Northern Ireland

Grammar schools: Theresa May ignites debate that has raged in Northern Ireland 'for years'

Primary school pupils in Northern Ireland hoping to gain entry to a grammar sit a series of English and Maths tests every autumn
Image caption Primary school pupils in Northern Ireland hoping to gain entry to a grammar sit a series of English and Maths tests every autumn

Divisions over grammar schools and academic selection are as pronounced and passionate in Northern Ireland as in England.

However, there are some important differences between the two countries not least that grammars are already plentiful in NI.

While the rest of the UK moved towards a comprehensive education system in the 1960s, Northern Ireland retained nationwide selection at 11.

In fact, there was a government run 11-plus exam until as recently as 2008.

When it was scrapped by the then Education Minister Caitríona Ruane, grammar schools in Northern Ireland set up their own entry tests.

Primary school pupils hoping to gain entry to a grammar sit a series of English and Maths tests every autumn, and the number of entrants has increased in recent years.

Image caption The current Northern Ireland Education Minister Peter Weir supports academic selection

There are currently 67 grammar schools and 135 non-grammars, so grammars make up about one third of post-primary schools.

As a result, about 45% of children in Northern Ireland attend a grammar school.

'Potential'

Those who back grammar schools and selection argue that they drive up exam results, offer parental choice and enable social mobility.

In contrast to his predecessor, the current Northern Ireland Education Minister Peter Weir supports academic selection.

He said it had the potential to change people's lives.

"Every child, regardless of background, postcode, social group, religion or ethnicity has equal opportunity to get into a grammar school," he added.

Mr Weir, and others who agree with him, point to the number of children from poorer backgrounds entering grammar schools in Northern Ireland.

Image caption Caitríona Ruane of Sinn Féin scrapped the 11-plus exam in Northern Ireland

According to the Sutton Trust, only 3% of entrants to grammar schools in England are entitled to free school meals.

Almost all grammar schools in Northern Ireland have a higher proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals, some significantly so.

West Belfast is one of the most disadvantaged areas in Northern Ireland.

However, the area contains two highly-performing grammar schools.

'Dividing children'

Of the 1,180 pupils at St Mary's Christian Brothers Grammar, for instance, more than 38% are entitled to free school meals.

However, that is unusually high, as in the majority of grammars about one in ten pupils are entitled to free school meals.

In some, it is significantly fewer.

That is well below the overall Northern Ireland figure, where 30% of pupils get free school meals.

Opponents of grammar schools use statistics like that to argue that they overwhelmingly benefit pupils from better off families.

They also point to what they say is the iniquity of dividing children on the basis of selection tests at age 11.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Prime Minister Theresa May's plans suggest schools becoming selective and new and expanding grammars will take quotas of poor pupils or help run other schools

Pat McGuckian is the principal of St Patrick's High School in Keady, County Armagh.

It is a highly successful non-selective school with more than 1,000 pupils, many of whom go on to university.

In 2015, it was named the best secondary school in the UK by the Times Educational Supplement (TES).

Ms McGuckian compared selection at 11 to "apartheid," and said it created a "system of haves and have-nots."

"Our school is all-ability and it's predicated on the belief that a child's ability is not fixed at 11," she said.

Image copyright Eric Jones/CC Geograph
Image caption St Patrick's High School in Keady, County Armagh, is a highly successful non-selective school with more than 1,000 pupils

"Some children are labelled failures at 11 and then consigned to oblivion.

"This is a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem."

In allowing grammar schools to expand, the prime minister has re-ignited a debate in England which has raged in Northern Ireland for years.

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