Grammar Schools in Social Elitism Non-Shock

So no posts for nearly a week. Partly this has been due to being extremely busy, and partly due to the fact that not a lot has been annoying enough to warrant a rant. Until, that is, I saw this report on the BBC about a recent report from the Sutton Trust analysing the failure of English grammar schools to take large numbers of poor pupils. Although the vast majority of England’s most socially selective state secondary schools are non-grammar schools in control of their own admissions policy, the report states that the remaining grammar schools are taking half as many children from disadvantaged backgrounds as they might. Religious schools make up a hugely disproportionate percentage of the most socially selective schools.
Or to put all that another way, the English middle class not only uses the public schools to ensure its children are educated separate from the lower orders, but it also exploits the remaining grammar schools and increasingly religious schools to achieve the same end. In southern Ireland, especially in Dublin, Gaelscoileanna are also being adapted to the same purpose. More of Northern Ireland later.

The English (and British) education system has of course been the focus of great attention over the past decade, with Tony Blair – a public school Oxbridge educated type, like much of the New Labour front bench – famously putting ‘Education, Education, Education’ at the heart of his programme for government. At the same time, Blair promoted faith schools, although after 7/7, we hear a lot less about this. We continue however to be subjected to huge quantities of nonsense about sink schools, Academies, and the rest.

While investment in education has undoubtedly gone up, the government has in fact placed its faith in the private sector and the market. Performance related pay, hit squads, allowing religious nutters to dictate aspects of the curriculum in Acadmies they fund, have all singularly failed to achieve their goals. In fact, some of the Academies have proven to be disasters educationally. Yet so focused is New Labour on its (increasingly futile) determination to maintain the support of the middle classes of south-east England, that nothing will be done by this government to mount a serious attempt to reform the education system. The education system in England is completely skewed by the public schools, which mean that the state sector in the most electorally important parts is practically seen as fit for only the under-privileged and disadvantaged – the poor, immigrants, “gangs” etc. A great deal of the moral panic about youth culture in London and elsewhere stems from the fact that the middle classes have no interaction with those outside their income bracket, and fear them.

This has been a culture New Labour has encouraged. Rock stars using drugs is fine and no bar to an invitation to Number 10 – but people from council estates doing the same should be jailed. The prime minister’s son being drunk underage in public is funny, but someone doing the same from a low income bracket is a yob, a hoodie, a chav. Despite the occasional rhetoric about doing something about Oxbridge’s admission procedures, the fact is that New Labour has singularly failed to tackle where the most significant social division in the education process lies – at primary and secondary level, as the Sutton Trust report amply demonstrates.

Another theme of New Labour policy on education has been Britishness and citizenship. Brown in particular wants to use the education system to inculcate values that will supposedly ensure greater social cohesion and harmony within the UK. A fine objective, and one progressive people can applaud. The education system has always been a key area in republican societies to promote egalitarian and democratic thinking, be it in France since the Revolution, or in Little Rock in the 1950s. However, the class reality of the British education system demonstrates how hollow Brown’s thinking is. The values he speaks about – respect for others, civic participation and duty, can never flourish in such an unequal system.

Which themes bring us nicely to Northern Ireland, and the complete mess that the Minister for Education and her party has made of abolishing the 11+, and the near total support in the Assembly for a religiously-divided edcuation system. Class interest, the absence of a civic republican ethos, the lack of vision inherent in the current centre-right, managerial consensus in politics throughout these islands, are all wrapped up in a nice bow in this issue. Since Martin Mc Guiness anounced the abolition of the 11+ in 2002, his party has done nothing to get ready for managing the change. They knew they always intended to take education again, and yet made no preparations. This has been criminal, and a betrayal of the interests of their own biggest supporters, the Catholic working class, as the Provos chase the votes of the expanding Catholic bourgeoisie, becoming its new voice, in succession to the Nationalist Party and the SDLP. Appointing perhaps the most incompetent minister in the Executive to the post in order to boost her chances of taking a Westminster seat she would never have taken up was simply emblematic of the failure to engage with this issue in a substantive way. The one substantially progressive move made by the Provos in government, and they have screwed it up from day one.

Although Mc Guiness confirmed the funding planned by the Direct Rule ministers for a couple of integrated schools, there has been nothing done to foster integrated education, and to confront the division of our children on religious lines. There is no republican vision at work here, merely the same old sectarian politics. The education system, whatever happens the 11+, will remain divided on religious and class grounds, selection will continue in a new form, with the children of the middle classes continuing to flourish at the expense of those further down the social scale.

All in all then, education offers a depressing view. No major political party has the will nor even the vision to tackle the serious defects in the system. Be it the poison of the public schools, grammar schools, or religious education, our political leaders are not only uninterested in substantial change, but they actively support the very interests that benefit from the abandonment of the children of the working class.


5 Responses to “Grammar Schools in Social Elitism Non-Shock”

  1. Cruibín Says:

    It seems to be that the authorities in Northern Ireland are afraid to contemplate change of any type lest the floodgates be opened to more fundamental restructuring of the education system. Central to this must be the resistance at every level to integrated education.

    Coming from the Republic I have to express a certain amount of ignorance of the Northern Ireland education system but one thing seems fairly clear. Down here the debate is about sub-standard school buildings, damp and rat-infested pre-fabs and overcrowding, with the pupil / teacher ratio remaining stubbornly high here. At least you seem to be ahead of us in that.

    The question of integrated education hardly arises here but the Roman Catholic Church continue to control the boards of managements of the overwhelming majority of primary schools in the Republic.

  2. Feirsteach Says:

    “In southern Ireland, especially in Dublin, Gaelscoileanna are also being adapted to the same purpose.”

    There are 31 gaelscoileanna (primary level Irish-medium schools) in all of county Dublin.

    There are 21 in Dublin city. Of those 21, 9 are situated in disadvanted areas. Another 3 or so schools were set up in areas that were predominantly working class when they were set up. A shift in demographics during the past 15-20 years have meant that there is now a mix of pupils from working/middle class backgrounds in these schools.

    The fact that the Dept. of Education and Science whose role it is to support the Irish language through English-medium schools and to promote diversity in the education system, linguistic diversity included, has reneged upon its responsibility.

    The development of Irish-medium in the south has been down individuals parents and an underfunded voluntary national organisation called Gaelscoileanna Teo. with a massive workforce of 5! and only 1 solitary development officer whose role it is to help parents who to set up Irish-medium schools at primary and secondary level. As well as support the 170 gaelscoileanna and 42 gaelcholáistí.

    Gaelscoileanna have a strong mix of people from the working, middle-classes and even a few from the “Upper” (I don’t like that term) class.

  3. garibaldy Says:


    I agree entirely. The Catholic bishops have given ground on the 11+ in order to defend more firmly the very existence of religious education should a serious challenge to it ever emerge. One of their strategic thinkers on the issue, Donal Mc Keown, has been saying for a number of years that the issue will soon become secular versus religious education, and is hoping to build alliances with other churches on that front. On the quality of buildings etc, PPP or PFI or whatever acronym they call it these days has been used to get rid of a lot of the most decrepit buildings, but that is hardly the most progressive solution. Class sizes are not something much talked about in NI, but in primary school in particular they can be very large.


    Thanks for the contribution. I admire the valuable work done by those parents who made great sacrifices so that their children could be educated in Irish, north and south. I agree entirely that the southern state has done next to nothing of value to support the Irish language for most of its existence. My comments were not intended to be critical of those involved in the gaelscoileanna, but rather to flag up how middle class parents will choose any route available to them to ensure a more elite atmosphere for their children’s education. The southern middle class has shown no great interest in the language for nearly a century, and I find the new enthusiasm for gaelscoileanna among certain sections of society highly suspicious. This is also the attitude of people I know within the Irish language movement. That said, the more kids at gaelscoileanna the better, though I am opposed to anyone whose intentions are aimed at social exclusion.

  4. Cruibín Says:

    Of course since I wrote those words about class sizes yesterday the government in the Republic has made the unbelievable decision to increase them along with cutting funds for a number of school extensions.

  5. garibaldy Says:

    Yep, a shocking move. In fact several shocking moves regarding education. And after all the talk about how education was at the centre of the economic development, and needed to be central to the future of the south’s economy. More empty nonsense.

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