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A New Tragedy in Ulster

Tuesday, 26th November 2008

We are accustomed to horror stories from Northern Ireland, although thankfully they have been a bit less frequent of late. But now we read of a new one. Catriona Ruane, the ideologue Sinn Fein Education Minister of Northern Ireland has scrapped the eleven plus exam in the province, on the grounds that it is “an outdated and unequal education system”. She is wrong. On the contrary, it is the comprehensive system which has comprehensively failed our children and our economy. It has been tested to destruction and found wanting. (Oddly enough, no one seems to have decided what system to put in its place).

The facts are so well known that it is almost unnecessary to rehearse them. Northern Ireland is a “test market” for the selective system, providing a head-to-head comparison with large parts of England, and it demonstrates convincingly that the selective system delivers better results. And not just for those who “pass” the 11+, but for all children in the province, whichever type of school they go to. Now that the selective system has been proven to be the better system, Ms. Ruane wants to abandon it.

We made a terrible presentational error in allowing ourselves to speak of “passing” and “failing” the 11+. What we were doing was making sure that every child was offered to best education for their talents, whether academic or vocational. Children — all children, not just academic children — do best when offered courses that engage their interest and match their capabilities. It is in this critical area that comprehensives so patently fail. And their failure is compounded by a Labour government determined to send too many children on to academic tertiary education to which the majority are clearly unsuited.

That is why we are slipping down the international league tables for educational attainment. That is why our economic future is under threat, as we fail to deliver qualified applicants for the jobs — whether academic of vocational — that a modern economy demands.

We could be forgiven (just about) for the errors of the sixties. But with nearly half a century of experience under our belts, we cannot be forgiven for making the same mistakes again. All together now: “Competition is inevitable, and élitism is good”.