Open Unionism


A forum to discuss new ideas and perspectives on Unionism…

Education- a less selective debate needed

What should be the primary target of a country’s education system? The more utilitarian amongst you will argue it is to provide the competent and efficient (and wealth-generating) workforce of the future; if you want to go for the more abstract ideal, then you’ll be wanting a process which produces a society of socially-conscious and intellectually fulfilled citizens. The achievement of both aims is obviously vital for a nation’s long-term future but, in my opinion, ultimately of secondary importance- an education system to be worthy of the name needs to ensure the maximum number of students within that system achieve their full academic potential. If that target is achieved, then I believe all the economic and social benefits aimed at by the secondary targets will naturally follow.

Is Northern Ireland’s education system presently ensuring all its students are reaching their full academic potential? The evidence suggests not: to take two examples, 25% of our children left primary school in the period 2004-5 with “literacy skills below the standard level”, only 12.2% of Protestant* boys entitled to free school meals achieve at least five GCSEs at grades A* – C or equivalent including English and maths. How the structural weaknesses of our school system are to be addressed should be the main focus of our politicians, education professionals and those directly at the coalface, the teachers and parents of our children. Instead a narrow ideological battle is being fought, which appears sometimes to be solely over the question of academic selection; the smoke produced by this battle is blinding “both sides” to those issues which must be dealt with if we are to achieve the fundamental goal I mentioned above.

In that battle the Unionist parties, of course, have aligned themselves firmly on the side of the pro-grammar school, pro-academic selection lobby. Considering the rank incompetence and general unpopularity of the comprehensive system’s main advocate (i.e. the present education minister), it’s a very easy position to take. However, just as Ms Ruane seems entirely incapable of looking beyond what her pseudo- “progressive” textbook tells her, the Unionist parties have refused to countenance the possibility that academic selection may not be the sole or even main panacea for N.Ireland’s educational requirements.

True, comparisons with the results achieved by the English and Scottish systems seem to point to the logic of not meddling with the present mechanism but the UK, taken as a whole, performs relatively badly when its results are contrasted with other developed nations. Which raises the obvious question; why should we measure our standards by the lowest common denominator, why don’t we raise our sights and compare our results with those countries which dominate the upper reaches of the educational achievement league tables?

Such a country is Finland, a country which regularly comes top or second in the OECD’s PISA tests carried out every 3 years, measuring 15 year olds’ abilities in reading, mathematics and science; with those kind of achievements, wouldn’t that be a much more worthwhile benchmark for our own schools?

 It’s worth examining briefly the Finnish educational system and how it differs in a number of ways from Northern Ireland’s. The Finnish child starts school at the age of 6 or 7 and ends compulsory education at 15/16. During that period they attend only one school (although there is a de facto division at the age of 12, beyond that age instead of having one teacher teaching all of the subjects in one classroom, there are several teachers in different classrooms). At the age of 15/16 there is a choice between “gymnasium” (roughly equivalent to a sixth form college) and vocational; the former prepares students for university, whilst the vocational school aims to develop “vocational competence”, although its graduates are also formally qualified to enter tertiary level education.

Two interesting facts emerging from the Finnish system are relevant to the main problems suffered by our own. Firstly, although continuing the upper secondary school at 16 is optional, the vast majority of students, voluntarily, continue to attend. Secondly, Finland has one of the smallest gaps in the developed world between best and worst performing students and also a very low “between-school variation”- in other words, those top comparative results mentioned earlier are achieved almost entirely across the board at 15 and not only by the “top” 20% or so “academic high fliers”. The third salient fact is that up the age of 15 (i.e. the age at which those excellent results are achieved) the Finnish system is run on comprehensive, non-“academic-selective” lines.

 The UUP position paper on post-primary transfer argues that the… “contention that the removal of academic selection will equate to equal educational provision and opportunity for all children is a gross- and perhaps deliberate- inaccuracy“. Insert the word “automatically” there before “equate” and I’ll agree. However, the Finnish example proves that a comprehensive, non-selective system can deliver equal educational provision and opportunity for all children AND also simultaneously produce excellent academic results. Of course, as with the prior contention, it is not an automatic given that such as system could deliver the same results here, but surely, at the very least, those are the kinds of achievements we should be aiming for with our own education process? The pertinent question now arises, what research or analysis has the UUP (or indeed any of the other parties) carried out to see if and how features of such a system could be adopted and possibly work here? Or has the fight to “save our grammar schools” demanded so much energy that there is nothing now left in the intellectual tank now to look at the bigger, overall picture?

As Lee Reynolds, a member of the DUP, pointed out in his article in The Newsletter (not online) on August 19th:

…in Ulster the educational debate has become wizened to a fight about academic selection. The narrowness of the debate is neither serving the long-term interests of education here nor the long-term interests of Unionism.

I agree. We desperately need to widen the parameters of that debate and, if necessary, be prepared to bury a few shibboleths in order to achieve that long-term target I mentioned right at the beginning of this post.

* The department’s choice of classification, not mine


Filed under: Education

12 Responses

  1. Chekov says:

    O’Neill – I wonder in Finland is there a trade off betweening raising average standards and helping the ablest children to achieve excellence? I have no idea of the answer. But I wonder whether excellence across the board is possible.

  2. slug says:

    Certainly NI’s economy suffers particularly because of the low level of skills-too many people leaving without proper qualifications. This results in low wages.

    It would seem to me that some sacrifice of those at the top for those at the bottom could pay off economically.

    Possibly ‘selection’ at 14 could be a good compromise between no selection at all and selection at 11.

  3. […] O’Neill is exploring the thorny question of what to do with our education system over at Open Unionism. We desperately need to widen the parameters of that debate and, if necessary, be prepared to bury […]

  4. slug says:

    To be more specific, NI’s economy suffers from the lack of qualifications at the bottom end, rather than a lack of them at the top end of the “ability” spectrum.

    So in terms of what is best for the economy, a system that is a little better for the less able, at the cost of something a bit less good at the top end, might be a good trade off.

  5. oneill says:

    “But I wonder whether excellence across the board is possible”

    That every child achieves academic excellence, no, it’s not possible. That more children can reach their full academic potential is a definite achievable target. The difference that I mentioned between the Finnish and our own situation is the much smaller difference between the best and worst (in terms of academic achievement) student and schools-whether that has involved a quality “sacrifice” at the very top, I would need to do more research to confirm. But if so, as Slug argues, I think if we were to achieve the same high level of results as the Finnish throughout the system, it may be a sacrifice worth making.

    But I guess my main point is that we should be at least flexible enough to consider moving beyond the normal parmameters to at least examine workable alternatives and existing examples of best practice.

  6. peteram79 says:

    I’m not too sure that the comparison with Finland is worth a huge amount. Northern Ireland has a history of (i) a primary/secondary school division, (ii) academic selection across this division and (iii) a school system split in the main along a cultural fault line that ravages society as a whole. Finland has none of these things. To attempt to move from the current NI system to a Finnish model seems to me to involve too much of a leap.

    GB still has (i) and pre-1960s had (ii), without having (iii). therefore its the obvious comparison, rather than, as O’Neill says, the lowest common denominator. It’s pretty much accepted that its move to comprehensive education has been an abject failure, which makes opposition to the proposed scrapping of NI’s selective education policy both understandable and, in my opinion, entirely necessary. That does not mean I think the current system is perfect – resources must be targeted at the secondary school sector to ensure that the current lowest achievers get the relevant skills. the end of the “one-size-fits-all” national curriculum is a far more useful aim than the end of the 11+. In this way, NI can avoid the pitfalls of the GB comprehensive experiment AND improve standards on a European/global comparator.

    Attempting to tackle (iii) is another issue, which should be divorced from the selective education debate and requires far greater courage from politicians than the eventual defeat of SF’s anti-selection crusade. I cannot see any easy answers. I attended a grammar school where the Protestant/unionist tradition was vastly dominant but which readily accepted those from the Catholic/nationalist community. However, for obvious reasons, the numbers of these pupils were small. There would be significant issues in making the school more attractive to the C/n community, although MCB proves that these are hardly insurmountable. Greater obstacles are clear with those institutions run by the Catholic Church, both grammar and secondary schools. I don’t see the Catholic Church rushing to give up its role, nor the pupils/parents/alumni particularly of the more prestigious establishments (eg St Malachy’s) desiring such a change in ethos.

    One possible solution is to leave the grammars alone but to try to fully integrate the secondary schools as part of the funding boost/curriculum revamp discussed above, striking a bargain with the Catholic Church (you keep your most prestigious schools but surrender the others) in the process. However, this strikes me as, while potentially the most workable practical solution, smacking of the worst snobbery and patronisation. Clever kids can be trusted and so don’t need to integrate at school level. 11+ failures are nasty wee bigots who must be forced together or develop a lifelong hatred of themmuns. I just don’t see how you could sell it. As I said before, there’s no easy and obvious means to the desired end of reduced segregation in the NI school system.

  7. Finbar says:

    @ Peteram,

    I’m not sure that the Finland example was a comparison or an aspiration to be honest. Yes it has none of the items that you highlight, however that doesn’t mean some of it’s positives cannot be achieved.

    Continuity in schooling from Primary to Secondary would take time, but would not be impossible 50 years down the line (no such thing as a Quick Win, eh??). And perhaps a reduction in the number of Grammars, i.e. making them for the particularly gifted allowing for the development of top end academics in NI as mentioned as a possible gap in the comments above means that a more consistent model for the vast majority of students in NI can be developed??

    That way, the majority of resources are focused on providing a model like Finland with an improved bottom end, yet we don’t rule out the possibility of our best getting the very best & yes, perhaps selection at 14 would be a better way of aiding that process also.

  8. oneill says:


    Up until the 1970s Finland did have a similar system to our own kids attended “folk” school for 6 years before splitting along academic-selective lines at 12/13. Regarding point 3), Finland does have a Swedish speaking minority which is guaranteed schooling in its own language- though the faultline there admittedly is nothing like our own.

    But I wasn’t saying we should move wholesale, more the case that we should we try to look a little bit further afield and be wary of constantly basing our comparisons solely on what happened in England in the 1960s/70s. There were/are also several other cultural and social factors at work in large areas of particularly inner-city England which don’t apply in NI

  9. thedissenter says:

    Tests aren’t the issue. If they aren’t learning the basics at primary school – that’s the issue on the Shankhill – then post primary school changes will be of little consequence.

  10. Great post O’Neill.

    This is the common ground which we should be seeking to build, based on best international practise and a commitment to educational excellence and social justice.

    Congratulations to you all on the blog.


  11. paceni says:

    So Open Unionism is the new stomping ground for progressivist educationalists and nationalists who have been unwilling/unable to take the mote out of their own segregated system. The Dissenter has highlighted one fundamental issue – the poor numeracy and literacy outcomes for the children of the Shankill. Now where is the response to that problem from the unionist community? Experimentation on those pupils by the educationalists leading to the enriched curriculum – an experiment that left the children worse off than if they had been left alone.
    The core problem with the academic selection debate is that those involved with the grammar schools are interested only in their own schools not the matter of choice for parents to seek a grammar school place for their children. They are now being bullied and frightened off considering legal action with suggestions by the Belfast Telegraph that it will cost £20,000+. The anti-selection teaching profession must be held to account for their failings on numeracy and literacy in primary and post-primary schools. Their permitted silence on this in favour of their comprehensive campaign demonstrates the failure of unionist politicians

  12. […] we’ve looked closely at included: voluntary coalition and a shared future; education and the post-primary debate; how best to strip back public administration costs; the impact of majority weighting on […]

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