Letters to the Editor

Socio-economic status is most important factor in child's education

It has been reported that Northern Ireland’s grammar schools will be running a single transfer test from November 2023. It doesn’t matter whether you have one test or five tests, the end result is the same, 60 per cent of 11 year old children being labelled as failures. The children who fail to gain a grammar school place and those who don’t sit the exam are generally children from a less advantaged background. These ‘failures’ then move on to secondary school with more and more attending schools with high concentrations of poverty.

The Coleman Report (Equality of Educational Opportunity), a monumental piece of research which involved 600,000 students, 60,000 teachers, 4,000 public schools and a 737 page report, came to the conclusion that the most important factor in a child’s educational success was the socio-economic status of the child’s family and the second most important factor was the socio-economic status of the classmates in the child’s school. In other words being born poor imposes a disadvantage – but attending a school with large numbers of low income classmates presents a second independent challenge. All of the research shows that “disadvantaged children do much better in schools where they are in a minority” (Equity in Education, OECD 2018). Unionist politicians  here have not only ignored all of this research but have actively supported a system of social segregation which benefits an elite few and leaves our most vulnerable and disadvantaged children to struggle in high poverty schools.

Robbie Butler, the Ulster Unionist education spokesperson, has commented that “the ideology of doing away with the school transfer test” is unhelpful – while a more suitable alternative remains elusive. I would suggest to Mr Butler that the reason an alternative has been ‘elusive’ is because unionist politicians are so intent on protecting the status quo that grammar schools support, that there have been few if any attempts to find a viable alternative. Fortunately for Mr Butler the Sutton Trust, a foundation which improves social mobility in the UK  has undertaken extensive research in this area.

I would refer him to Sutton Trust – Fairer School Admission – February 2020.

Downpatrick, Co Down


Compassionate discussion on transfer test

I want to pay tribute to William Crawley for the compassionate and caring way he discussed the transfer test (11-plus) on Talkback  (September 22), especially the way he used his own experience of the 11-plus to illustrate the effect this test can have on children.

I have just retired from 29 years’ teaching in a non-selective school and every year I would see Year 8 pupils who needed reassurance that they were still intelligent, still capable of doing well academically and that they should not give up.

While we all welcome the attempts to reduce the number of transfer exams pupils will have to sit, we should acknowledge that at the age of 11, a child’s brain is still developing so any test of potential will be very inaccurate. Even worse, young children will not have enough confidence to reject the outcome of the test and come to believe that they are not ‘smart enough’. Some (mainly boys) will avoid risking repeating this feeling of failure by avoiding future academic challenges – they will underperform for years.

As the product of a grammar school, I fully supported the 11-plus, until I saw the negative effect it had on the young, predominantly Protestant pupils in my classes – the negative effects seeming to be greater among the boys – and the outcomes from schools across the province would support this.

As my views changed, I would talk to pupils about how brains keep developing and would use the example of my own family, where I ‘passed’ the 11-plus but a younger brother who ‘failed’ went on to achieve higher qualifications and a significantly better salary than myself. I hope I helped to restore the enthusiasm for learning among my pupils, but realistically some pupils never regain enough confidence in their ability to commit properly to academic challenges.

William Crawley’s comments on Talkback were inspirational; had I not just retired from teaching I would have been trying to encourage my school to invite him to speak at our next prize day.  I hope he finds time to talk to some schools.

Belfast BT6


Disdain for centenary celebrations

The DUP whinge when the head of a foreign state comes north, now they’re whinging because he isn’t coming north. But President Higgins has done the right thing as the event in Armagh has become deeply politicised. If unionists want to celebrate the centenary of this wee country with its proud links to the mainland and its devotion to the royal family, let them do so, but no Irishman – or woman – worth the names should ‘celebrate’ the dismemberment of his country.

The northern state was born in an orgy of anti-Catholic violence and maintained by injustice and discrimination. Why celebrate that? Perhaps Archbishop Martin has failed to grasp what was clear to President Higgins – that his presence at this travesty was an endorsement of partition and all the folly and wickedness that flowed from it.

I am of that generation of Catholics that simply did not question the clergy, but I think that Archbishop Martin is making a dreadful mistake. Before he attends this unfortunate event, his Grace should read Eamon Phoenix’s excellent – and often sad and shocking – ‘On this Day’ column in the Irish News and ask himself whether partition is something any Irishman would celebrate. This is the only way to treat the centenary of the northern state – with disdain.

Belfast BT9


Unnecessary choice

Many evangelical Christians will again be saddened by the decision of Belfast City Council to hold this year’s marathon on a Sunday, thus repeating the mistake of 2019.  Run on Bank Holiday Monday,  the marathon has been an event enjoyed by all for many years. The change to Sunday was unnecessary and bad for families across the city and beyond.

Many Christians now feel excluded, neither able to support the event nor to participate in it.

In addition, churches along the route again face disruption, with people finding it difficult or impossible to get to their regular place of worship.

Honouring God – as we do when we worship with others on Sunday – is for our good, mentally, physically and spiritually. The marathon is good... but not instead of the worship of God. (Exodus 20:8 - 11).

Caleb Foundation


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Letters to the Editor