Northern Ireland Education Campaigners Challenge Tony Blair Over Academic Selection

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Northern Ireland Area Conservative Spokesperson on Education and Grammar School Principal Accuse Prime Minister’s Office of Issuing False Evidence Regarding Selection Based System in Northern Ireland

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Jeffrey Peel, the Education Spokesperson for the NI Area of the Conservatives, responded following the Prime Minister’s education briefing to journalists on Monday.

“The Prime Minister outlined his position relating to proposed changes in the education system in England and Wales. During his briefing he indicated that he was speaking first and foremost as a parent – and as such he was opposed to selection. However, he, himself, has opted for a selection based school for his children. The London Oratory School makes clear in its admission arrangements for 2006 that in the event of over-subscription the school can interview candidates as a basis for selection – although all candidates have to be Roman Catholic. The school has also opted out of local authority control.

“Therefore in Mr Blair’s view, it is entirely acceptable for London Oratory to select on the basis of religious belief and by interview, but it is not acceptable for it to select on the basis of verifiable academic ability.

“Indeed the current Labour administration in Northern Ireland is proposing to scrap academic selection here. No schools – not even some of the finest and best performing state-funded Grammar schools – will be able to select even on the basis of interview if the legislation is passed.”

Mr Peel’s view is endorsed by Paul Hewitt, the Headmaster of one of Northern Ireland’s Grammar Schools, The Royal School, Dungannon.

“At the Number 10 Press Briefing, the Prime Minister’s office drew attention to Northern Ireland’s schools, suggesting that selection was fine for an elite, but that it left a long tail of “failures” at eleven. However, 69 grammar schools in Northern Ireland that educate 60,000 pupils would wish him to know that he has been badly advised on this. The Prime Minister’s office cannot use Northern Ireland as an excuse for not having some form of academic criterion with which to match pupils by learning ability and teaching method to the right school.

“The truth is that the province produces for university places 42% of pupils from the poorest families compared to 28% in England and Wales. The evidence is very clear from the most reputable research sources that mixed ability teaching is less successful than any differentiated system. It is unfair to both the brightest (who are better challenged and stretched in grammars) and to the slow or less motivated learners (who do not feel hugely out of place in secondary moderns) to educate them in the same learning environment with specialised teachers.

“Mr Blair’s definition or understanding of “elite” (shared by the progressive philosophy of education) must be quite different from the positive one which he applies to training athletes for the Olympics in London, to young cricketers to take on the Australians and Pakistanis in the next decades or the sporting Academies. Children have always thrived where the teaching and learning as well as the expectations of parents and teachers and the aspirations of the pupils themselves are carefully and realistically matched. This is why there are few, if any, “sink schools” in Northern Ireland and why the standards of examination success have consistently outperformed every other area of the UK.

“Under-performance in secondary level education is most often due to boredom arising through inappropriate curricular provision, lack of pride in the school through poor behaviour and low achievement, and through not having suitably qualified and experienced teachers.

“Instead of trying to destroy the Grammar Schools here, the Government ought to heed the frequent widespread expressions of parental support for the differentiated system. Its proposals in education for an untried, uncosted, undemocratic system about to go through Parliament unchallenged and undebated, are doomed to disastrous failure. Once introduced they will disadvantage generations of our children and take as long as in Britain to rectify.

“Respect, on Mr Blair’s terms, for the 90% of the electorate who have recently expressed their desire to retain schools which match children to the style of teaching available, would go some way towards increasing confidence in the Prime Minister’s sincerity in seeking to reintroduce this element into popular attitudes.”

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Jeffrey Peel