Living in a jurisdiction where the State pays all teachers, keeping down school fees paid by parents; being a cleric who, because of the historical quirks of this country, qualifies for reduced fees at particular schools; and, as anyone who reads the magazine of our diocese could tell you, having a daughter who has won a scholarship at her school, means our family has had the benefit of our children being educated at the equivalent of an English public school on an income which would be entirely consumed in any attempt to pay school fees in Great Britain, leaving nothing on which to live.
It has been a very lucky card to have been dealt, something which I ponder every time I go up the school drive.
Life doesn’t deal such hands to most people; most people don’t get such breaks. Many working-class people would shy away from such opportunities even if they did come along; the pain involved in trying to survive in such a thoroughly different social milieu would outweigh any benefit they would perceive. (A church member in the North, a working man, once told me that he had gone to university for a year but had left because “It wasn’t for people like me.”)
The one school that gave a chance to working class children in many areas of Northern Ireland was the grammar school. The excellence of the education gave people opportunities they would otherwise not have imagined. The other side of the coin was that the other schools, the schools for those who did not pass the 11+, were neglected and undervalued and produced results that were less than favourable.
With worthy intentions, Martin McGuinness, the education minister in the North is reforming the system; education will be on the basis of locality and not on the basis of tests, yet he is in danger of reducing instead of increasing the opportunities of working class people.
Middle class people will find ways to ensure their children get into the desired schools; they will move into certain areas; they will acquire addresses; the will find channels to gain places; they will pay fees if necessary. A friend told me of a family where boys were being sent to the preparatory school of one of the grammar schools to ensure they get a place at secondary level.
Working class children will not have those opportunities, if they live in the area of one of the desired schools they will have struck lucky, if not, they will have no other avenue.
In the words of my economics tutor thirty years ago, “You can’t buck the market”. If the 11+ is abolished, market forces will kick in, and the people who always do best in any market are those with most to spend.
If all else fails, the disgruntled middle classes leave the system altogether, creating a completely two tier system like that in England where state schools simply cannot compete with the huge resources of the private sector. There are signs of it already happening as Northern accents appear in southern schools.
Shouldn’t the answer have been to strengthen the weak rather than to weaken the strong?