How many more reports? How many more ruined lives?
To the questions ‘how many more reports’ and ‘how many more ruined lives’ can be added a third query: ‘How long can they get away with this?’
The ‘this’ in question is the myth that Northern Ireland’s education system is fit for purpose and is maximising young people’s talent and potential. The ‘they’ refers to all those with vested interests in perpetuating their own advantage and privilege and in maintaining division in this society.
Report after report, study after study has identified the damage which academic selection – or the 11 Plus exam – can cause to young people, their opportunities and their futures.
It’s the same story for integrated education. Vested interests, political and religious, have combined to ensure that the requirement set out in the Good Friday Agreement to promote integrated education, has, to this day, been successfully sidestepped.
Privilege and disadvantage
Against that background, ‘How long can they get away with this?’ is a real and critical question.
The recent report produced by the Ulster University’s Education Centre identifies the impact and longer-term effects of academic selection at age 11. They say that it’s traumatic for many children and damages the life chances of a large proportion of the school population. Previous reports have highlighted the reinforcement of “privilege and disadvantage” and recommend the end of academic selection in Northern Ireland as a key way to help in reversing educational disadvantage.
Add to that the contemptuous disregard shown by the Assembly for the development of integrated education, in the face of increasing community support and it is undeniable that the education system in Northern Ireland is not fit for purpose.
Opinion research conducted recently by the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) found an approval rating for integrated education at over 80% of all respondents. Yet, the main Assembly parties have not only done little to develop integrated education, they have deliberately diverted the focus to their invented, and meaningless, concept of ‘shared education’.
Like so much in Northern Ireland, these issues are frequently presented in simple sectarian terms. Radio phone-in programmes and many political commentators seek to reduce both issues to examples of community division. How often do we hear that ‘unionists support academic selection while nationalists are opposed to it’ or, that ‘both communities want their children educated in schools reflecting their own community background’?
But the reality is that many of the shortcomings in our education system are class-based issues.
The supporters of academic selection, and all the problems that causes, are neither nationalist nor unionist: they are Northern Ireland’s middle classes determined to secure their, and their children’s, social advantage, even though that is gained at the expense of less advantaged children.
So too with integrated education. The imperative to maintain and sustain the dangerous and divisive ‘two communities’ model takes precedence over all other considerations.
How long will they get away with it? As long as they are allowed to, and for as long as they go unchallenged.