Chris Woodhead was an ally in the key battle to save our fine grammar schools

Sir Chris Woodhead, who has died at the age of 68
Sir Chris Woodhead, who has died at the age of 68

In the battle to save Northern Ireland’s grammar schools from destruction, Chris Woodhead was an important symbolic ally.

Who better to point out the madness of introducing the disastrous system that prevails in Great Britain than a former Chief Inspector of Schools in England and Wales?

Ben Lowry, News Letter Deputy Editor

Ben Lowry, News Letter Deputy Editor

I interviewed Mr Woodhead for the News Letter twice, first after a BBC documentary in which he appeared in 2009 about selective education in Northern Ireland, and then two years ago.

In the 2009 interview, Mr Woodhead said of the plan to abolish grammars: “This really is a tragedy.”

He had left Northern Ireland after that visit “with great sadness that a system of education that year after year was achieving the best results in the UK is going to be abolished”.

In the second interview, Mr Woodhead was in the advanced stages of motor neurone disease, but was still keen to criticise John O’Dowd’s move to remove academic selection in Craigavon.

His death is a loss to the education world, in which he relentlessly tried to raise standards.

Even David Blunkett, who as a Labour education secretary had to navigate his party’s traditional closeness to the teaching unions, wrote on Tuesday that Chris Woodhead’s 1990s estimate that 15,000 British teachers were not up to the job had been “a gross underestimate”.

In Northern Ireland, the educational expert Professor Sir Robert Salisbury has said that such teachers need additional training or “they maybe need sacking”.

You don’t hear John O’Dowd talking much about rigorous performance management of bad teachers or ending decades of grade inflation.

The Sinn Fein minister prefers to concentrate on undermining the Province’s grammar schools, often using oblique methods of attack because he knows that full-frontal assaults will meet fierce resistance.

Our grammar schools are respected across the UK, from Oxford and Cambridge down. Thousands of children from modest backgrounds across the Province have been able to rise up to the highest levels of professional life.

This is not happening in England to the extent that it did among pupils of the 1950s and 60s, because of the abolition of grammar schools.

Critics of grammars talk about children being branded a failure at 11, but that is an emotive and loaded description of what is happening.

Life is full of selection, and it gathers pace in late childhood: in sport, in culture, in education and ultimately (and perhaps most brutally) in romantic life.

Managing disappointment in one arena in life and then trying to thrive in another is an essential part of the human journey.

Even a renaissance man will be outsmarted by other people in certain spheres – he might be brilliant at sciences and painting and literature but tone deaf or unable to play ball sports.

Selective education tries to identify at age 11 who is most suited to a traditional academic education. Non grammars can and should be outstanding schools, but with a different core focus.

Selection, when it happens, will always be blunt. There will always be people who are devastated to fall just shy of a sports team or orchestra that they longed to join, or who lose out in an audition. That does not mean that the elite team should be disbanded or the rejected person should stop striving in that skill.

We would not, as a society, accept the idea that academies for tennis or piano should be mixed ability.

While academic selection at 11 mostly works, it sometimes gets it wrong. That is why some children fall out of grammars and others join as the years progress. Perhaps that movement between grammar and non-grammar needs to be even more fluid.

It is true that the middle classes tend to dominate the grammar school system, but there are multiple reasons why this is so, including the fact that professionals are most likely to push their children towards grammars.

Opponents of grammar schools use this fact to argue that it is better to abolish them. If they succeed, a significant degree of social mobility will be replaced by almost none.

People in GB who are aware of what is happening here can see the idiocy of it. Private schools, which represent England’s richest 7 per cent of the population, will dominate here as they do there.

Selection imperfectly based on ability will be replaced by selection purely on wealth.

“A tragedy,” Mr Woodhead said.

A scandal, I would add.