'Privatise' threat in Ulster

Plans to end selection may force Northern Ireland's grammars out of the state system. Paul Gosling reports
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The Independent Online

Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, a former head of the Northern Ireland civil service and chairman of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI), a boys' grammar school, admits that going private is being discussed informally. "There is speculation," he says, "but we would never contemplate this as anything but a last resort and with very great reluctance."

Going private "has to be an option", says John Robinson, director of services at the Methodist College in Belfast - a state-funded, non-denominational, coeducation grammar school, with boarders and day pupils.

Michael Ridley, principal at RBAI, says: "The great strength of Northern Ireland is that there is no independent sector. Nowhere else in the United Kingdom do the middle classes have such confidence in the state system that they have here. It would be a shame if these changes created an independent sector."

Grammar schools are very hostile to the plans, which are due to come into effect from 2009. One of the last actions in 2002 of the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly's education minister, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, was to agree the abolition of the 11-plus examination for post-primary selection. This decision was in line with the recommendation of a review by Gerry Burns, the former Parliamentary Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.

But since then, there has been confusion about the new selection criteria, with consultation submissions on the possible criteria currently being evaluated. Last year, then education minister Jane Kennedy said she was not "closing grammar schools", yet she also said "academic selection should end, but that an academic route should be available for those who wish to follow this pathway". It is not clear how grammar schools will continue without academic selection, nor how an academic pathway will be available for those children who go to what are now secondary schools.

The Costello report considered how to implement the Burns recommendations. Costello suggested that schools should select according to various considerations including parents' preferences, proximity to school, family connections, profiles drawn up at primary school and in some circumstances "random selection". The Irish National Teachers' Organisation, a trade union, has warned teachers will take industrial action if pupil profiles are used to maintain academic selection.

Grammars argue that under these proposals most parents - particularly from the middle classes - will apply to the grammar schools, leading to over-subscription and forcing the grammars to use selection criteria that lean heavily on proximity. "Hopefully the new selection policy will not be just location-based. If it is we have a problem," says Michael Ridley, whose school has few homes in the immediate area.

Other suggestions by Costello of more inter-school collaboration and some internet-based teaching have met scathing and cynical responses from the grammar schools, which argue they are impractical. Within the Catholic schools sector - which is also state-funded - there is greater acceptance of inter-school cooperation within the sector, with the first amalgamation of two secondaries and one grammar already agreed.

While the current system delivers excellent results for most grammar school pupils, it fails many who attend secondary schools. In a speech last month, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, pointed out that while 15 per cent of the UK's population had no qualifications, in the province the figure was 24 per cent.

This critique mirrors research by Tony Gallagher of Queen's University and Alan Smith of the University of Ulster, which preceded the Burns review. "While the achievement level of grammar schools is uniformly high, the pattern among secondary schools displays high variability," they wrote. Some secondaries are now to convert to specialist schools in an attempt to raise standards.

But in Northern Ireland, the one factor that can never be ignored is religion. In his speech, Hain said: "We must also tackle the hugely wasteful costs of division in this society," adding that "in some towns and villages here we have three or four primary schools - where in other parts of the UK there might only be one." Although Hain sounded as if he wanted to promote integrated schools - the development of which was a principle agreed in the Good Friday Agreement - his officials say he is not specifically proposing this.

The problem of segregated schooling is made worse by falling rolls, which will reduce pupil numbers by at least 10 per cent over the next decade - and there are already 50,000 spare places. Financial pressure for school rationalisation is hampered by the split between Catholic schools, state-controlled grammars (mostly Protestant), voluntary grammars (also mostly Protestant), grant maintained integrated schools and state-funded Irish language schools.

Many of Northern Ireland's grammar schools believe academic selection will continue. With close links to unionist politicians, the controlled and voluntary grammars believe a political settlement will rescue them. "I think the whole thing is rather in limbo at the moment and probably caught up in Northern Ireland politics," says Sir Kenneth Bloomfield. "If we had our own assembly, it's very unlikely that these proposals would go forward."

The future of post-primary schooling is perhaps the most contentious political issue in Northern Ireland today, other than the future of the paramilitaries. And this adds considerably to the pressure on the Democratic Unionists to lead a new Northern Ireland Executive. Ultimately, the row over Northern Ireland's grammar and secondary schooling may help to shape the future of its political administration.

Life without the 11-plus

The Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI) is the grammar school most likely to go private in response to the end of academic selection and is the school most affected.

Although it is state funded, parents pay an annual £700 fee per pupil - with bursaries for the poorest families. It is a "voluntary grammar", receiving state funding per pupil, but it owns its buildings and is responsible for their upkeep.

RBAI is a boys' Christian but non-denominational school with about 20 per cent Catholic pupils, and some Asian children of Muslim, Hindu and other faiths.

Students attend from much of Northern Ireland - some travelling one and a half hours each way to school. Moving to a location-based selection policy would change RBAI. All but 10 of the 1,050 pupils live nearer another senior school. RBAI is near Belfast City Hall, where there are few homes.

Ian Corry is a former pupil and now a governor. He hopes his seven-year-old son will attend the school and that his daughters - aged 11 and five - will go to Strathearn School, a girls' grammar in Belfast. Both his oldest children are scheduled to sit the 11-plus before it is abolished.

As Dr Corry, a surgeon, lives in Newtownards, seven miles outside Belfast, his children would be unlikely to gain selection to either Belfast grammar school on the basis of location. However, the new selection criteria would help his youngest daughter go to the same school as her older sister, whichever that is.

Dr Corry says he will consider whether sending his son to RBAI is the right option if the school looks likely to move away from its academic ethos. However, he agrees with abolishing the 11-plus, which he says creates too much stress for children.