Social segregation

It was James Heckman, the Nobel prize-winning economist, who said: “Some kids win the lottery at birth – far too many don’t – and most people have a hard time catching up over the rest of their lives.” Nowhere is this statement truer than here in Northern Ireland where we have an education system which segregates children almost solely on the basis of social class. A recently published report by the Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU) at Stranmillis College looked at what difference the cancellation of the transfer tests in 2021 made to grammar schools and the pupils they selected. The study found that the absence of tests made almost no difference to the social background of pupils admitted. Sir Michael Wilshaw, former head of Ofsted, put it bluntly when he said that grammar schools were “stuffed full of middle-class children”. This latest report simply confirms that view.

Those less advantaged children who don’t go to a grammar school end up in secondary schools which are crammed full of other disadvantaged children. Thirty-nine per cent of secondary school children here receive free school meals and in the most deprived areas that figure is much higher. High concentrations of poverty in our secondary schools make them very challenging places for teachers and pupils. I speak with teachers regularly and they all tell me how much more challenging these schools have become.

Research by the OECD has found that disadvantaged pupils do much better in schools where they are a minority. A survey of OECD member countries found that schools with only a small proportion of disadvantaged pupils produced results that were on average two-and-a-half years ahead of those with a majority of disadvantaged pupils.

Kent is one of the few English counties that still retains grammar schools and a transfer test. Here’s what one unhappy parent had to say about this antiquated system:

“You take my taxes and build schools, then put a lock on their doors. You would not build a hospital that my child could not be treated in if she was sick. Why are you building schools that so many children are told they cannot go to?”

I await the findings of the soon to be published Independent Review of Education here. Unfortunately I feel little will change.


Downpatrick, Co Down

Reckless use of lethal weapons

Two articles (March15 and March 23) deal with aspects of the use of rubber bullets and in particular plastic baton rounds in Northern Ireland.

One item refers to a Spotlight documentary (aired March 14) which contains some extraordinary revelations emerging from recently de-classified secret documents. Among them, files from the army’s Land Operations Manual in 1971, stating that baton rounds should not be used against children – yet soldiers were never told.

In 1974 the MoD’s own scientist condemned the ‘bouncing’ of bullets – the tactic of ricocheting rounds off the ground to reduce velocity but making them more indiscriminate – yet the practice continued for some time.

After Paul Whitters was killed in 1981 a weapons expert examined the gun and found it was shooting inaccurately. De-classified documents also reveal government scientists warned that the RUC riot gun at the time had not been evaluated in accordance with Medical Committee Practice.

The documentary raises an interesting fact that in the 1980s, when rioting broke out in English cities, plastic baton rounds were not used – yet in Northern Ireland their deployment continued. If this was a formally approved strategy for dealing with violent unrest how come it was used in Northern Ireland and not England?

In May 2022 Westminster announced an end to fresh Troubles inquests. Nonetheless, considering these findings, might there arguably be grounds for re-considering plastic bullet-related deaths as potentially unlawful killings by state security forces?

Spotlight features remarks made by retired army officer General Richard Kemp who states: “To say that the plastic bullets should never have been used, I think this is a foolish thing to say. The plastic bullet was a lifesaver, not just a lifesaver for the soldiers whose lives were at risk, but also a lifesaver for people involved in the riots.”

Really? Try telling that to the families of 10-year-old Stephen Geddis and the 15 others (including eight children) still no doubt grieving the loss of their loved ones by the reckless use of these lethal weapons.


Belfast BT7

Negative politics

It was interesting reading a suggestion by Paul Smith – ‘For once lend SF your vote’ (March 16). His solution to all our problems in the assembly is ‘lending’ your vote to Sinn Féin to keep out the DUP. Does this not bring you back to when the DUP said vote for us to keep out Sinn Féin? I have said many times that both these parties deserve each other. They only think of themselves and not what’s best for the people. Both have been sharing power in Stormont for years and what have they achieved. Nothing. Both parties want to keep people apart. What have they done for people in their own areas in inner cities? Again, nothing. Paul’s letter sums up the negative way politics is and has been for years. It is time to change it.


Dungannon, Co Tyrone

Far-reaching possibilities

With continuing DUP entrenched negativism can I suggest far-reaching but real possibilities for the more progressive people from the ‘unionist community’?

These people really do feel the winds of change.

Imagine a strong nine-county Ulster representation in a national Dublin government. They will debate, legislate and implement measures far beyond a very limited northern assembly which cannot even decide that St Patrick’s Day should be a public holiday.

Imagine holding national positions, making decisions on a real budget, EU ministerial posts, seats at the United Nations and delivering at all levels for your people, including in strong county councils. All of this will be underpinned by equality legislation and respect for diversity.

The decision cannot be clearer. Stay in the dimming and isolationist light of the 20th century or grasp 21st century regional strength. We all know where that strength lies in a fast changing world.


Kilkee, Co Clare