The 15-year quest to dislodge the 11-plus

February 11, 2000

Anne McHardy reports on the struggle by two academics to bring an end to the socially divisive 11-plus exam in Northern Ireland's schools

Tony Gallagher and Alan Smith are hanging on to a dream of addressing the Northern Ireland Assembly in the first serious education debate in the Stormont parliament for 30 years. In their hands they hold what is expected to be a politically explosive report on why the hated 11-plus examination should be abolished.

Gallagher, professor of education at Queen's University, and Smith, Unesco professor of education at the University of Ulster at Coleraine, have been working with a team of 12 other Northern Irish academics since 1998 on the report that is due to be delivered at Stormont in two weeks time.

But unless the devolved assembly can be rescued, their magnum opus could end up in cold storage, along with the squabbling politicians inside the palatial parliament buildings. The last thing they want is to deliver the report into what they believe would be a vacuum: to a new direct rule minister flown in from Westminster. Their frustration is palpable.

Queuing behind the report on the 11-plus - which was commissioned by the Northern Ireland minister, Tony Worthington, and spells out the negative effect the exam is having on the province's children - are two other reports in which Gallagher and Smith are involved. One is on the even hotter political potato of religiously integrated education - providing schools in which Catholic and Protestant children can be educated side by side. At present 96 per cent of the province's children are educated in segregated schools.

The third report, funded by the United Nations, is on social division.

The political significance of the 11-plus report was highlighted a month ago when George Bain, vice-chancellor of Queen's and long-time opponent of the 11-plus, speaking at a school prize-giving speech, described the exam as socially divisive. Furious letters to the local Belfast Telegraph flooded in.

Queen's is about to extend a two-year experiment in increasing access to university for pupils from poorer secondary modern schools. The experiment operates in five Belfast schools and the plan is to extend it to schools across the province. The Queen's experiment is not unlike Cambridge University's attempt to widen access, which is provoking anger in English independent schools. Northern Irish parents universally worry about the stress of the 11-plus exam, but a vociferous number want to keep their grammar schools intact.

The province hung on to selection, except in tiny pockets, when the Wilson government abolished it in England and Wales. But in 1989, its divisive effects were accentuated by the addition of Margaret Thatcher's parental-choice policies, which ostensibly gave parents the right to apply to any school they wished.

Gallagher and Smith have steadily collated evidence on the social and academic effects of the 11-plus, selection and segregation, since they first worked together as young academics in the University of Ulster's Conflict Study Centre in the mid-1980s. Their previous reports have all suggested that keeping the 11-plus has widened social division and damaged less privileged children and families.

Their new report, still under wraps, also sets out the effect of the Tories' open enrolment policies. In some poorer areas, the grammars, which all had spare capacity, now take pupils with lower 11-plus grades. But they find it hard to cope with these lower ability pupils. Secondary moderns, denuded of these same pupils - their potential high achievers - have seen pupil numbers fall dramatically and exam results worsen.

The Gallagher-Smith dream of a measured and informed debate on this most emotive of subjects was made the more poignant for Gallagher since the third of his four daughters is in this year's 11-plus cohort, and destined to follow her sisters into a Catholic grammar school.

Both Gallagher, a Catholic born in County Tyrone and married to another Catholic, and Smith, a Protestant from East Belfast in a mixed marriage, find their own children help concentrate their minds on the issues.

After graduating from Coleraine, Smith went to Zimbabwe to work in education. He returned just after the first of his two daughters was born and instantly began to worry about her education. He became involved in setting up an integrated primary school, educating both Catholic and Protestant children, in Coleraine.

He says that for him, the culture shock was not in visiting Africa but in returning home and finding Northern Ireland so much less concerned than Zimbabwe with healing its cultural divides. His daughters are at a Catholic grammar in Portstewart, where, unusually, 10 per cent of pupils are Protestants and which serves many Coleraine academic families.

Gallagher and Smith are heavily involved in international research on the effects of conflict on school children, working with the Equal Opportunities Commission in Northern Ireland and with the United Nations in areas such as Croatia and Kosovo. At a recent UN conference in Florence, Gallagher says he was fascinated, then humbled, by the atrocities the Kosovars were dealing with, which seemed much worse than anything Northern Ireland had experienced.

But their dream of seeing 15 years of research pay off by bringing the debate to local politicians in Stormont received a serious blow ten days ago. Northern Ireland secretary Peter Mandelson was forced to admit that the report by Canada's General George de Chastelain on the decommissioning of arms by the IRA showed that movement had been too slow to meet the Ulster Unionist deadline, putting the eight-week-old devolved administration in Stormont in danger of suspension. Mandelson has warned that until the IRA agrees to disarm direct rule will be re-imposed.

If Mandelson's hardline approach manages to put Northern Ireland's peace process firmly back onto the rails then the report could still launch the assembly's debate. The one thing Gallagher and Smith, like most of the 1.5 million people within the assembly's ambit, are certain of is that if direct rule returns, education will again languish.

Gallagher, surrounded by piles of reports in his office at Queen's University school of education, clenches his teeth in frustration. The report was commissioned by Tony Worthington six months after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, in the belief that there would be a devolved assembly at Stormont in time to receive it.

In November 1999, the devolved administration was given power and the two men were given a local minister for education to work with. The new minister was former IRA commander Martin McGuinness.

McGuinness, a grandfather educated by the Christian Brothers in a Catholic school and with 11-plus failure on his CV, was the minister they might have dreamed of. He had a declared preference for abolishing the 11-plus. Gallagher met with him once before the February 1 political crisis threatened to remove him and the rest of the ten-strong executive from office.

"Under direct rule we had some good ministers, but they never had the time to understand the situation in the way that local politicians have. McGuinness seemed excited at the prospect of getting to work," says Gallagher. "He said publicly that he wanted the debate to begin," says Smith.

Direct rule ministers had several departmental briefs and their main focus of attention always remained the business of Westminster. In 1976, Labour began moves to abolish the 11-plus but met huge opposition, largely from Unionists, but also from some Catholic and Nationalist parents. As soon as they began considering scrapping grammar schools, house prices close to the most successful grammars - such as the Methodist College in South Belfast - rose. In 1979, the incoming Tories shelved the debate.

Some of Northern Ireland's best grammar schools deliver results that make some of England's vaunted best schools look lame, but some of its secondary moderns have an appallingly low exam success rate.

And international surveys show Northern Ireland with one of the worst adult literacy levels in Europe. Since 1989, parents, unsure of getting into the most sought-after grammars, have increasingly had children tutored for the 11-plus.

"It will be tragic if the debate stops again because of the politicians," says Gallagher.

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