It was the senior play, this evening, at the boarding school our daughter attends. The Acharnians is a comedy from the Fifth Century BC by the Greek playwright Aristophanes – it was an excellent production.
Living in a country where the State pays all teachers, keeping down the school fees paid by parents, and being a cleric who, because of the historical quirks, qualifies for reduced fees at particular schools, and, as anyone who read the magazine of our diocese last year could have told you, having a daughter who had 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 pay which is equivalent to the national industrial wage.
It has been a very lucky card to have been dealt, something which I ponder every time I go up the school drive; something I pondered this evening before the play began
Life doesn’t deal such hands to most people; most people don’t get such breaks. The one school that gave a chance to working class children in many areas of Northern Ireland was the grammar school. In the bad, bad years, the excellence of the education gave people opportunities they would otherwise not have imagined. Yes, 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 and Catriona Ruane, successive Sinn Fein education ministers in the North brought in reforms; yet their abolition of the 11 + 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 last year 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.
The BBC News today carries the first signs of the middle class revolt. A swathe of grammar schools ran their own tests, for which 95% of parents had to pay. Rather than looking at the weak schools and attempting to strengthen them, the approach has been to attempt to weaken the strong.
If a class of children were asked, ‘do you think parents will seek the best for their children?’ They will answer ‘yes’. Ms Ruane’s answer to that question would seem to be ‘no’, and it’s the wrong answer.