as likely to achieve a grade A in the 11+ as the most disadvantaged pupils. This hardly supports the case for academic selection as an escape route from poverty through education.

"The poorest results in the 11+ are seen in controlled schools with high levels of free school meals serving working class Protestant areas. In some working class Protestant areas a grammar school place is beyond the reach of almost all pupils - in the Shankill for example, less than 2% of pupils achieved a grammar school place.

"The system is not serving the working classes and it is certainly not serving children from working class Protestant families. It is hardly surprising that some community activists have questioned the position of

Unionist Assembly Members representing Protestant areas who appear to be content with a system of academic selection that denies educational opportunities to their own constituents. And I would ask the question - by taking this position are they really representing the best interests of the children in their constituencies?

"The third myth that we hear so often is that a grammar school education is necessary to get to university and get a good job. Traditionally grammar schools have indeed been the main providers of university entrants. More recently, however only about 50% of students at the University of Ulster have traditional A-levels and the rest come from a variety of routes. Significantly, the university found no difference in academic outcome irrespective of the route students have taken to reach university. Queen's University has many students who do not come via the traditional A-level route and they include some of the universities best students.

"The reality is that academic segregation, like other forms of social segregation is not something any modern society should tolerate, much less encourage. The entire concept of academic selection is based on notions of intelligence measurement, which have been largely discounted and discredited. Indeed Cyril Burt, the primary architect of the Butler Education Act of 1944, which created the 11+, has recently been exposed as a fraud and a charlatan. The flaw in his attitude to children and their education should have been obvious in the title of his seminal work published in 1937 - "The Backward Child". IN my view, the only thing backward in our education system is not the children but a system which brands the majority of 11 year olds as failures. That is wrong and the sooner we replace it the better." ENDS

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