A (partial) reply to @pootblog

This has been sitting around for a few days now, because I don’t really want to have a flame war with someone I like, but here goes anyway…

Damian Counsell (@pootblog) objected to what I wrote about grammar schools, so I thought I’d do a proper reply. His comments in italics.

Those 75% of students—sorry: “victims”—”thrown on the scrapheap” in Northern Ireland still subsequently outperform their matched peers in comprehensive schools on the mainland. I’m tired of reading this cliché—this lie—every time the question of school education policy in these islands comes up for the usual evidence-lite discussion; though it’s understandable that it should proliferate as rigour and hard science have been drained from the secondary curriculum by the same ideologues who’ve brought us selection-by-house-price.

Firstly, if not directly related to the matter in hand, Britain is not “the mainland” – that begins at Calais.

The claim here is that it is a “lie” that those in Northern Ireland who failed the 11+ still did better at school than those in comprehensives (presumably Damian means the same three quartiles) in Britain. Now, I could simply say I was writing about Catholics in the mid-1970s (because I was) and say that it’s an open-and-shut case – Catholics who failed the 11+ did spectacularly badly at school (today the religious position is somewhat reversed, which is more evidence of how working class protestants are being systematically failed by their political ‘leaders’ – but that’s another story). But actually the problem was a more general one:

The final figure (figure 6.4) of this section looks at the relative extent of unqualified school leavers in both religious school systems. This is a particular problem in Northern Ireland where the proportion of pupils leaving school with no O Level or CSE qualifications, of any kind, has been and remains higher than in Britain as a whole: in 1986/7, for example, 21.9% of Northern Ireland school leavers had no GCE/CSE qualifications compared with 9.6% of leavers in England and 16.1% of leavers in Wales.

(From here. Sounds like being thrown on the scrapheap to me – if we assume all or almost all these school leavers were from “secondary schools” – as they are called in Northern Ireland – then that indicates around 30% of pupils entering those schools left with no CSEs or O levels at all.)

NB: A crucial change since then has been the “comprehensivisation” of the exam system. The old CSE/CGE divide essentially wrote off those who took CSEs even before they got started – for while a CSE Grade 1 was an equivalent of an ‘O’ level C grade (ie a pass), the mere fact that a pupil had been entered for a CSE was a signal that they were not seen as a strong performer.

Since that time Northern Ireland’s pupils have closed the gap significantly at the bottom end – though 21.7% of Northern Ireland’s workforce still had no qualifications, compared to 13.2% of England’s – and in 2005/6 3.1% of pupils in Northern Ireland got no graded results whereas the figure for England was 2.2% – figures from Regional Trends 2008.

Understandably, you still haven’t addressed my central point, which is that the claim that 75% of kids end up on the “scrapheap”, however generously you interpret that metaphor, is simply false. I’ll say it again: under the comprehensive system, kids from the same backgrounds do worse than they would do at secondary moderns. The dogma of comprehensivisation is up there with Lysenkoism in the pantheon of systematic, ideologically motivated establishment lying.

Damian did not produce any figures and I have: to repeat, I was writing about the mid-1970s when the figures were truly appalling. Even today the figures show that selective education is producing half as many again kids with no qualifications in Northern Ireland as in England (where comprehensive education dominates) and that the full cohort of adults in Northern Ireland includes a huge excess, in comparison to England, of people with no qualifications at all.

Obviously there’s no way to test the counterfactual, but I wouldn’t be even slightly surprised if the advent of the comprehensive school in system in England and Wales led to significant numbers of children who might otherwise have led happier lives growing up to be convicted criminals; but I’m not going to overplay my hand here; you’re right: unlike Lysenkoism, it’s unlikely anyone died of starvation. Let’s just say that—even if it resembled reality in any way at all—your talk of human beings being “thrown on a scrapheap” isn’t exactly measured language either. And that’s where I came in.

One thing that *isn’t* a counterfactual is my central contention. Again, you deliberately avoid the point. I’m not saying that kids “*would* do better at secondary moderns”; I’m saying that kids *do* do better. It’s the biggest side-by-side comparison in secondary education and ideologues deliberately ignore the overall result; just as they ignore the results when vouchers are shown to help poor and black pupils in the only randomised trials in education I’ve ever read about.

Kent is neither here nor there: it’s one artificial island of selection set in a sea of mixed-ability, LEA-controlled state schooling, so the effect of selection-by-house price is doubled down. Of course kids in secondary moderns there are going to do badly—if indeed they do: you haven’t actually cited a substantive result in that case either.

Well, where is the evidence that kids do better at secondary moderns then? I understand the point about black pupils – but no evidence has been offered here for the central claim. If Damian has some evidence to back up his point I’d love to see it. My point about Kent is that in that county – where selective education dominated until quite recently (thanks to the Labour government some of the secondary moderns have now become ‘academies’ and so the position is changing though maybe not that much), there is a high proportion of failing schools: look at this table, for instance. This blog and map suggests to me that Kent is also letting a lot of its kids down.

I freely concede that the religious divide in Northern Ireland had, and continues to have, terrible effects. Catholic kids are and have been simply worse-off on average. That’s a fact, and that wasn’t what I was engaging with either.

I was simply attacking one tired, hyperbolic, clichéd untruth that appears over and over again in such discussions. It keeps being trotted out because no right-thinking person dares to challenge it. The burden of proof here doesn’t lie with me; it has always rested with the social engineers. (If only they had a tiny fraction of the rigour of most actual engineers!) It’s a measure of how polluted the ground has become that you and others can repeat this outrageous myth and throw up chaff when asked to back it up with anything other than personal anecdote.

And, yet again, for the avoidance of doubt: I am not advocating a return to the grammar/secondary modern divide. I just want discussions about education to be based on evidence, not dogma and tribal boilerplate.

And, this is subjective so maybe will not pass Damian’s test, but the idea that the 11+ was in some way more “equitable” than “selection by house price” (which I freely concede is a big factor) is also nonsense. In the mid-1970s West Belfast was one of the most concentrated islands of deprivation in Northern Europe, but as is the way with ghettos, we middle class kids were in there with everybody else. Of my primary school class of about 28 (all boys), 5 of us passed the “qually”. Gary, Tony and I were from middle class backgrounds, Michael and Liam were not. Liam refused to go to a grammar school as all his brothers had gone to De La Salle school (on his street) and he was not going to be different: so three quarters of the grammar school boys were middle class from a cohort where I’d guess to close to 50% of the boys were on free school meals.

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