Abolishing grammar schools will worsen inequality in NI

One glimmer of hope for those who are pro selection and pro integration is that if Catholic grammars go all-ability, more Catholic parents will send their children to grammars such as Methodist College Belfast, above, both academically excellent and religiously mixed - assuming, that is, John O'Dowd's attack on grammars can be resisted.
One glimmer of hope for those who are pro selection and pro integration is that if Catholic grammars go all-ability, more Catholic parents will send their children to grammars such as Methodist College Belfast, above, both academically excellent and religiously mixed - assuming, that is, John O'Dowd's attack on grammars can be resisted.

Be clear about what will happen after the report commissioned by the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister into the effect of deprivation on education.

By blaming Protestant disadvantage on selective education the findings will be used by determined opponents of grammar schools to turn unionists against these outstanding schools, because unionists are the last major obstacle to their abolition.

A concert pianist Cathal Breslin returns to his old school St Columb's College to perform for pupils. Academic selection has been at the heart of the glittering success of such schools

A concert pianist Cathal Breslin returns to his old school St Columb's College to perform for pupils. Academic selection has been at the heart of the glittering success of such schools

Some of us deeply regret the fact that that is so, and wish that Northern Ireland’s grammars had the support that they should have across the tribal and political divides, among Catholics and Protestants and Muslims and atheists and nothings, among the political left and right.

But no. The main group to speak up for grammar schools now are unionist MLAs, and they do not seem to be doing a great job of it.

For example, the report itself. The DUP is technically the senior party in OFMDFM.

In reality it is only equally powerful to Sinn Fein. Did it not foresee that the report might reach a conclusion such as this which would be used to bash grammars?

What part of the disaster that has befallen English education do opponents of grammars here not understand?

Ben Lowry

Sinn Fein have put grammar schools under assault in various ways, some subtle such as the curriculum, some not.

In his less subtle moves, John O’Dowd (who has used the notion of ‘shared education’ to maintain the sectarian divide and to undermine grammars) is targeting vulnerable grammars outside Belfast, such as Lurgan/Portadown Colleges (and Enniskillen Collegiate, despite the claim that that is not an anti selection move), in the hope the uproar will be manageable.

The minister is changing our exams system so that it becomes harder for universities from Oxford and Cambridge down to equate NI results.

What part of the disaster that has befallen English education do opponents of grammars here not understand?

Ben Lowry, News Letter deputy editor

Ben Lowry, News Letter deputy editor

An imperfect system of academic selection based on ability, which mostly gets it right but sometimes gets it wrong, was replaced with a disastrous system of selection based on wealth.

Opponents of grammar schools talk about the tiny percentage of children from the most deprived wards in Northern Ireland who reach grammar schools. But that is a fiendishly difficult problem to crack, that will take decades. Of a course a child who is the son of two professionals will typically be at an advantage to a child from the most deprived backgrounds.

But abolishing grammars in England made things much worse. Now the English elite is dominated by the seven per cent who went to public school. How could anyone who follows life in N.Ireland fail to notice that our own professional class is not dominated by ex private pupils? Yet the zealous grammar antis are determined to follow England.

There are deep cultural and historic reasons for the many problems in disadvantaged Protestant areas. It is cynical and misleading to blame this on academic selection.

We still have a system that the English wish they had not abolished, and we’ve had 40 years to witness their disaster, so it is madness to follow it.

It will be a tragedy when a first class school such as St Columb’s College in Londonderry becomes all-ability, as the Catholic Church wishes it to be.

Over the last 65 years it has produced a stunning list of old boys, including Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, Phil Coulter, Eamonn McCann, Martin O’Neill, John Hume, the world renowned physicist Prof Raymond Flannery, Prof Seamus Deane, the Rev Dr Edward Daly, the current Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan and the current vice chancellor of Queen’s University, Patrick Johnston.

It is a centre of academic excellence, open to boys of all social backgrounds who pass the entrance test.

But there is no question that academic selection has been at the heart of such a school’s glittering success.

If the church gets its way over ending selection in its schools but Mr O’Dowd does not get his way in ending it for all Northern Ireland schools, then there is a glimmer of hope.

It is that Catholic parents will send their children to non Catholic grammars and there will then be more BRAs and Methodist Colleges – which are in effect integrated grammar schools.

In any sane world that is what we would want for this Province. Outstanding grammars and outstanding secondaries, both comprising religiously mixed pupils.

• Ben Lowry is News Letter deputy editor