Molech is Alive and Well...

There's a famous song by Paul Brady called "The Island" which is set against the background of the Northern Ireland troubles... in it he says:
"Up here we sacrifice our children;
To feed the worn-out dreams of yesterday"

With the exception of sporadic spats of sectarian violence like this week at the Short Strand/Mountpottinger interface, in which, as ever, children often become the front-line troops, those days are behind us. But the old tensions remain and the battleground between unionist and republican has simply shifted. One of the most pronounced is the area of education, where Sinn Fein Education Minister Catrina Ruane has pursued a dogmatic approach to non-selective secondary education, which due to an equally dogmatic response by Unionists and stakeholders in the Grammar School sector, has produced a chaotic scenario for those starting the last year of primary school this week.

Today all P7 pupils will receive a very helpful leaflet outlining their options for transfer. I hope it is more helpful than previous missives from Ms. Ruane which have done nothing to quell the confusion and fear among parents, not to mention the tension and uncertainty in the hearts of children.

Let me put my cards on the table. The 11+ (supposedly the last ever one back in 1977) served me well, as it has served many academically able working class young people down through the years. But the post selection experience of many of my young friends who failed the "qualie" was not so favourable. In Northern Ireland we have a history of producing high performers in tertiary education, who have come through the Grammar School system, but we also have the worst record regarding children who come through the secondary system with no qualifications whatsoever. Is this the product of being labelled a failure at 11, or a feature of seeing secondary education as second best (leading to the recruitment of "second rate" teachers), or a function of a lack of parental and peer support/valuing of education among certain communities? I haven't done the detailed research so I cannot begin to assess where the reasoning for this lies. It certainly seems to be a more pronounced problem in certain loyalist communities that used to rely on jobs in heavy industry that didn't require qualifiations, leading to a low value placed on educational achievement in such communities.

So how can we address educational under-achievement, particularly in working class, loyalist areas? By dismantling the Grammar Sector? Abolishing selection? By raising standards in the secondary sector? By addressing the support for schools and education in working class areas? By moving everyone to selection at an older age, when selection of subjects for GCSE and further careers is already taking place (as with the Craigaveon area "Dixon Plan")?

Certainly the answer is not the bog standard comprehensive system of most of England and Scotland, which apparently has done little to improve social mobility among lower socio-economic groups. Even if it were, we need a coherent plan to get from here to there, rather than the ramshackle disaster that has occurred because of the ideological confrontation between Ms. Ruane and her opponents. The fact that parents will now have to pay for multiple unregulated entrance exams to different grammar schools will also reinforce the perception of those schools as bastions of the middle classes, and further deter those who come from poorer backgrounds. Those on free school meals may well get help with these fees, but there are many from working class areas who don't avail of the free meals they might be entitled to for many complex reasons and others who are borderline cases. Many of these will undoubtedly be deterred by this financial hurdle, especially where they come from a community where education is not valued as highly as it might be.

There are no votes for children in our political system. And so long as the mess in our educational system only affects the year or two that are facing the transition, that won't lose our politicians too many votes either. Anyway, those who do vote tend to do so on constitutional lines rather than on any other issues, so the needs of this year's P7 children will be sacrificed once more...

Yet the whole thing is a national disgrace.

Platform for Change have already organised one consultation on the subject, and you can check out some of their thinking on the subject here. But this whole issue needs to become a key one for us as a society, and not just the preserve of politicians, educational interest groups and talking shops. We've all got to make it a priority before another generation of children are sacrificed to the Molech of political and educational intransigence.


OK... Let me fess up... It was my dear wife in the course one of her barely coherent splutterings at the mention of Catrina Ruane this morning on Radio Ulster, who mentioned the lines from "The Island"...

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