The Cadogan Group


Could Do Better



The Burns Report and Post-Primary Education in Northern Ireland

The Cadogan Group, June 2002


Nowhere within the United Kingdom is it more important to have a first-class education system than in Northern Ireland.  Our pressing need to escape from an unenviable history of violence and division means that good education for all should be at the heart of efforts to create a happier and more successful Province.  We would argue that the strengths of the existing system did much to hold Northern Ireland together during the 30 years of the ‘troubles’.  For many people the outstanding results produced by our schools were the brightest highlights in a landscape darkened by problems and failures.

As one of the least prosperous parts of the UK, Northern Ireland needs a first rate education system to underpin a transition to a modern high value-added economy.  Economic problems for over a century have stemmed from a slow rate of change and a low level of innovation.  If we are to break out of this cycle, and stop being the UK’s least dynamic regional economy, we will need a workforce which is educated to standards at least as good as, and preferably better than those of our major competitors.

At present, excellence is too heavily confined to the grammar schools, and to the middle classes whose children are the major beneficiaries.  Even if there are some very good non-grammar schools, and even if working class children do better than in Great Britain, the point remains.  It remains because the violence of our inner city areas is worse than elsewhere, and because this violence feeds on the helplessness and limited horizons which result from inadequate education.  It also remains relevant because the reform of our low wage and low productivity economy depends on a labour force which is well educated at all levels and not only in the upper half.

In the Republic of Ireland the transition to a well educated workforce has already been largely accomplished.   Although low company taxation has been the main motor of the recent phenomenal economic success, continued growth at rates not experienced anywhere else in the western world would not have been possible without a revolution in educational standards.  

Northern Ireland still awaits this transformation.  Our schools continue to produce results for the top quarter of the ability range which out-shine those in almost any other part of the UK, or the Republic.  This has served the middle classes well.  Their children have been able to get good jobs, very often outside Northern Ireland, and have been spared the need to attend classes alongside those most likely to be attracted to paramilitary activity.  But the need to improve educational standards beyond the grammar school ability range remains.

Meeting this need has been a powerful motivating force behind the recommendations of the Burns Review of Post-primary education.  Unfortunately the Review has, in our view, thrown the baby out with the bathwater in recommending a reformed school system in which selection on academic ability disappears, without any convincing means of preventing the grammar schools degrading over time into comprehensives.

This lurch from one extreme to the other does not make sense in the context of educational reform.  It is also the last thing Northern Ireland needs at this delicate stage of its political development.  The importance of grammar schools to middle class families, and to unionist pride as one of the province’s key achievements, means that the Burns proposals will be hugely divisive.  The Belfast Telegraph poll of MLA’s already tells us that all unionist representatives are strongly opposed while all nationalist MLA’s approve.  This division means that the proposals are unlikely to survive in their current form.  

Unless some way is found to meet the more constructive aims of the Burns Review without endangering the grammar schools, and the high standards these schools produce, this attempt at reform will founder in a mass of recrimination.  Since the lines of division on this issue appear to be drawn between nationalists and unionists, the recrimination can only add to existing political divisions.  The hopes of those who saw education reform as a route away from traditional political divisions will have been dashed.

In this pamphlet we explain where we view the Burns recommendations as having gone wrong.  We then outline a set of ideas, based on successful secondary education systems in parts of Europe, to replace Burns.  These aim at improving standards beyond grammar schools, removing the stigma of failure at age eleven, but at the same time preserving the grammar schools with their excellent results.  



The Burns proposals have been widely debated and their outline has become well known.   In this section we summarise them in more detail than newspapers reporting allows, and quote extensively from the Review’s own words.  We then make a number of broad criticisms.

Burns starts from the following ‘Vision’ for the education service:

‘It will recognise the individual abilities and needs of all young people, and provide them with high quality education, enabling them to realise their potential, to lead fulfilling lives and to play productive and positive roles in society as persons whose learning and development have been holistic’ (5.1).

This Burns Vision is supported by the following underlying objectives:

to develop every young person’s competence in a range of disciplines, including, of course, literacy, oracy, numeracy and information and communication technology (ICT);

to develop their personal qualities, knowledge and understanding as the platform for the development of their individual aptitudes, abilities and creativity;

to assist their progression to employment through work-based training or further and higher education; and

to enable them to take advantage of changing employment opportunities in the new knowledge-based economy.  (5.2).

Burns describes the present school system as ‘largely based on a culture of competition and separateness’ (10.1), but as the proposed structures come into place there would be a ‘transition from a culture of competitive and separateness to a system based on co-operation, interdependence and mutual respect’ (13.18).

Burns argues that its proposals constitute ‘a powerful tool for converting Northern Ireland from a low-skilled and low productivity economy to a knowledge-based, high-skilled and high-productivity economy’ (11.52).

Burns says that the overwhelming body of evidence from the public consultation has been opposed to the use of transfer tests (9.6).   It considered whether additional or alternative measures of ability could be introduced, but concluded there was no place ‘for a special test or assessment process which would be designed primarily to segregate children at such an early age on the basis of a narrow and perhaps premature assessment of their attainment needs and potential’ (9.11).   Instead there should be a Pupil Profile designed to provide ‘a more holistic picture of the individual child’ (8.23 and 8.24).

The main practical proposals in the Burns Report can be summarised as follows:

  • End the present ‘eleven plus’ transfer tests
  • Prohibit selection for post-primary schools based on academic ability
  • Develop profiles of pupil achievement throughout each child’s school career
  • Uniform admission criteria for all schools largely based on parental choice
  • Admission to over-subscribed schools dependent largely on post-codes
  • Creation of  networks of post-primary schools called Collegiates


Transfer Procedures

The Burns proposals are not just against the current Eleven-Plus examination, but are implacably opposed to the use of any selection based on academic ability for transfer to post-primary schools.  They argue that parental preference should be used instead.  Where schools are over-subscribed, as will be the case for most grammar schools and many successful secondary schools, four further statutory criteria are proposed.

Eldest children and those with brothers or sisters already at the school would receive preference.  Children of teachers at the school or those with compelling personal circumstances would also receive preference.  For everyone else the criterion would be nearness to the pupil’s home.  Those living closest to the school would receive preference over those living further away.

The former criteria will be given preference over the latter, so that eldest children living at a distance from the school will be given preference over non-eldest children living close to the school.  Those families with one child already at another school and which do not live close to the school would go to the back of the queue.


Pupil Profiles

Burns proposes that priority should be given to the development of pupil profiles to guide parents in their choice of post primary school, to support teachers in giving advice on the most appropriate post-primary school, and inform pupils’ choice of courses and career at post-primary level.  They are adamant however that the profiles should not be made available to the post-primary schools at the time at which pupils apply for admission.

‘The expectation would be that the large majority of parents would accept the professional judgement and advice of the primary school teacher/principal in deciding their school preferences’ (9.17).



The Burns team do not directly support the development of comprehensive schools.  Instead  they advocate the forming of groups of schools to be called collegiates.  There would be twenty collegiates, each with between six and fifteen schools to include maintained, controlled, voluntary grammar, integrated, and Irish-medium schools.  Individual schools would be encouraged to retain their ethos, tradition and identity.  The collegiate would organise collaboration between schools in curriculum development, staff development, transfer arrangements and learning support.  Each collegiate would have a Board of Principals, a collegiate support centre and liaison council, and a standing conference of schools governors.   

Burns believes that all schools will readily embrace the collegiate system (10.12) and that its proposals carry ‘no threats to individual schools and will enrich the community through the acceptance of and respect for diversity.   We are convinced that a Collegial system of post primary education would provide the structure and opportunity for schools to co-exist and work together to best serve the educational needs and abilities of all their pupils in a way which is not achievable within the present selective system’ (10.7).

The Report contends that the structure ‘would not threaten the ethos, educational identity or characteristic of any post primary school’ (10.43).   Indeed the Report adds that ‘it would be important ......  that existing high quality sixth forms should be sustained and developed as a source of expertise and best practice’ (12.25).


Changes to the Curriculum

The Report reviews curriculum arrangements and proposes that all post primary schools should provide an education which is both academic and vocational, and that both elements should have parity of esteem.   This objective is described as follows:

There should be parity of esteem for vocational and academic educational opportunities.   It is important to be clear what is meant here by “academic” and “vocational” education: academic education can best be described as the transfer of knowledge and the acquisition of understanding about a broad range of subjects.   Vocational education can often be aligned with “technical education”, and concerns the teaching of skills, knowledge and understanding relevant to specific or broad areas of employment (ie job related).   Academic and vocational education are not mutually exclusive - both require pupils to experience a broad and balanced curriculum in primary and the early years of post-primary education, containing opportunities for vocational and academic learning, before making decisions about a particular educational or career pathway.

While academic courses and qualifications, generally, have been more highly valued in the past, it is entirely wrong that this should continue to be the case:  academic and vocational courses both serve essential purposes in ensuring that all young people have equal opportunities to develop their individual abilities, skills and aptitudes to their maximum potential.   Parents, schools, teachers, further and higher education institutions, employers and all education partners need to promote and reinforce parity of esteem for vocational and academic courses and qualifications.   The structure and operation of the school system should also underpin this parity of esteem. (5.7)

Burns endorses the view ‘that as long as A-levels are there as the ‘gold’ standard we will not develop breadth within the curriculum.   Key to change will be the universities themselves changing their admissions criteria’ (11.31).

Burns concludes by sketching financial implications, and setting out a timetable for implementation.



The key weakness in the Burns proposals is the lack of attention to educational standards.  The need to maintain Northern Ireland’s enviable standards of performance in national examinations is not mentioned anywhere in the 328 page report.  Instead the emphasis is on ‘partnership, mutual respect, inclusiveness and equality of opportunity’.

The failure to focus firmly on educational performance has, in our view, led the Burns review to repeat the mistake of the comprehensive reform movement in Great Britain in the 1960s, that is to see the educational system primarily as a vehicle for achieving a more equal society rather than for achieving excellence in education.  


Comprehensives by the back door

In particular, our concern is that the best schools, including our grammar schools, would not be able to maintain their current high standards, and would over time degrade to a level where they effectively became comprehensive schools.  It is notable that many commentators, most recently including Chris Woodhead, the former Chief Inspector of Schools in England, view the Burns proposals as abolishing the grammar schools and introducing comprehensives by the back door.

The report produces no evidence to support the view that such a system would lead to any general improvement in standards, or indeed improvements in performance at the lower end of the attainment spectrum.  The experience of the non-selective comprehensive system in Great Britain would suggest that the reverse is in fact true.  Indeed the Burns Review Body’s own research includes evidence that examination performance in GB fell behind Northern Ireland at precisely the time when comprehensives were introduced.  Needless to say this evidence is not reproduced in the main Report.  It would be ironic if Northern Ireland were to embark on the establishment of what could become a comprehensive system when the national government is moving away from that failed system in GB.


Perverse limitations on the use of pupil profiles

While we support the Report’s suggestion that pupil profiles should be developed to track pupils’ achievements through their school career, we cannot agree that these profiles should have no meaningful role in the transfer of pupils from primary to secondary education.  If the transfer system is to be based on supporting parents to find the most suitable school for their child then post-primary schools are a vital part of that equation and should have access to the profiles at the time of transfer.  

Burns does not convince when it asserts that the ‘large majority’ of parents would accept the professional judgement of their primary school in deciding secondary school preferences.  The whole basis of the Burns argument is that parents flock to the grammar schools and that this produces unfair results.  Even in the German system, with excellent alternatives to grammar schools, our information is that around 10% of parents refuse to accept the recommendation made by the primary school and exercise their legal right to choose the type of school they prefer.  

In this situation parental choice must be allied with some means through which schools can preserve their ethos and standards.  The alternative is that grammar schools, in particular, will necessarily have to cater for pupils whose aptitude and ability does not match what the school provides.  This will lead to a steady drift in the direction of becoming de facto comprehensives.   


Selection by post-code

The Report’s recommendations on admission criteria would inevitably lead to selection on the basis of post-codes.  Accidents of history and geography, such as the location of many fine schools in central Belfast, would determine access to good schools.  Families will inevitably move home to increase their chances of admission to the best schools.  There will also be pressure for the creation of a private sector in post-primary schools thus increasing the very inequalities that Burns is intent on diminishing.

It is not correct to argue, as the report does, that distance will come into play only as a last resort tiebreaker.  The distance criteria is likely to have to be applied to a significant number of pupils in oversubscribed schools and this will make it very difficult for those living some distance from such schools, particularly in rural areas, even to be considered for admission.


Over-bureaucratic collaboration

It would be sensible if there were closer co-operation between neighbouring schools on planning and curriculum provision.  The problem with the Report’s recommendations on the establishment of collegiates is that such arrangements will not help schools to maintain their educational standards in a context in which their intakes are increasingly undifferentiated by academic ability.

While increased co-operation between schools is to be encouraged there are many ways of achieving this other than an elaborate set of new institutions.  The arrangements proposed in the Burns Report are overly bureaucratic and will raise costs without commensurate improvements to education.  The collegiates will also undertake some of the functions of education and library boards, without any discussion of the wider administration of education and before the Review of Public Administration has a chance to produce its own proposals.  

It needs to be stressed that there is absolutely no experience, even internationally, of such arrangements operating successfully, even on a pilot basis.  This central plank of the Report’s recommendations would present significant problems and is completely untried and untested.  We see no reason why Northern Ireland should volunteer for what is in essence an ideological experiment.  There are many less expensive and bureaucratic means of encouraging co-operation that can be tried first.

The proposals for collegiates are also unsatisfactory because, while they destroy a working system of academic education they do not establish an equally valid alternative with technological, vocational or other specialisations.   Establishing alternatives to grammar schools which can be viewed by families as equal in value to grammar schools should clearly be the objective for the next decade.  If it was, present tensions would disappear and standards generally would be raised.

The collegiate proposals cannot achieve this objective.  Burns advocates extensive ICT (Information and Computer Technology) teaching and pupil travel as a way of making existing secondary schools viable.   On the large scale which would be necessary this would cause very difficult logistical problems, let alone much waste of pupil time, truancy and related difficulties.  ICT cannot be a wholesale substitute for face to face teaching.   These proposals are unworkable.

It is widely accepted, specifically in The Main Report on The Effects of the Selective System (Gallagher and Smith) 2000, that a 25 per cent reduction in the number of post primary schools would be feasible in a non selective system.   Burns however evades the issue of closures and instead fantasizes about justifications for keeping existing schools open.   Similarly, Burns goes along with the possibility that schools which currently teach the 11 to 16 age group might also co-operate in developing sixth form provision.   Since school experience is against the success of consortium arrangements, it appears that Burns has again avoided a hard decision.  

Burns proposes a linking structure managed by a Board of Principals, one of whom would annually be appointed chairman.   The collegiates are intended to connect the schools themselves and to improve ties with Further Education institutions.  To achieve this each collegiate would have a Collegiate Support Centre and a Collegiate Liaison Council, with staff.  These overly bureaucratic arrangements would greatly complicate the running of individual schools.  Although Burns ostensibly leaves Principals and Boards of Governors in control of their schools there is ambiguity in their powers vis-à-vis FE Colleges.  There would be both Collegiate Boards of Principals and Liaison Councils with statutory recognition.   Since the Liaison Council has a specific brief for curriculum issues at Key Stage 4, and post-16, decisions on the curriculum in schools could be made by agencies which are relatively uninformed.

Burns argues, unconvincingly, that the proposed Collegiate system would be better than a conventional comprehensive structure, because English experience shows that comprehensives may not provide equal opportunity.  It would have been more plausible if the Report had explained candidly that a comprehensive system on single campuses would be prohibitively expensive to introduce, and that in Northern Ireland the expense would be increased (and the social value diminished) because it would inevitably have to be a dual system, with Roman Catholic schools balanced by other types of state and voluntary schools.  As it is, Burns’ own proposals for Greater Belfast provide scope for the post-code differentiation which they attribute only to a conventional comprehensive system.

It is worth stressing that the Collegiate principle has not been tried elsewhere.  It originates apparently from a Birmingham precedent, where it has the quite different purpose of allowing small numbers of pupils at a few failing or under-subscribed schools to attend more successful schools for short periods.   This is not a precedent for the full-scale use of the principle to change an entire structure of secondary education.


A flawed vsion

The Burns Report is not helped by being written up in a somewhat pretentious and one-sided manner.  The Burns’ ‘vision for the future’, summarised above, might be taken for a necessary platitude.  However the authors appear oblivious to the fact that their principles apply to all well regulated school systems, and cannot be used to justify their own proposals over any others.  The fact that they attempt to do so gives the report a propagandist flavour.  This is accentuated by their unwillingness to discuss the weaknesses in their proposals, nor the strengths of alternatives.  

The Report rejects, in emotive language, the present transfer test, but does not seriously consider alternative Eleven-Plus selection procedures which might reduce parent and pupil tension.  It advocates developed primary pupil profiles without specifying precisely what qualities would be profiled.   It unrealistically assumes that primary teachers will always give honest advice to parents about appropriate secondary schools for their children, and that parents will almost always accept it.   It claims to focus on ‘the individual abilities and needs of all young people’ and it repeatedly praises the professionalism of teachers, and yet it would withhold primary profiles from secondary schools before transfers are settled.   This proposal cannot be in the interests of individual children and, as presented, it amounts to no confidence in the professionalism of secondary schools and their teachers.

Burns presents its own proposals in a utopian spirit, where ‘we have moved from a world where possibilities are limited to a world where much more is accessible and the range of possible achievement is limitless’.   These empty ambitions are published at a time when a quarter of British primary pupils finish Key Stage 2 unable to read, write and count.

Nor is there credibility in the implication that the Burns proposals will be popular.  Naturally the discontented featured strongly in the written submissions to them, but there were only 1600 submissions from parents, children and other individuals, as compared with 350,000 children in schools here.  Even so, in the figures for preferred school structures only 18 per cent favoured comprehensive education and there was a majority favouring either a differentiated academic and vocational/technical system or the status quo.   This is not a mandate for radical change.

Nor is it plausible that the proposed system will make Northern Ireland ‘a knowledge based, high skilled and high productivity economy’.  Burns does not define these vague terms, but it would be just as plausible to suppose that greater effectiveness will result where academic and vocational specialisations are both pursued individually, rather than both being mixed together and hence diminished, as Burns proposes.

We do not think critics should be over impressed by the educational authority of the Burns Review Body.  The Chairman and vice-chairman have no relevant educational credentials. There are several make-weight members and others whose experience seems irrelevant.  The advisers reflect the comprehensive lobby.  At a time when the UK government is so uneasy about the comprehensive system it is extraordinary that there seems to be no Chris Woodhead lookalike in the entire Burns team.  We do not question the ability and goodwill of those involved, but the group is in no sense impartial and authoritative.



Finally there is the issue of parity of esteem between vocational and academic opportunities.  There is every argument for improving vocational education.  The question is rather whether academic education – which means, to be concrete, English, English literature, History, Geography, several languages, several levels of mathematics and several branches of science – should continue to be available for those who can benefit most from them.   

There is a well-founded belief that public examination standards have already been diluted, and to adopt the Burns proposals would mean that neither academic nor vocational standards could be achieved.  It would clearly be more constructive, and fit in better with public attitudes, if transfer arrangements were made less controversial, the grammar schools were valued for what they are, and public effort was focused on giving the secondary schools a clearer mission based on specialisations in vocational and technological areas akin to the popular City Technology Colleges in Great Britain.  


National and international context

Burns does not satisfactorily put its proposals into national and international context.  A variety of systems flourish across Britain, Europe and North America.   Some flavour of the debates about them is provided in the Research Papers 9.1, 9.2 and 9.3 which were prepared for the The Effects of the Selective System of Secondary Education in Northern Ireland (Main Report) (2000).  Also Appendices H1 to H4 to the Burns Report do describe visits to Austria, the Netherlands, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland.   However Burns itself does not reflect the difficulties which every known system contains.

Burns itself does provide, however, the material for a very critical view of today’s Scottish comprehensive education.  Scotland does not practise streaming, but in the area studied by Burns 20 per cent of pupils are ‘disaffected’, and it appears that in the large urban areas, where it is possible for the option to exist, parents in very large numbers opt for independent schools.  Twenty five per cent of secondary pupils in Edinburgh and 15 per cent in Glasgow (and indeed Aberdeen) attend independent schools.  The fees at independent day schools are £5/6000 a pupil and that is only the beginning.  The strain on many parents must be very great.  The fact that they are willing to incur it is a crushing criticism of the Scottish comprehensive system.  There must be many more parents who would like to do the same but cannot afford to.  Burns, however, is blandly uncritical of the Scottish system.

In England and Wales an overall 7 per cent of children now attend independent schools, mainly day schools.  Where Oxford and Cambridge were meritocratically dominated by grammar school entrants in the nineteen sixties they now show (just as meritocratically) almost 50 per cent of entrants from independent schools.   

It seems that the British Jacobinism of the nineteen sixties has been successfully confronted by ambitious upwardly mobile parents as well as by the established middle classes, but that although Jacobinism in practice has lost the conflict the public rhetoric supporting British comprehensive education remains untouchable.  Yet the upward social mobility provided by the old grammar schools has been lost, and much of the best education is now provided, for those who can afford it, in independent schools.

Burns scandalously does not discuss the weaknesses of the system in Great Britain nor the strengths of the selective system in Northern Ireland.  It should have stressed that in Northern Ireland there are in practical terms no independent secondary schools, and that selective education does achieve the substance of social mobility.  The result is that the proportion of students with working class backgrounds is higher in Northern Ireland universities than in other British universities.

Burns shows superficiality bordering on arrogance in the way it dismisses both the British comprehensive model and the European differentiated model.  The ostensible reason is egalitarian.  The report rejects the systems in Germany and Switzerland because ‘these systems do not offer sufficient guarantee that all young people will be valued equally’ (7.17).   It rejects the British comprehensive model because it ‘would not offer sufficient assurance that all young people would be valued equally and have equal opportunity to develop their talents to the full’ (7.24).

Such arguments do not convince.  There is a continental consensus that their systems do justice to different types of ability, and do realise pupil potential.  For educators here to dismiss successful major systems on egalitarian grounds would require much more substantial evidence than Burns provides.  It would have to be enough to offset the admiration usually felt in the UK for continental educational standards.

The fact that the Burns team does not even consider the system prevalent in much of Germany suggests a blinkered approach.  Here is a widely admired system which combines parental choice with diversity and high standards, yet Burns makes no mention of it.  Since families voluntarily choose their schools under this system it is hardly likely that it treats pupils unequally.

To criticise comprehensive schools in Great Britain for egalitarian reasons is perverse and paradoxical.  They could certainly be criticised for declining educational standards.  Their social purpose could be said to have been eroded by post code enrolments and by the practice of class streaming.  But in principle they are as intensely egalitarian as High Schools in the USA.

Professor Gallagher, the Burns eminence grise, himself accepts elsewhere that ‘social differentiation almost always occurs, regardless of the structure of the school system.  It is also obvious (if not politically correct) that middle class children are disproportionately suitable for academic and advanced vocational education.  So it is not plausible to criticise comprehensive schools in Great Britain on egalitarian grounds.  These diverse schools reflect, as they should, a diverse society.  The Burns reservations are frivolous.

The truth is that Burns fears the attraction of large comprehensive schools, but knows that such schools would be very expensive to create in Northern Ireland, and that once established a very large number of existing post primary schools would have to be closed.  To adopt the principle would be unpopular with Government, with both secondary and grammar school authorities, with most parents and probably most teachers.  It is understandable that Burns does not dare to propose an authentic comprehensive system.  However it is not honest to claim that the Burns objections to it are based on egalitarian grounds.


The advantages of diversity

The Cadogan Group approaches this topic with the presumption that education should fit individual children, and therefore that wide diversity is more appropriate than identical schooling.  In a perfect world the public system would be as diverse as the best independent schools - academic, artistic, multi-purpose, small, large, denominational, secular, boys schools, girls schools, mixed schools and so on. This degree of diversity is not available to the state. Nor indeed, would the ideal comprehensive school, large enough to cater for all talents and providing a genuinely diverse social experience be practicable.  

In Northern Ireland there will for the foreseeable future have to be a dual system – state and Catholic – and really large comprehensive schools would involve excessive rural travel.  Besides there would always be postcode selection in cities.  Also in practice, as experience in Britain has shown, mixed ability teaching often does not survive and consequently even dual system comprehensives would in fact be socially divided as well.   Nevertheless the Cadogan Group sees more intrinsic merit in even a dualised comprehensive system than in the grouped smaller schools – really D.I.Y. comprehensives – in the collegiate model proposed by Burns.

The existing system in Northern Ireland does already have much of the diversity which in our view would be ideal.  At any rate there are state, denominational and integrated schools, boys schools, girls schools, mixed schools, Irish language schools, the Dickson system, and among all of them there is also a diversity known to parents and the public.  Not all the best schools are grammar schools: very good ones would include Fivemiletown High and St Louise’s Comprehensive.  But there is no doubt that a high proportion of the grammar schools are first rate – not at the level of Manchester Grammar School or Manchester High School (both now independent), but still outstanding educational institutions.  If the Burns committee had visited more than two of them they could hardly have limited themselves to grudging tribute to strictly academic achievement.  Many of these schools are also rounded social institutions of great value.

The other side of this great debate about common schooling is represented by most (but not all) countries on the continent.  The systems differ from state to state, but often there are both vocational and academic secondary schools.  There are full primary pupil records but no common state transfer test.  Normally secondary schools use class streaming, and often pupils are held back a year if they do not reach specified standards.  Vocational schools are often very successful in preparing pupils for employment and have more self respect than secondary schools in Northern Ireland.


The end of grammar schools

While claiming that its proposals will not damage the ethos of any school, the truth is that the Burns plan must end the capacity of the grammar schools to provide education beyond the basic national curriculum level, simply because their intake will be less suitable.  Burns would replace relatively fair (if imperfect) selection by examinations with post code selection by proximity.

Burns grudgingly accepts that the grammar schools are effective academic institutions, but does not explicitly recognise that they are also a focus of loyalty and coherence for pupils, teachers and parents and are in fact role models for other schools.  We think Burns views education in a wholly utilitarian spirit and so debars itself from understanding the values of a good school, selective or otherwise.  

In Northern Ireland there is wide agreement that it is the grammar schools which have the most coherent and successful missions.  It would be incomprehensible to destroy them.  Burns denies such an intention, and yet its settled objective is to combine vocational and academic activity in all schools, to end the A level ‘Gold Standard’ and to amend the university entrance procedures to suit the new collegiates.  


Debateable sub-texts 

The Burns proposals have implicit sub-texts.  It is widely believed, for example, that Burns partly values its collegiate system because it would reduce school autonomy and so create de facto integration of state, voluntary and Roman Catholic schools.  If so this should have been made clear.  An open discussion would also have had to face up to one side-effect of enrolment by proximity - that state and voluntary Protestant grammar schools would be less likely to have their present significant percentages of Roman Catholic pupils.

(The division of the education system in Northern Ireland between Catholic and state-controlled (de facto Protestant) schools is a fact of life, and a political minefield for would-be reformers.  It is surely remarkable, however, that a major review of post-primary education in the province makes no attempt to address head-on this uniquely distinctive and problematic feature of the sector.)

We also believe that one attraction to Burns of small comprehensives is that they would be less able to stream classes by ability.  We infer this from the Report’s criticism of large comprehensives that ‘they manage diversity in a range of ways, including sometimes using quite rigid internal differentiations on streaming of pupils’ (7.21).   If Burns is in favour of mixed ability teaching that too should be made clear, because it is so questionable.

Burns favours combined academic and vocational educational courses, and believes that the collegiates, with FECs, higher education and employers ‘together …… constitute a powerful tool for converting Northern Ireland from a low skilled and low productively economy to a knowledge based high skilled and high productivity economy’. (11.52)  Nothing in Burns convinces us that the collegiates could possibly have this effect, let alone raise Northern Ireland’s GDP to an average UK level.  This is economic fantasy. Indeed we think it more likely that these objectives of Burns would be damaging to both education and training.   

Burns supports an end to A-levels.  If a separate examination system were created it would have the undesirable side effect that Northern Ireland school qualifications would be less automatically acceptable elsewhere. It would also, because the system would focus more on breadth than depth, make it much harder for Northern Ireland students to enter universities in Great Britain.  At present 30% exercise this option, and it is greatly valued by them.  To make it more difficult to exercise might benefit Queens University and the University of Ulster, but it would be a serious loss for many young people.



The Northern Ireland school system can and should be further improved.  While levels of academic and vocational attainment are generally good by UK standards, they do not compare as well with the best systems in Europe and the Far East.  In some ways the present arrangements, including the Eleven-Plus have served us well.  Attainment levels in national examinations are better than almost all other UK regions.  Moreover the favourable gap between Northern Ireland and GB emerged around 1970, at precisely the time when comprehensives were introduced in GB while NI retained its system based on diversity and selection.

The introduction of comprehensives in GB did not even raise the level of social equality above that here.  In fact, a higher proportion of Northern Ireland children from working-class backgrounds go on to higher education than is the case in GB.  Exam results at the lower end of the attainment range are now also better in Northern Ireland.  These facts help to explain why the popularity of the present system extends well beyond those who directly benefit from it.  

These factors explain why, as a group concerned with the future of Northern Ireland, we view with considerable concern the proposals advanced by the Burns review and welcomed by the current Minister for Education.  The enviable record of achievement depends particularly on the efforts of a range of outstanding schools, mostly but not all of them grammar schools.  It would be a travesty if the successes of these schools, which did so much to maintain social cohesion through thirty years of violence, should now be sacrificed to some false totem of equality.

Nonetheless we accept that the present system of selection is flawed and should be replaced by something better.  The Eleven-Plus examination itself is no longer an intelligence test, but instead measures knowledge.  As such an inevitable result is that pupils from better primary schools, and from more supportive families will do better.  The disparities in pass rates between different primary schools, sometimes between neighbouring schools, is startling.  The low, almost invisible, pass rates in parts of north and west Belfast surely contribute to the hopelessness and limited horizons which allow sectarianism to flourish.  

The key criticism of selection at eleven, however this is managed, is that it labels unsuccessful pupils as failures almost before they have time to realise what is happening to them.  While there are many examples of ‘eleven-plus failures’ achieving great success in later life we do not doubt that for the majority failure at eleven undermines self-esteem and self-confidence in ways which no education system should countenance.  A common point made by secondary school teachers to the Burns review was that that the first year at secondary school involved much rebuilding of self-esteem.

If selection at eleven was essential to maintain high standards we might regretfully need to support it, but in fact it is not necessary.  There is a happy medium which avoids selection at too early an age while maintaining high standards of educational and vocational attainment.  It is thus unnecessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater as was done in the now unravelling GB experiment with comprehensives.  Nor is necessary to maintain selection at eleven as is done in the most conservative corners of Europe, such as Austria and Bavaria.  

Other continental systems introduce greater selection at ages older than eleven, but our preference is for a system which maximises the degree of genuine choice which families have in selecting schools and minimises the state’s role in directing pupils to particular schools on whatever grounds.  This support for the principle of parental choice is shared with the Burns review.  However the Burns approach is most unlikely to succeed because it imposes great pressure on schools to admit all comers while doing nothing to protect the academic standards of the best schools from descending to the low uniformity of the comprehensive.  Its solution of forming collegiates is an untried, idealistic and overly bureaucratic attempt to maintain a degree of diversity among schools.  The pressures towards uniformity of standards will inevitably overwhelm the defence mechanism of the collegiate.

Welcome moves towards full parental choice must be balanced by ways of ensuring that schools do not lower their standards to meet the needs of educationally mixed pupil intakes.  They will also inevitably require a lengthy transition period as the school system is reformed to reflect the wishes of the families who, after all, fund the system and elect those responsible for running it.

Genuine parental choice requires a meaningfully diverse range of schools to choose from.  If all schools are comprehensives there is little real choice, except between those schools in affluent areas with more able, more motivated and better behaved intakes.  For this reason we support a system which includes grammar schools but also has schools which specialise in technological, vocational, art and media, sport and other areas.  The ideal is to achieve a range of schools offering different types of education, each viewed as of equivalent value by parents who make the choice.

In practice most schools may wish to offer academic, technical or vocational curricula, reflecting the prevalent desire among parents that schools should provide a sound basis, either for entering higher education or for gaining the qualifications necessary for well paid, secure, employment.  A small place like Northern Ireland may be able to sustain only a few more specialised schools, and then perhaps only in Belfast.

As we have argued in this pamphlet, these principles can be achieved.  The parochial view, as common in GB as in Northern Ireland, that full parental choice is impractical, and inimical to high standards of attainment, is contradicted by the successful and popular school system prevalent in most of northern and central Germany.  This has three types of secondary school.  

The Gymnasium is a straightforward grammar school, typically admitting one third of the age-range and aiming solidly at entrance to higher education.  The Realschule is commonly described as a technical school and does indeed have more technical education in its curriculum.  It might, however, be better described as a grammar school for those pupils who find the full grammar curriculum too demanding.  This role as a satisfactory alternative to a grammar school no doubt accounts for the popularity of these schools and hence the popular acceptance of the system as a whole.  

The third type of school, the Hauptschule or high school, is strongly oriented towards vocational education.  In the past these schools were successful because they fed directly into the excellent German apprenticeship system which virtually guaranteed a well paid job in a skilled occupation.  These schools are now declining in popularity, and in some areas attract only 15% of the local school population.  The reasons may be complex.  They include the presence of a huge immigrant population, approaching 10% of the German population, but also the rise of service sector occupations which rely more on academic than vocational qualifications.

This German system has a characteristic which most people in the UK, and perhaps elsewhere, regard as barely feasible.  This is that parents have a legal right to choose any of the three types of school irrespective of the abilities of the child.  It is true that primary schools offer guidance on the most appropriate secondary school, and that most parents accept this advice.  Indeed in most areas the system works well with little variation from year to year in, for instance, the proportion of parents choosing a grammar school.  The fact that this proportion is usually one third and not much more reflects the high esteem in which the non-grammar schools are held.

What happens under such a system if parents refuse the advice of the primary school and elect for a more demanding school than the teachers feel is appropriate?  In fact a substantial minority of parents do follow this path in most parts of Germany.  It is a credit to the judgement of parents that a majority of such pupils appear to stay the course in their chosen school with no reduction in standards.  Not all do so however, and a degree of selection enters the system at this point.  Pupils who lag behind may receive extra help, may repeat one or even two years, but are eventually persuaded to a more appropriate school if no catch-up occurs.  Our information is that in almost all cases such transfers are achieved by mutual agreement.

The great advantage of this system is that it maintains diversity and high standards of attainment without the damaging scars of failure at a young age which characterise our current system of selection.  Standards are guaranteed, unlike the Burns proposals where the whole issue is swept under the carpet.  This approach is also in tune with an age in which traditional deference is dying.  Parents are increasingly unwilling to be told which school their children will attend when they themselves are footing the bill.  Even if deference lingers on longer in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK or Europe, the direction of change is unmistakable.

Even so a change from a system essentially based on state direction to one based on free choice could be chaotic, although residual deference to the judgement of teachers may minimise this.  A transition period will be necessary to allow the education authorities to reform the pattern of school provision in directions which match what parents want.  If more grammar school places are needed these should be provided, either by expanding existing schools, changing other schools into grammar schools or ensuring that new schools match demand.  A good long-term solution for excess demand for grammar school places may be to develop a local equivalent of the realschule, as may be happening in GB with the City Technology Colleges.

We propose therefore that parental choice be introduced in Northern Ireland as Burns suggests and that selection at age eleven be abolished.  However, unlike Burns, we propose that grammar schools be placed under an obligation to maintain their academic standards.  If necessary, funding rules could be used to ensure that this happens.

The key to success lies in ensuring that alternatives to grammar schools are seen by parents as equivalent in value to the grammar schools, albeit in delivering different kinds of education.  Education authorities should be charged with identifying what types of school will attract families to choose them willingly for their children, and to devise an education development plan to develop the preferred range of school types.  This might reflect the German system with grammar, technology and vocational schools, but could also be some variant of this reflecting the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, and the changing demands of the modern economy.



The advantage of the approach outlined above is that it meets most of the wishes of both sides in the education debate and permits a way forward which will avoid the damaging divisiveness so prevalent in Northern Ireland politics.  These ideas, based on the successful system used in much of Germany, abolish selection at eleven but keep the grammar schools in their present form.  For most pupils there is no selection at all based on academic ability.  Instead families can choose the school type they judge to be in their children’s best interests.  In this way the stigma of not attending a grammar school is very largely removed.  No one fails at eleven.  Instead they merely choose the route which suits them best.  A small minority may need to switch schools later in their school career, but in Germany this appears to be achieved by consensus between school and family.

The disadvantage of this system in our circumstances is that it is outside the educational traditions of either Northern Ireland or the UK as a whole.  Even those who have seen it work in Germany feel that it may not do so here.  In part this reflects a lack of trust in parents and a ‘teacher knows best’ attitude.  They suspect that the Germans are more disciplined, and know that Germany has a far superior system of post-16 vocational training.

There may be some truth in these views.  Certainly the point about vocational training is true.  Nonetheless, selection undertaken by families, rather than imposed by the state through its schools, must be preferable if it can be made to work.  Since Northern Ireland still has a well-functioning system of grammar schools it is in fact in a better position than GB to move to parental choice with a genuine diversity of choice involving a range of schools each excellent its own way.

No one suggests that this system could be introduced overnight; a transition period might take five or ten years.  There would also be additional costs, although the fact that secondary rolls will fall by over 10% in the next few years creates some slack within which to introduce changes without building new schools.  In the meantime some form of selection may have to remain as individual schools, and types of school, continue to be over-subscribed.  Once schools know that parental choice is coming they can focus on ways of meeting family preferences.  Educational authorities should move quickly to match school provision to parental wishes.  In particular, if there is a shortage of places at grammar schools, the number of places should either be expanded, or some acceptable alternative, like City Technology Colleges, be introduced instead.