Today my son is one of thousands of kids from across Northern Ireland to sit the new transfer tests administered not by the Department of Education but by a parent-led body, the Association for Quality Education. I had the honour to be involved in AQE prior to the re-establishment of devolution. At one point there seemed a real prospect that we would be able to defeat Peter Hain’s Education NI Order that saw the end of the old transfer test. When the matter was kicked back to the Assembly on the restoration of devolution, Catriona Ruane systematically ignored the wishes of parents who wished to see the maintenance of a selection based system. The result is that those parents – through organisations like the AQE – ensured that the will of the people would prevail.
The fact that we have retained a voluntary system of testing for entry to many of our finest grammar schools shows how democracy works at its most elemental level. If our elected representatives fail to govern, and fail to represent the will of the people, then the people are perfectly entitled to impose their will without breaking the law. Sinn Fein seemed to believe that this gave it the right to wage war on our society. In the case of academic selection the resolve of the people has resulted in quiet and calm determination. Sir Ken Bloomfield and others have shown that they do not need the help of politicians to get things done. Quite the opposite.
Indeed I, and my Conservative colleagues, let the side down badly. We failed to secure the support of the Liberal Democrats and the vote in the House of Lords was secured by the government. Worse, the Conservatives in GB came up with a new education policy that turned its back on the grammar school system – a system that still secures social mobility in many parts of England.
The arguments against selection are spurious. Egalitarianism does not achieve better results. Our grammars and secondary schools produce incredible results – massively above the national average. As I have stated in other posts, it is clear that excessively high levels of under-achievement is the result of failings in the primary system – not at post-primary level. This has also been pointed-out, eloquently, by Chris Woodhead.
Part of the problem may also be an anti-education culture in so-called working class areas where poor performance – especially among boys – is the result of lack of ambition and excessive ghetto thinking. Most children of the ghettos fail to be given the opportunity to sit any transfer tests that might be offered, never mind actually attend a grammar. The social stigma associated with ambition may also be too much to bear.
I can understand. I grew up in one of the most socially deprived parts of Lisburn in a housing estate where few, if any, of the children had the chance to attend a grammar. When I donned the blazer of Friends’ School, Lisburn I was taunted and sneered-at on my way to school and home again. But I persevered. And I received a wonderful education from one of Northern Ireland’s finest schools. I may have been one of the few but I sat the test. I passed. I attended. Unlike David Cameron, or Peter Hain, I had a wonderful education but my parents didn’t have to pay – because they simply couldn’t have paid.
All over the media today we hear representatives of teacher unions complaining that they oppose academic selection. We hear much from the education minister about the trauma of the tests. But we hear little about the men and women who have invested the time and effort and commitment to maintain an element of democracy that is still alive and well in Northern Ireland – the will of the people.