'Academic Selection and the Transfer Test'

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:45 pm on 26th April 2021.

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Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin 3:45 pm, 26th April 2021

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the recent publication of Ulster University's Transforming Education project's research paper on 'Academic Selection and the Transfer Test'; further notes that this is yet another report that outlines the psychological harm that academic selection causes to children; acknowledges the finding within the report that there is little evidence that social mobility is increased by academic selection; agrees with the conclusion articulated in the report that the current arrangements for school transfer at age 11 are damaging the life chances of a large proportion of the school population; and calls on the Minister of Education to act in the interests of children and the wider education system by ending the use of academic selection as a means of determining post-primary transfer.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List. Please open the debate on the motion, Mr Sheehan.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

At the outset, I want to say that we will also support the amendment.

The debate comes on the back of the publication of Ulster University's Transforming Education project's research paper on 'Academic Selection and the Transfer Test', which is the latest in a long line of reports and research that outlines the psychological harm that academic selection causes to children. The research also debunks the argument that academic selection leads to greater social mobility. The report tells us:

"There would seem to be little evidence that social mobility is increased by academic selection and there is considerable evidence that it generally does not happen."

In fact, it goes on to say:

"The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that the current arrangements for school transfer at age 11 contribute to the social and financial costs of a stressful process that serves to benefit a few (generally already privileged) pupils while damaging the life-chances of a large proportion of the school population."

I know that many in the Chamber went through the grammar sector, and I am aware that some who come from relatively disadvantaged working-class backgrounds attribute their life chances to the education and experience that they enjoyed in grammar schools. I respect that position, but they were the lucky ones, because they were among the less than 40% of 11-year-olds who passed the transfer test and were accepted into the school of their choice. Unfortunately, the flip side of that is that more than 60% of children failed the transfer test. The other side of the academic selection coin is academic rejection, and that rejection falls mostly on children from a disadvantaged background. According to the report:

"the odds of a child securing a place at grammar school [are] five times less if they are entitled to free school meals compared to all other children."

Of those on the opposite Benches who had a positive experience of the transfer test and academic selection, I ask this question: how many youngsters, particularly boys, from the Shankill, Sandy Row or other unionist working-class districts are attending grammar schools? Much has been said over the past few years about underachievement among working-class Protestant boys, and it has been highlighted by many Members. I ask Members to look again at the evidence. Underachievement among that cohort of boys is the result not of their religion but of their working-class and disadvantaged backgrounds. Catholic boys from a similar socio-economic background suffer very similar levels of underachievement. Academic selection serves neither Catholic nor Protestant working-class children well.

The transfer test acts as a filter for social selection. Well-off children go to one type of school, and poor children get what is left. That is not to say that non-grammar schools are bad schools, but, again, the evidence shows that, when you end up with high concentrations of poverty in schools, which is what happens when you have a selective education system, those schools will struggle. That research evidence goes back many years. The Coleman report of 1966 and all research since tell us that the most powerful predictor of academic achievement is the socio-economic status of the child's family. The second most important predictor is the socio-economic status of the child's classmates. Quite simply, when children from disadvantaged backgrounds are concentrated in the same schools, disadvantage is reinforced.

The OECD has consistently argued for a better social mix of pupils in schools as a way to boost the educational performance of disadvantaged students. Learning in socially mixed classrooms where students from different backgrounds communicate their different experiences and perspectives encourages students to think in more complex ways. The evidence shows that high levels of social integration in schools create a win-win situation in which disadvantaged students and the high-flyers benefit, with increased educational attainment being the outcome. Positive peer role models are a vital component of any education system.

Of course, some will argue that our results at GCSE and A level are consistently better than students' results across the water in England and Wales. Be that as it may, but focusing on that aspect ignores the long tail of underachievement. In 2015, the well-known and respected educationalist, Sir Bob Salisbury, with whom many in this place will be familiar — he has done a lot of work in education in the North and with the Education Committee — told the Policy Forum for NI that the achievement gap here was the widest in Europe. He reported that no schools in England had such poor achievement as the lowest-achieving schools in the North.

The Minister needs to start a process that leads to improved educational outcomes. He should begin by setting aside his ideological support for academic selection and looking at the evidence instead. Read the report: it tells us that selection does not raise achievement across the system and may be one of the main contributors to the long tail of underachievement in NI.

There is no other area of public policy that has so much academic and research evidence stacked against it. The evidence could not be clearer. That is why so many are opposed to academic selection for 11-year-old children. Let me list a few: the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child; the Equality Commission; the Human Rights Commission; the Children's Commissioner; the OECD; the trade union movement; and the Catholic hierarchy. It beggars belief that the Education Minister wants to continue with this failed and discredited policy of selection. It is time to stop defending the indefensible.

Underachievement does not just happen; it is the inevitable outcome of a policy that brands 60% of children as failures. The Ulster University report highlights the negative impact on the self-esteem of those who failed to gain a place at grammar school and how that trauma was often carried into adulthood, even by those in their 60s.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Just for clarity, can he inform the House whether he is calling for the abolition of grammar schools?

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

No, I am not calling for the abolition of grammar schools; I am calling for the abolition of academic selection, which is completely distinct.

There are costs associated with underachievement other than the personal cost to children. People who leave school without educational qualifications are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system, and the rest of the population pays for that. They are more likely to end up in chronic ill health, which is another cost to our health service.

There has been considerable commentary about integrated education over the last number of weeks. A really integrated system should not be based solely on religion or community background; it must also take account of the socio-economic status of children and be a proper integration of our whole education system. That can never happen while academic selection is persisted with. It is time to end it now and create an education system that gives all our children the opportunity to realise their potential rather than end up on the scrapheap of failure.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:00 pm, 26th April 2021

I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out all after "school population;" and insert: "further notes that the right to use academic selection is currently enshrined in law; and calls on the Minister of Education to give notice that he will repeal this legal provision by 2023 and replace it with a system that has the widest support and prioritises educational excellence for all without academic selection."

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member will have 10 minutes in which to propose the amendment and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

As SDLP education spokesperson, I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate. The issues surrounding transfer tests in Northern Ireland are controversial and divisive, but it is important that we have a mature and considered debate on the issue today, given the huge failings that we have all witnessed in the current system. The SDLP believes that it is imperative that pupils, parents and schools have clarity for the future, especially given the impact that the current pandemic is having on education in its entirety.

Before I move on to the details of the motion and our proposed amendment, I will take the opportunity to put on record my appreciation for the many teachers and school staff who have gone back into classrooms and schools across Northern Ireland in the past few weeks. It is important that we put on record our solid appreciation for our teaching and non-teaching staff across all schools. Despite working in intolerable conditions and being in uncharted waters, they are doing a fantastic job, and I wish them well in the weeks and months ahead.

In the context of today's debate, it is especially important to put on record that I fully appreciate, acknowledge and respect all parents who are pushing for the betterment of their children's education and future prospects. Today's debate should not target those parents. Rather, it should acknowledge their effort in manoeuvring through what, unfortunately, is a transfer-test mechanism that is the only game in town at present. Those parents need to be commended today and not vilified or shamed for wanting the best possible outcomes for their children, and I think that everyone in the House agrees on that.

Over the past year, the pandemic has had a major impact on education and on children's learning opportunities and educational attainment. We are not out of the woods yet, and a huge amount of work still needs to be done to ensure that the current cohort of children does not become the generation that lost out through no fault of its own.

The SDLP believes that, at its core, academic selection is grossly unfair and in major need of an overhaul. We have consistently called for that, and it remains deeply disappointing that, in 2021, the North and this Executive have continually failed to bring forward reform to better the educational outcomes for all our children. As SDLP spokesperson for education, I have consistently called on the Minister to intervene on transfer tests, especially given the events that have happened over the past year. It remains disappointing that those requests have fallen on deaf ears, as the Minister has continued to defend academic selection through the current unfair and unregulated process.

By way of background, academic selection and transfer tests have a long and chequered history in the North, from the Butler Act, which enshrined academic selection in law here in 1947, through the Dickson plan in 1969, which introduced a two-tier model of post-primary education in and around Craigavon, to the Burns committee established in 2000, which recommended the end of academic selection in the North. Perhaps the most fundamental move came in 2006, when the then Education Minister, Caitríona Ruane, abolished the old 11-plus examinations, with the last tests occurring in 2008.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will in a second. Despite the intentions of the former Minister and rather than its being a silver bullet for resolving the issue, the decision eventually led to the opening up of unregulated transfer tests, over which both the current Minister and the Department of Education have deliberately had no control. I will now give way.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

That segues neatly into what I was going to say. Is it not a fact that organisations such as the Association for Quality Learning (AQE) and Granada Learning (GL) simply would not exist unless there was parental demand for them and the services that they provide?

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

The point is well made, and I thank the Member for raising it. This is a controversial debate, and there are many views in each and every household and community across Northern Ireland on it, and, indeed, in education itself, but we need to do what is right by our children and ensure that we protect them.

Following on from my previous point, the relationship, or lack thereof, has been found massively wanting during the pandemic. It is clear that the lack of oversight, especially with transfer tests going ahead, led to significant confusion, frustration and anxiety for many pupils and parents across the Province. That has once again reignited the debate on what the best way forward is that is sustainable, has political buy-in and represents the best interests of all children across Northern Ireland.

Many schools have taken the decision not to use transfer tests at all for their 2021 enrolment. A number have stated that they will not use transfer tests in 2022, either. Those moves have been welcomed by the SDLP, and I have publicly congratulated schools for taking that strong position in light of current circumstances.

The motion refers to Ulster University's very factual paper on academic selection and the transfer test. There are a number of key issues that I want to raise from it. Perhaps one of the most shocking statistic concerns social mobility in grammar schools: the paper states that only 13·7% of the grammar-school population is made up of children who are entitled to free school meals, as Mr Sheehan pointed out. It adds that the odds of a child securing a grammar-school place are five times less if they are entitled to free school meals. The report also raises considerable concern about the fairness of the old 11-plus exam paper. It claims that up to 30% of young people who took the exam could have been given the wrong grade, and it highlights the lack of regulation in the content of the current transfer exams, which are not aligned to the school curriculum.

Other key findings in the report concern the psychological impact that failing a transfer test can have on young people and their self-esteem well into adulthood. Those findings are startling and clearly show that there are major flaws in the system of administering transfer tests in Northern Ireland, particularly since children develop at various stages. It is cruel that 11-year-olds sit those tests; it needs to change.

I turn to the SDLP amendment. It is our firm belief that academic selection will continue well into the future in an unregulated and inconsistent manner, which will achieve very little in terms of providing better educational outcomes for all our children, certainty and clarity for parents, and a fair and equitable educational system. The first port of call must be to remove academic selection from the statute books and provide a firm date for that; otherwise, we will continue on the same unpredictable, grossly unfair and cruel path.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Does the Member think that having another chest-beating debate about this issue so that certain Members can parade their socialist credentials stands in sharp contrast to the fact that, although all those people have been in the House for many years, none has taken the opportunity to change the law by bringing forward a private Member's Bill? Some of the same people, of course, had the benefit of a grammar-school education but come to the House to rail against such opportunities for others. If you are serious about this, would it not have been better to have brought forward a Bill rather than yet another wasteful motion?

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have not had the luxury of lingering round these corridors for as long as the Member, but these institutions have been down for three years. I hope that, in the time ahead, we can have debates that are in the best interests of our people.

The date of 2023 would give sufficient time to the Minister and the Department to consult widely on the issue, finally deal with the fundamental flaws of the current system, and bring forward serious alternative proposals to be considered by the House on the future of educational excellence in the North.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I want to get finished, Minister; you will have your chance later.

The SDLP believes that the amendment is a practical step in the right direction rather than having a vague and aspirational motion. We also recognise that we need consensus on the issue if we are to realistically offer an alternative system. We hope that other parties have thoroughly considered the amendment and, equally, can support it.

The issues around transfer tests are not easy fixes, and there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution to them. Nonetheless, they have to be addressed in a realistic and pragmatic way by the House and the Minister. We cannot afford to bury our heads any further in the sand for any longer than they have been to date, nor can we continue to allow countless numbers of children—

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

— to be consistently failed by our education system. I will let the Minister in.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I appreciate that the Member's time is brief. I have been listening intently to the Member for the past nine minutes. He rightly says that he wants clarity and certainty. Will he outline what the SDLP, or his own, alternative is to academic selection? We have heard about abolishing something, but, as yet, he has simply said, "We want to have agreement on something else"; no proposal on what the alternative is has been put forward by the Member.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Minister makes a valid point. I have recognised quite publicly that there is no alternative to the current situation, but that does not mean that those who are in a position of influence and power, such as you, Minister, should not be exploring what is in the best interests of our children. One thing is certain: a bad system should not sit there because there is no alternative. It should be replaced or removed in its entirety, in the interests of our children. The current system is absolutely cruel and needs to be looked at immediately. Minister, you are the Minister for all of the children in Northern Ireland, not just those at grammar schools.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I oppose the motion and, indeed, the amendment. It is predictable that, of the 12 reports produced, Sinn Féin selected the one on post-primary selection and transfer tests. This is yet another attempt by Sinn Féin to destroy Northern Ireland's grammar schools. For Sinn Féin, it is about getting rid of the transfer test and thereby destroying grammar schools.

Sadly, the outline of the motion is in line with the approach taken by the Chair of the Education Committee, Alliance's Chris Lyttle. Across the mandate, Chris Lyttle has demonstrated that his objective is to reject the ambitions of the vast majority of East Belfast parents who support the constituency's grammar schools. No matter how he tries to dress it up, removal of selection will destroy the grammar schools in all but name. The question to the Alliance's Chris Lyttle, in calling for the removal of selection tests, is similar to that posed by the Minister: does he advocate the English-style comprehensive system? What impact would that have on our current non-selective schools?

In East Belfast, we have three non-selective schools.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

Does the Member wish to give way?

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

We have Ashfield Boys' High School and Ashfield Girls' High School, both of which have excellent records of achievement, and Dundonald High School, the principal and staff of which are working extremely hard, and they need support and investment. Those three schools need to be aided and encouraged. What they do not need is the destruction of East Belfast grammar schools and the implications that that would have for them as non-selective schools.

In the report, the authors confirm —.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. It is a shame that the debate has descended and turned quickly into some sort of constituency-based attack on me. There are multiple other non-selective systems across the globe that we could study and draw from in order to improve our system. I would be glad to engage with the Member on those issues. I always enjoy supporting all of our excellent schools in East Belfast, which are envied.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

The question is this: if we remove selection, do we destroy the grammar schools? Yes, we do.

In the report, the authors confirm that transfer tests remain popular with parents. Around 50% of pupils sit one test or the other, and a proportion of pupils even sit both tests. The authors have challenged the social mobility aspect of grammar-school attendance and measure it only by school meals, and I will come back to that. The DUP supports parental choice. We support the right of parents to opt out of selection. However, we also have to respect that there is strong parental demand for selection. We also support the legal rights of schools to use selection for post-primary education.

A Member:

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I do not have time.

The Alliance Party still pretends to support grammar schools. That is being politically dishonest. Alliance, like Sinn Féin, wants to get rid of the transfer tests. If selection falls away and transfer tests are done away with without having a sustainable alternative, Northern Ireland would be left with a small number of private schools that are accessible only to a small number of affluent families. Since 2010, what sets a grammar school apart is the ability to charge fees. The private schools will be unaffordable to the vast majority of the population.

That narrow position, concentrating only on selection, does nothing to address the issue of underachievement. Too often, we have focused on the narrow debate around selection without giving full consideration to the range of other factors that contribute to educational underachievement.

The expert panel established by the Minister under New Decade, New Approach to address educational underachievement has identified a range of issues and policy changes that are needed. It says that, first, we need to redirect the focus to early years and, secondly, to champion the mental health and well-being of pupils, which is particularly important as we come out of the pandemic.

However, important overall is promoting a whole-community approach to education and supporting the professional leadership and continuous professional development in our schools and investing in our school teaching staff.

I want to finish with this story about a family who are my constituents. Dad was a motor mechanic, and he also worked part time during the evenings in another job, two evenings a week. Mum worked in a local shop. They lived in a terraced house in the inner-city area of east Belfast. They had two children. They were ambitious for their children, a son and a daughter. Their daughter first took the transfer test and went to a local grammar school. She did not go to university but followed a professional career in the financial services sector. The son passed the transfer test and attended a different local grammar school. He went to the University of Oxford, where he was top of his year.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

He went on to the University of York and is now working as a corporate lawyer.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member needs to conclude his remarks.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

Neither pupil got free school meals, thereby confusing the statistics.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Before I call Robbie Butler, I say to Members that, at the moment, you will not be allowed any additional minutes for interventions. Otherwise, we will not get all the Members who want to speak included in this session in the time that is allocated, if every Member takes their five minutes. As I said, I will not give one minute for interventions.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

As the education spokesperson for the Ulster Unionist Party, I put it on notice that we will not be supporting either the motion or the amendment. However, we welcome the debate. At the outset, I will say that most of the debate so far has been well intended. I do not believe that there is anyone in this Chamber who does not want the best outcome for each of our pupils in Northern Ireland, regardless of whether they are absolutely opposed to academic selection or a champion of academic selection.

I would much rather that today's debate were about the transformation of education. What does the transformation of education look like? I have some ideas, but I do not know exactly. The people who do have a good idea are the parents and the pupils out there. Today, we are telling them what our ideology is or what your ideology is, and we do not have pupil and parent participation. They would be the recipients of what we would do today, and we would not have designed something better than what is there. That could not be better drawn out than by the year that we have just had. I make no apologies for resting on what I learned over this past year and a bit through COVID when we had some protracted discussions and some non-discussions about what we would do for the P7s of 2021. I am going to rest today's argument on what we did with those children and the inflexibility of some people to, perhaps, courageously move to identify what should have happened for those pupils.

I welcome the report. Not one of us needs to be afraid of an academic report on trying to do things better. It talks about the psychological harm. Let me put on record that I have constituents — pupils — who have been psychologically harmed by the fallout from the transfer debacle this year.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way and for pointing out that very important reality. Does he agree that the reason for that damage to those young people is the uncertainty and the flip-flopping by the current Minister?

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I cannot say that, but I will say that I believe that, had there been political support across this House, we could have done something. It was done for GCSE and A-level pupils. I accept that there are difficulties with that, and there are well-made arguments about that. However, when you look across the educational stakeholder groups and those who feed into it, you see that perhaps there is a fundamental problem where power lies and maybe the inability of the Minister, to give him his place, possibly to act in that regard. I disagree with the answer that I got on that, but the answer may well be right.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

If you do not mind, I will reiterate this point on the psychological impact. Let me talk about our failure to adequately support somewhere in the region of 14,000 to 15,000 pupils who, in good conscience, went through P1 and P2 right up to P6 and P7 and entered into a process that was not facilitated in the end. I have a number of pupils, but I am thinking of one in particular. I will not name her, because I do not have permission. That young girl is in a position that I have not known any child to be in. I know that there are well-made arguments about the psychological impact on other people. I am one of those children who went through secondary school education. I failed the 11-plus. I wrote a letter to myself about a year and a half ago, and I put it out there, because I understand that. If we are going to have a discussion about it, we need alternatives. At least I put an alternative to the Committee and to the Minister. It was not taken up.

We should not be afraid of change, but, unless the change is better and can be proven to better the lives of those children and to tackle educational underachievement, you deal with what you have got. Guess what? That is parental choice, and it is pupil choice. It is not perfect. I accept that. There might be something better that suits and that is designed by parents and pupils, but even academics do not agree on that. I engage with academics across grammar, secondary and primary schools. There is passion, but everybody has a different idea about how the process should go and what is better. I will give way to the Chair of the Committee for Education.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I will be brief, given that the Member does not have an extra minute. Does the Member agree that the Education Committee commenced last May the type of engagement that he called for in order to avoid the chaos that has ensued for this year's P7 cohort? Does he agree that we have to do all that we can to ensure that nothing like that chaos occurs for next year's P7 cohort?

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Absolutely. I welcome the Committee Chair's intervention. To be fair to him, in the conversations that we had, he was very proactive about trying to find a solution. He is right that we have a cohort of P6 pupils who do not know what is happening. Perhaps the better and stronger debate would be to sort out what we are doing this year.

I will put on record again — I am not getting my extra minute, guys — that if there is a discussion to be had, it is about the transformation of education. If you have the answer, bring it to us. When you have the answer, we will look at it. The answer is not there yet.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

Alliance Party policy is that academic selection is an unfair, unnecessary and flawed approach to post-primary admissions. The Ulster University research is yet another report that supports that position, stating:

"Rather than promoting social mobility and opening pathways through merit, academic selection seems to achieve exactly the opposite. While promising increased choice, it actually diminishes it, as it increases social segregation within communities. Selection does not raise achievement across the system and may be one of the main contributors to the long tail of underachievement in NI. It is traumatic for many children, creating damage which often endures into adulthood. It often distorts the curriculum of children in primary and post-primary schools and achieves little other than protecting the advantages of a few."

The report goes on to state:

"the DUP seem to ignore the negative impact of selection on ... working-class" communities, while:

"Sinn Féin continue to be somewhat ambivalent despite their public pronouncements about removing selection."

That is an important point, and it is perhaps a fair challenge that Sinn Féin will want to respond to. When Sinn Féin had the Education Ministry, its Minister abolished statutory 11-plus tests but did not prohibit the use of academic criteria for post-primary admissions. The Sinn Féin Minister of Education could have introduced legislation to prohibit the use of academic criteria for post-primary admissions. It is fair to acknowledge that, ultimately, the reform will require a courageous Minister of Education to mandate non-academic criteria.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I will give way briefly. Be brief, though.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

For Members' information, Caitríona Ruane brought draft legislation to the Executive. It was blocked.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

That is a helpful clarification, and it is something that we need to look at.

Other Members mentioned that legislation on the issue ought to be brought and debated in order to, as I say, deliver non-academic criteria for post-primary admissions in a way that is similar to how it is done for primary admissions. Alliance will, therefore, support the motion and the amendment, but they will not deliver the change and reform that are needed.

Furthermore, whilst we continue to debate the issue, this year's cohort of P7 children has been subjected to post-primary transfer chaos because of the failure of the Minister of Education to introduce fair common contingency criteria after the disruption of transfer tests by the COVID pandemic. Children and families were failed. A better approach should have been taken for them this year. This chaos cannot be revisited on next year's cohort. Common contingency criteria must be put in place.

Whilst Alliance has a clear policy against academic selection, this cannot be reformed without adequate planning and preparation. There are alternative approaches. The World Economic Forum produces a Global Competitiveness Report on the state of the world's economies, which ranks countries according to pillars of competitiveness. Frequently, countries such as Finland and New Zealand are cited as exemplars in successful approaches to education. Finland has selection at age 16. However, its choice is augmented by examination results and interviews. New Zealand has a comprehensive, all-ability approach to education. Other countries, such as Belgium, have genuine, different pathways in general, technical, vocational and arts approaches.

We need fundamental reform of education and the independent review of education, recommended by the Alliance Party, gives an opportunity for robust consideration of this matter and for an Education Minister, from whichever party, to give full consideration to the implementation of whatever recommendations come forward from that.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP

I speak against the motion and the amendment as they stand. This call, which seeks to cease academic selection, could lead to the abolition of grammar schools in Northern Ireland. Are we advocating the introduction of a fully comprehensive system?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am grateful to my friend for his giving way. Does the Member agree with me that it would be a brave MLA for East Belfast to go to the parents of kids at Grosvenor, Bloomfield Collegiate, Strathearn — all the grammar schools that exist in that constituency — and tell those parents that they seek the effective abolition of those schools?

Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. An MLA saying that about any grammar school, in any county in Northern Ireland, would have difficulties.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Does the Member agree that a motion was accepted by every single person? The House did not divide on the independent review of education. That does not protect any sectors. We have already done this.

Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP

I thank the Member for her clarification.

It is my understanding that the abolition of selection and the removal of grammar schools could see a proliferation of private schools across Northern Ireland, which will serve only those with significant income, who can afford to pay for such schooling.

What are the proposers' preferred criteria for selection? That is unclear. Is a criterion some sort of hereditary selection, based on an older brother or sister or a family member being in the school or having attended the school? Is it based on proximity to the school? Academic selection may not be perfect, and I would like to see some adjustments to the selection process. Children have a right to apply and to influence the choice of the school that they wish to attend, based on what is best for their needs and interests.

Current academic success should be valued and enhanced. Both grammar and non-selective schools offer a fantastic opportunity and deliver excellent academic outcomes for our young people. Our pupils continue to consistently outperform their counterparts elsewhere in the UK in examinations, as has been alluded to. Many schools across the education system have never used academic selection or use it only partially, and they also get absolutely exceptional results. We welcome and support those schools and do not intend to force academic selection on anyone.

The DUP supports academic selection and the legal right of schools to use it for post-primary admissions. Unless schools choose an approach that takes them beyond what is in the law, admissions criteria are up to individual boards of governors. We fully respect that. We also support parental choice, and we respect the fact that there is strong parental demand for selection. Abolishing transfer tests will restrict choice and opportunity, and one cannot support grammar schools while wanting to get rid of transfer tests.

This party will support a single system of transfer test to make the process as accessible and straightforward as possible, unlike the current system where pupils have to undergo two systems and multiple exams. Change is inevitable.

The Assembly needs to address educational attainment beyond fixed positions on selection; not focus on the narrow debate around selection but give weight to the range of other factors that contribute to educational underachievement. The expert panel established by the Education Minister under NDNA to address educational underachievement has identified a range of areas where policy changes are needed: early years; championing emotional health and well-being; promoting a whole-community approach to education; and supporting the professional learning and well-being of school leadership — all have yet to be brought to the Chamber.

However, we need to commit to addressing those issues, and we should be under no illusion: that will require broad political support and appropriate funding. The expert panel will consider necessary actions as part of its final recommendations. I acknowledge that change is needed, but that change must have buy-in from all political parties, not just a few.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin 4:30 pm, 26th April 2021

I support the motion and the amendment. Twenty years ago, the United Nations committee monitoring the Convention on the Rights of the Child described the academic selection practised here as an "excessive burden" on the child. In 2016, the UN committee called for the practice of unregulated post-primary admission tests to be abolished. In 2017, the Children's Commissioner called for an immediate end to the use of academic selection. She described it as "discriminatory" and as having:

"a further detrimental impact on the educational outcomes of economically deprived children and young people."

In 2018, the Human Rights Commission criticised the current two-tier system of education within which children from poorer socio-economic backgrounds are disadvantaged. The most recent research undertaken by Ulster University has found that academic selection:

"facilitates a form of social segregation" that results in a "concentration of disadvantage".

Supporters of academic selection talk of social mobility and level playing fields. They suggest that every child has an equal chance of climbing the ladder of opportunity, but the evidence does not support that.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. On that point about social mobility, is the transfer test the problem, or is the problem, perhaps, that we are measuring success by pupils attaining five good GCSEs and A levels? For example, when I joined the Fire Service, I did not need GCSEs or A levels. Now, the entrance level for the Fire and Rescue Service is GCSEs, and I can tell you that GCSEs do not make you a better firefighter. Are we looking at the right things when we look at how we value our children and what they are good at?

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his intervention. I agree that there are other issues that we can discuss, but academic selection is a good starting point.

The Ulster University report notes that a child entitled to free school meals is five times less likely to secure a place at a grammar school, as has already been mentioned today. To me, that is not equality or a level playing field; it is inequality and the transfer of privilege.

Serious concerns have also been raised about the effect of the transfer test on the mental health and well-being of children. Stormont's mental health champion previously made calls for transfer tests to be cancelled, given the additional stress and anxiety that children and young people have faced because of the COVID pandemic. She noted that such stress and anxiety can:

"increase their risk of developing mental illness in later life."

In fact, in the last academic year, many school leaders were ahead of the Minister and cancelled transfer tests in their school for that year because of the pandemic. Again, a range of schools across the North has cancelled the transfer test for this academic year. That indicates to me that there is a will and a way for change. It is certainly time for change.

Research indicates that some children who were not successful in attaining a place at a grammar school never regained their confidence or overcame that sense of having failed. I do not want any child across the North to feel at the age of 11 that they have failed. We must do better for our children. We need a fair and inclusive education system that works for everyone. I call on Minister Weir to listen to the evidence. Academic selection puts immense and unnecessary pressure on our children, and it creates an unfair divide. Now is the time to end academic selection and end those inequalities.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I intend to speak in defence of the concept of parental choice and in defence of grammar schools. First, I have to declare an interest as a member of the board of governors of Braniel Primary School. My daughter is in P6, so she is going through the transfer process at present. The reason why that is happening is because I do not believe in denying others the opportunity that I had. I consider it to be the greatest start in life that I managed to secure an education at Wellington College Belfast, an excellent school in the heart of my constituency. That was achieved through academic selection. The alternative to academic selection is not selection on the basis of ability but selection on the basis of ability to pay. My family could not have availed itself of that option. Mention has been made of kids —.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Just one second. Mention has been made of kids who were entitled to free school meals: I was one such child at Wellington College.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I really appreciate the Member giving way. I agree with him that Wellington College is an absolutely excellent school. It is one of the schools in south Belfast of which we can all be proud. Does the Member agree that Wellington College is excellent not because of what happened to the kids before they went there but because of the excellence of the school and the teachers and the kids' experience there? We should try to broaden that out to as many kids as possible.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I certainly feel very strongly that, when English direct rule Ministers came here, they did not understand the concept of a working-class grammar school. By and large, such institutions do not exist in GB, whereas many grammar schools in Belfast are attended by children and young people with an extremely diverse socio-economic background.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Just one second. That was certainly my lived experience at Wellington College, as is the case in other schools.

I hope that those in favour of the motion have the courage to go to the doors of their constituents and tell them that they are in favour, effectively, of abolishing grammar schools. If you do not have selective criteria, that is exactly what you are in favour of: you are advocating for the abolition of grammar schools. There is no point in giving your constituents honeyed words about supporting grammar schools when you know that the abolition of academic selection —.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Just one second, Mr O'Dowd.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

You let Mr O'Toole speak.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I like him more

[Laughter.]

If you remove academic selection, you know what you are doing to grammar schools and the implications of that.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Flattery will get you nowhere.

The Member claims that there are socio-economically mixed grammar schools in Belfast. The evidence does not stack up to back his claim.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

As I listen to some contributions, I am minded of Churchill's quote:

"Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy."

I do not want to deny any child the opportunity to take their academic career as far as they wish to take it, and grammar schools are an excellent way to do that.

Quality education accessed on the basis of ability or on the ability to pay is the choice with which we will be faced.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I will give way if Mr Lyttle wants to tell us why he thinks that Grosvenor Grammar School should be abolished.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

This East Belfast Alliance MLA's vision is for equal educational opportunity for all children in East Belfast. I am privileged to have been given a mandate for that vision on three separate occasions and will happily do so again.

If children are entitled to free school meals, they are five times less likely to secure a place at a grammar school.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

As I said, I do not know whether the Chair of the Education Committee attended a grammar school, but I find it remarkable that so many people who attended grammar schools are determined to tear them down. They availed themselves of the opportunity provided by a grammar-school education, but they wish to deny my children that opportunity. I do not wish to deny my children that opportunity. I want my children to enjoy the same benefits that a grammar-school education afforded me in my life.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. It is interesting to listen to those socialist Members who would remove grammar schools and have consistently taken that approach. It is rather like pulling up the drawbridge. They have almost the same attitude when they oppose the public's right to buy Housing Executive properties.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Member is absolutely right. It is kicking the ladder away and preventing other people —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

— from taking the opportunities that they had.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion on the important issues of academic selection and the transfer test. I support the amendment tabled by my party colleagues.

I will focus my remarks on the mental health and well-being impact that academic selection and the transfer test can have on our young people. The Ulster University report to which the motion refers outlines the impact that failing the transfer test can have. I feel strongly that academic selection at the age of 11 is quite simply wrong. As my party colleague said, the SDLP believes that academic selection is unfair and in need of reform. I agree with him that it is disappointing that, in 2021, we still have not done enough to ensure better educational outcomes for all our young people in Northern Ireland.

As the Ulster University report states:

"It is challenging to find any arguments made by researchers in favour of a selective system of education and, indeed, there is 'a broad consensus against grammar schools among Educationalists.'"

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

Not at this time, because we do not get an extra minute. Sorry.

The report goes on to state:

"There is evidence that failing to gain access to a grammar school has a negative impact on self-esteem."

It does, and I have seen that at first hand, especially in my time at school. Children feel humiliated if they do not get into the school that they want or perhaps if they do not get the result that they want. It weighs heavily on their shoulders and continues to, way past the time that they go to university or choose not to. It is ludicrous that, in this day and age, when we have such a better understanding of issues surrounding mental health and well-being and know the impact that our formative years can have on us later in life, we continue to have an education system whereby a real outcome for our children can be low self-esteem.

This was mentioned by a Member who spoke previously, but a notable concern for me is that greater opportunity can be available to children from affluent families, who have access to more money. That perpetuates, in many ways, the postcode lottery and inequalities, because a child from one side of the town may have easier access to education-based opportunities than a child from another side of the town. We can do better than that.

The report also states:

"these effects can endure into adulthood with attitudes to education, even by those in their 60s, influenced by whether they 'passed' or 'failed'" an examination that took place around half a century before. That is shocking and, indeed, very sad.

Our education system should be building up young people, supporting them and making them resilient, confident and capable of tackling life's many challenges. It should not contain an integral process that impacts on their mental health, well-being and level of self-worth. Members across the House will share my concerns about the scale of the mental health crisis here in Northern Ireland. The pandemic has greatly exacerbated that crisis, especially for our young people. A survey last year found that 12·6% of children and young people here suffer from common mood disorders. As was mentioned previously, the mental health champion, Siobhán O'Neill, has warned of the devastating effects of the pandemic on children. In that troubling context, this debate is taking place today. I have said today and previously in other debates that, as we begin to emerge from the pandemic, we have an opportunity to reshape our society and make much-needed changes to several of our systems and to public services —.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am not done just yet. Sorry, Robbie. If I finish within time, absolutely.

We have an opportunity to reshape our society and make much-needed changes to several of our systems and to public services so that they work better and for everyone, whether those changes be to healthcare or, indeed, our education system.

To conclude, although I have focused my remarks —.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

[Inaudible.]

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

No, you will get in at the end. Although I have focused my remarks today on the well-being impact of our academic —.

A Member:

It had better be worth it, Robbie.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I ask the Member to continue. Do not invite anyone else to speak, because others will not get the chance at all.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

As others have outlined, there are many reasons to end the use of academic selection. There have been interesting contributions today, and I recognise that this is a controversial debate.

My background is that I was educated in Northern Ireland in a grammar school, but I was also educated in the States, both for primary and secondary education. I found it really interesting there that there was no test at 11 years old, but some of my classmates chose not to go into higher or further education, while others ended up attending Yale, Stanford or even Harvard. Today is an opportunity to see and explore, to look outwards for opportunities for how we can reform and to collaborate while doing so.

There are 15 seconds left, if the Member wants to come in.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

We are excluding Members. Unfortunately, I cannot cut the time any more than it is being cut. The Member has been offered an intervention. If you want to take it, you have one second. Your time is up.

Some Members:

[Laughter.]

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I am just making the point that we do not have enough time to bring in all Members. I regret that.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

That one second could have been his most famous intervention of all time.

I stand both as a grammar-school boy, from a grammar school in east Belfast, which seems to be the centre of the academic universe for this debate, and as the current chair of a board of governors of a non-selective post-primary school in my constituency. I have seen both sides of the argument. It seems that we are discussing just one small piece in a very large jigsaw.

We send children to school at the age of four and hope that they will stay there until 16, 17 or 18. We need to take a bigger look at what we are trying to achieve for our children.

I have always believed that there is a spark of ability, creativity and talent inside every child. It is our job, and that of parents and teachers, to create the circumstances in which the child can find that spark and develop it. A lot of my thinking is influenced by the writings and thoughts of the late, great Ken Robinson, a professor of creativity, who talked about the "element" in children.

When I went to post-primary school, I did so, in the language of the day, as a dunce. That is how I was regarded. In any academic test, you could guarantee that I would come twenty-third out of 24 in the classroom. My peers and teachers had written me off. I suspect, although they were too polite to say so, that my parents had written me off too. Do you know what changed everything? A wet Wednesday afternoon. It rained so hard that the playing pitches were flooded and, for something to do, the teachers sent us on a cross-country run. It turned out that I could run. I was challenged that if I could do so well out there, could I not find a classroom in which I could do a bit better than twenty-third out of 24. That was the first time that a teacher or adult gave me a reason to believe that my natural place in life might not be twenty-third out of 24. That transformed me, and I left school with an Irish schools athletics vest and a ticket to a fairly famous university.

Was that because it was a grammar school or was it because it was a school that realised that there are multiple intelligences? Do we not put too much emphasis on one intelligence, which we call "academic"? Should we not think about the fact that, inside every child, there are multiple intelligences and that one can spark the other?

When it comes to selection, I remember the late Gerry Burns. It must be over 20 years ago that Martin McGuinness commissioned him to look at the issue. As part of that research, the Department of Education conducted what it claimed was the biggest public opinion survey that we had ever undertaken in this country. It was a household survey. I do not have the results to hand, but I remember that a significant majority of parents were in favour of academic selection. Equally, however, a very large majority of parents were against the 11-plus. They wanted something better and fairer. However, I have not heard that fairer/better alternative in the debate. If we could only step back and look at the full jigsaw, we would probably find how we want to recalibrate and reconfigure it.

I would love to support the motion or the amendment, but I am afraid that I can do neither. I was tempted by the amendment, but the time frame is not realistic.

We also need to think about social mobility, as that is part of the debate. Was it not the late, great John Hume who said that it was the 11-plus that allowed him to be socially mobile?

There is merit in selection. Would a school select its choir by saying that the first 50 children through the school gate on Monday morning were the choir? Would you select your Gaelic football team, Association football team or rugby football team from a ballot? No, there is selection in life. We know that. We had to be selected to stand for office and be picked by the electorate at the election.

There is merit in looking at it again, but this debate is too narrow.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 4:45 pm, 26th April 2021

I call Kellie Armstrong. The Member has approximately three minutes.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I will talk fast, Mr Speaker, and will not take any interventions, especially not from those on this side of the House who have been giggling. Like my colleague Chris Lyttle, I support the motion and the amendment.

I am just a mummy and have come to the House as a mummy. I did not put my child through the 11-plus or the post-transfer test, as she was going to an all-ability integrated school where it was not needed. That is what we should be thinking about.

I heard Members saying that the Alliance Party is attacking grammar schools. We are not. Just do a different transfer test or something that does not test children at the age of 10 or 11. Over the past number of years, the Alliance Party has put in its manifestos that the age of 14 would be a better time to test, but that has been completely ignored by many. Fourteen is the age at which children pick their GCSEs, so that is a better time to decide whether their future is going to be down an academic path or a more practical path. It is about giving all children the opportunity.

I did the 11-plus, back in the bad old days. I am sorry to burst people's bubbles, but it has changed, completely and fundamentally. It is nothing like what it was in those days. Children are sitting five or more tests, and parents have paid for tutors. People in my area have to pay £10 for the boat, plus all of the mileage, there and back, to go to the post-primary school that is holding the test. It is an expensive test that we are forcing 10- and 11-year-olds to do when they do not need to do it. I say that they do not need to do it because enough grammar schools have chosen not to use that private test, which is managed by a private company, outside of our Minister of Education's control, to test our children. Those grammar schools are able to do that, and they have not closed, so I ask all Members to think again.

We have already agreed on the independent review of education. What happens if that independent review says that there will be no different sectors? Grammar schools are gone and integrated education is gone; it is all one. It is time for us to stop putting money into the pockets of the private sector, off the backs of our children. We need all children to be offered the best education possible. I do not make any apologies for that.

We have a skills shortage in Northern Ireland. We should be reviewing our education system to ensure that the curriculum is able to bring children out of our school system and enable them to stay here and work in jobs that will make them money and keep them here. We need to work towards our children's future and not protect adults who have an interest in a particular school and grammar stream, an integrated school, a Catholic school, or whatever it is. We need to think about the children. Children are being harmed by the test. It is time we stopped it.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I call the Minister of Education, Peter Weir. He has 15 minutes.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

At the outset, I thank everybody who has contributed to the debate. Unsurprisingly, there has not been a meeting of minds, but, in general, the tone has been reasonable.

Our education system, particularly post-primary, has two great advantages. First, regardless of what position Members have on academic selection, I am sure that they will agree that we, in Northern Ireland, are fortunate to have a strong network of post-primary schools — selective and non-selective — that deliver well for our young people. I praise all those who offer those fantastic opportunities. Secondly, our system is based on choice, one of which is a choice for parents who wish to pursue the route of academic selection. It seems that we can have various sectors, such as Catholic maintained, controlled, integrated and Irish-medium, but one choice that others are keen to deny is any form of academic selection. That academic selection route is not compulsory on any family, nor is it compulsory on any school. I do not seek to force any school to take the route of academic selection, and nor should I. Many schools do not use it.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I will give way to Mr Allister because he has not had the opportunity to take part in the debate.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

In light of what the Minister has said, does he share my disappointment that so many Members are not pro-choice and want to deny choice to parents? They want to have choice, as Mr Nesbitt said, when it comes to selecting their football teams and their choirs, but, when it comes to the critical decision of to which school a parent should send their children, they want those parents to be denied the choice on the phoney basis that all kids are of an equal academic, or non-academic, bent, when the reality is that some are suited to academic pursuit and some are suited to others. That is why we need schools to match that.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I share the Member's disappointment, and I am sure that he shares my lack of surprise on the issue. I am not particularly surprised by the motion. To be fair to the party opposite that tabled the motion, its sentiment reflects a long-standing approach by that party, so its position does not in any way surprise me. It will not come as the greatest shock to them either that —.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The Member has already spoken. I would be able to respond better if we got some clarity out of the SDLP as to what actual alternative was there.

It will not come as any great surprise to anyone to know that I do not support the motion or the amendment, and I will not give an undertaking to remove academic selection.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

No, I have a lot to get through. If someone has not had the opportunity to speak, I will give way briefly. From that point of view, I have a lot that I want to get through in relation to this

I turn briefly to the SDLP amendment. It is at best naive and at worst disingenuous. I say "naive" because it says, "Let us abolish academic selection and get something sorted out in the next year or two by way of agreement." The debate around academic selection predates the existence of most people in the House, me included. It goes back to shortly after the Second World War and, particularly, the 1960s. To suggest and try to pretend that there is some magic solution out there that there will be some common consensus around is naive. To be fair to the proposer of the amendment, when pressed on this, he did not offer any alternative. While I may disagree with the Chair of the Committee, at least he did throw out a number of other locations where alternatives have been looked at, but the Member, in his honesty —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

— at least admits —.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I waited for a long period of clarity, and I did not get it. I think that your opportunity has gone in relation to that. It is also disingenuous because it says, "Let us find some form of compromise or agreement", but predicated on the assumption that you automatically abolish academic selection before you even have that debate, which seems to be utterly disingenuous.

It is also the case that, regardless of their views, Members know that opinion in our society is deeply divided on the issue. There is no universal agreement. Indeed, we were told, when the formal state transfer tests were abolished, that transfer and academic selection would wither on the vine and fall under myriad legal challenges, yet, on the last occasion when the unofficial tests took place, there were more sitting them than at the time of abolition.

If we look at the Ulster University report, we see that there are two key issues. First, at the heart of this is what would replace academic selection at the age of 11. Is the alternative better, fairer and more equitable? The short answer is no. Selection will take place in this society. I have some sympathy, particularly for Mr Butler, in his efforts to try to find ways forward on this. What was the alternative that was produced? Well, actually, many of the schools that Members are commending effectively select on the basis of family connections: "Does your brother or sister go to the school? Did your parents go to the school? Do your parents teach at the school?" We have a short-term alternative being proposed for those schools of hereditary grammar-school places to a greater extent than would happen in the House of Lords, yet that is what is being proposed.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

Thank you, Minister, for giving way. Do you and your party think that post-primary selection is fair and just to all post-primary schools? Grammars are allowed to fill their numbers to the detriment of our non-selective schools. Should we not be looking at a system where every school is a good school and every child gets the same opportunity?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Grammar schools are not simply able just to fill their numbers. All schools have a cap on numbers, so I reject that.

In the short term, it will lead to selection by way of family connection, but if we move to a situation where academic selection —.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

Your criteria list "sibling" as recommended —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

And in the absence of academic selection, the problem is that there is not really any viable alternative. That is the problem. We need a bit of honesty in this debate. I am not going to throw this at any particular party, but, in the long run, the scenario of non-academic selection will mean the ending of grammar schools as we now know them. That is what has happened —.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

No, I am not giving way further. I have a lot to get through.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

In the same way as we have seen, with the exception —. Yes, I will give way to Mr Carroll. He is always entertaining, if nothing else.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance 5:00 pm, 26th April 2021

Thank you, Minister, for giving way. You may have noted that Chris Cook of the 'Financial Times', which is hardly a radical organisation or publication, stated:

"the net effect of grammar schools is to disadvantage poor children and help the rich."

What is the reason for maintaining the grammar system?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I appreciate that the Member has at least a fairly clear-cut and honest position, which is that he wants to see the abolition of the grammar-school system. I assume that that is the case.

The reality is that, in the long run, you cannot divorce academic selection from the existence of grammar schools. It is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. What, then, do we see as the alternatives?

Mention was made of a postcode lottery, but what we see in England with comprehensive schools is that what are perceived to be the best schools then create a situation in which house prices close to those schools rise enormously; indeed, if you have enough money, you can effectively buy your child a place in those schools. There is no doubt that the same would happen here. We also see, whether it is in England, Scotland, Wales or the Republic of Ireland, a situation in which the choice is not between selective and non-selective or between grammar and non-grammar; it is between comprehensive schools and private schools. In England, 7% of parents pay an average of £30,000 to get a child into those schools.

I genuinely want to see a level of social mobility. I do not want to see the situation that we have with, for instance, the leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, who is privately educated; the leader of the Labour Party in England, who is privately educated; or, I have to say, the leader of Sinn Féin in the Republic of Ireland, who is privately educated

[Laughter.]

I want to see opportunities for all. The reality is that, whatever the flaws in the current system, we see, for instance, in Queen's University and Ulster University probably greater social mobility mix than in many universities throughout the United Kingdom. The pathway to greater fairness is not clear-cut. The Ulster University report signals New Zealand, and I think that that was quoted by the Chair of the Committee. In New Zealand, no fewer than 15% of pupils go to fee-paying schools. Is that the potential alternative? Is selection by wealth better than selection by ability?

I support the right of schools to select on the basis of academic ability. I also support their right to say that they do not want to use that as a methodology. I support a system in which every child, regardless of background, postcode, social group, religion or ethnicity, has the opportunity to get into any of those schools.

I have to say that I do not recognise much of the education system that is portrayed in the university report. Post-primary numbers are increasing, not decreasing; indeed, enrolments in non-grammars have been rising in recent years. The report advises that our primary curriculum is distorted by the presence of selection, yet international studies tell us that we have a truly world-class primary education system and a consistently excellent international performance. In maths, we have the highest performers in Europe and the seventh-highest performers in the world.

Mention was made of results. Yes, we have, and it has been well highlighted that we have —.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

No, sorry. I presume that you will be summing up, but my time is short so, unfortunately, I am not in a position to give way. I apologise to the Member for not giving way.

The position with our results is that, not simply year-on-year but generation after generation, our results have outperformed those in England, Scotland and Wales. We are the leader throughout the United Kingdom. It is also the case that we have seen, over a number of years, an improvement of over 14 percentage points for school-leavers in receipt of free school meals. There is a need to tackle underachievement, but, leaving aside the results for 2020, when GCSEs were done, effectively, through a non-examination system, the number leaving school without any qualifications or GCSEs in each of those years has been less than 1%, so progress has been made.

The other concern I have is that, when we constantly go at the subject, it provides a great opportunity for a certain amount of Punch and Judy on selection at 11.

The other issue is that it takes the focus away from where it needs to be in respect of underachievement. The focus needs to be on the wider context of our education system and not driven by ideological considerations. The principal problem, and where we need to tackle areas of underachievement, is in a lack of early intervention. It is about parental support. It is about community buy-in. If we simply talk about problems not being solved by the age of 11, we miss the real problem. Areas of emphasis need to be supporting whole-school improvement, building and spreading leadership capacity, strengthening collaboration and partnership and embedding technology in educational pedagogy. I pay tribute to the professionalism of our teachers who have worked hard to do that.

If we remove choice, we lift the ladder away from a generation of children who will not be given that opportunity. I appreciate the points that my Strangford colleague made about parental choice. It is perfectly her right to choose not to go down that route. What she does not have a right to do is to try to impose that choice on everyone else. People have the opportunity —.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I will give way briefly.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Minister, I appreciate what you have just said. However, if grammar streams are so important to the success of children, why have you refused grammar streams in integrated schools?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I have not. There has been no development proposal for a grammar stream for any —.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

You will find that the development proposal for that grammar stream was turned down by the permanent secretary. It was before my time, so that is not accurate. I am very happy to see bilateral education. Where a bilateral choice is made, that is perfectly people's right. For instance, Lagan College let in a percentage of pupils from an AQE background. For reasons, it has moved away from that in the last two years. I have not denied any form of streaming at all. It is about choice, which is why I reject both the amendment and the motion.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I call Matthew O'Toole to wind on the amendment. The Member has five minutes.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have a lot to wind on in respect of the amendment proposed by my colleague Daniel McCrossan. I will try to take brief interventions, but I cannot promise that I will give way in all cases. We welcome the fact that the motion was tabled in the first place. As has been said, our amendment seeks to improve on the motion by clarifying and making crystal clear the action that we want to see from the Minister. It must be said though that, based on what the Minister has just said, it does not seem as if he is going to act on the instruction that we hope to give him.

In any case, Mr Speaker, as you said, I have five minutes in which to wind. In truth, if I were to devote all my allotted five minutes to outlining the arguments and evidence in favour of academic selection, I would be sitting down fairly quickly. The truth is that all the investigation of and academic research into academic selection struggles to provide any robust evidence that academic selection provides good outcomes; good outcomes for pupils writ large or, indeed, good outcomes for our economy overall. The evidence simply is not there.

I proudly represent a party that is a member of the Party of European Socialists. I am a proud social democrat. I believe in broadening opportunity for all. I believe in social democratic goals. However, the truth is that you do not have to be a socialist, a social democrat or a dyed-in-the-wool lefty to believe that academic selection does not deliver for kids. Literally every single serious academic researcher who looks into it comes to that conclusion. That is why I am glad that the original motion mentions the paper that was put out by Ulster University.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Speaking as a dyed-in-the-wool, true-blue Conservative, I say to the Member that you will not improve academic outcomes by destroying the best-performing schools. Instead of dragging down that which is working, we should be dragging standards up in that which is not working.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am glad that the Member said that because, in a sense, that is exactly what we want to do by getting rid of the unfair and unjust nature of academic selection that exists in Northern Ireland. So much of what we have heard so far in defence of academic selection has been based on anecdote rather than true robust evidence. That is understandable because there is no real robust evidence in favour of academic selection.

I will offer a bit of an anecdote of my own. I went to a grammar school. I had a very good education there.

Looking back on it now, though, I find it hard not to feel guilty. This is not a criticism of my school or anyone who worked in it. I went to a Catholic boys' grammar school. Immediately behind it was a non-selective secondary school for 11- to 16-year-olds that was run by the same order. At my school, we wore maroon blazers with gold brocade. We were in a big, glamorous building — not glamorous; statuesque — with a Latin crest over the door. Immediately behind my school was a brutalist breeze-block building, which was where boys in plain grey and black blazers went. They were amazingly talented young men, and great teachers worked in both schools. This statement is not meant to demean the non-selective school or lash out at the selective school that I went to, but do you know what? Looking back, I feel guilty. I almost feel slightly ashamed of that. Thinking about it, I remember that, at the time, those boys walked up to their school, which was hidden away. My school was on one of the main streets, and the non-selective school was behind it. Do you know what? Looking back, I do not think that it was right that I got to feel —.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

The Member makes a really good point. I was one of those guys who wore a secondary school uniform. He is absolutely right about how that is viewed. I will take the geography of Wallace High School and Friends' School in Lisburn as an example of why his proposal would not fix that. Many grammar schools sit in more affluent areas. If there were a proposal, perhaps we could look at it, but there has been none. That does not fix the problem.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his intervention. I am in my final minute. That brings me on to a key point, which is that people who oppose my party's amendment and the motion say that we have not provided an alternative. Here is the thing: we want the Department to go away and look at it. An independent review of education is happening. As regards the idea that there is no alternative, what gives the lie to that is the fact that we are the alternative. We are the outlier. Ours is the only jurisdiction in the developed world that has academic selection at age 11. If it is so crazy and mad to abolish academic selection at age 11, why does every other jurisdiction in the Western world not have it? My God, if academic selection at 11 is so great, why are jurisdictions across Europe and the Western world not rushing to do it? Surely, that would be the upshot. Surely, if it were so great and delivered such great outcomes for working-class kids, jurisdictions everywhere would be seeking to take it up. They are not, I am afraid, because it is not good enough. It is not good enough for the economy —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

— which has poor skills. In closing, I commend the amendment and motion to the House.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I call John O'Dowd to make the winding-up speech on the motion and conclude the debate. The Member has 10 minutes.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I will start where Mr O'Toole ended and, indeed, where my colleague Mr Sheehan started the debate. The motion and amendment call for evidence-based policy. I cannot think of any other area of public policy, within the Assembly's remit or beyond, where legislators are allowed to make legislation or continue a policy when all the evidence is stacked against it. I cannot think of any other area. I am happy to take an intervention if somebody can point me to such an area. However, here is the reality: in this debate of approximately one and a half hours, Members who support academic selection have not been able to produce or cite one academic, international or local report that supports academic selection. What does that say about their argument?

Anecdotal evidence is all very good. We have heard evidence about constituents. Indeed, the anecdotes that came from Mr Stalford would warm the cockles of your heart. However, it is not evidence on which to produce Government policy. It is certainly not evidence that should dictate the future of our children and the economy. Mr Nesbitt said that the best members are selected for a choir or football team. That is true, and that is why I was on neither. However, we are talking about the education system. We are talking about schools. What is the purpose of a school? Its purpose is to educate young people. I will always remember the principal who told me when I was Education Minister that, when she greets a pupil for the first time, the question that she asks herself is not whether they are clever but how.

We do not have different teacher training colleges for grammar-school teachers. They go to the same training colleges as those who teach in non-selective schools. Why is that? It is very simple: they teach the same curriculum.

Whatever happened in 1947, 1957, 1967 or after that, today's education system teaches one curriculum. A selective school teaches the same curriculum as a non-selective school. The teacher who teaches in that classroom was taught their profession at a teacher-training college here or elsewhere, but there is no grammar-school teacher-training college.

What is going on? What is at the heart of this? People tell me, quite rightly, that the transfer test is popular with parents. It may be popular with some parents. I am a parent, and my children will not sit the 11-plus. I care deeply about my children's education. I care deeply about that. People will say, "You have no right to take that choice away from someone else", but academic selection takes choice away from thousands of children every year, and we let that continue. We are denying —

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green 5:15 pm, 26th April 2021

I thank the Member for giving way. I have much to say about this, but I have no time to do so. On the subject of choice, does the Member agree that the viewpoints and the voices and choices of children and young people are fundamentally missing from today's debate? In 2009, the Northern Ireland Youth Forum conducted a study with young people about their views on primary to post-primary transfer. Its key finding was that young people expressed a strong desire to be more involved in shaping policy. Today, I ask that the Minister and the MLAs on the Education Committee engage with and listen to children and young people. This is not a debate about the interests of schools or parents; it is about children and young people.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Of course I agree that children's views have to be heard throughout this process.

The Member brings me on to the subject of public opinion on these matters. I was talking about parental support, or alleged parental support. If government policy were based on whether or not it was popular, we would be in difficult waters. I do not mean to pick on Mr Stalford, but he said that it would take a brave MLA for East Belfast to go around and tell people that things are changing. Guess what, folks? We are in the business of having to be brave. We are leaders. We do not have the luxury of standing up on this hill and saying, "There go my people" as they march past. We are supposed to lead them, and, when you look back through the years at the unpopular public policy decisions that people had to make, it was the right thing to do.

I always use the following example. It does not directly match across, but it is a worthwhile example. Smoking was very popular, but — guess what? — the evidence told us that it caused significant harm; drinking and driving was OK 20 or 30 years ago, but — guess what? — the evidence told us that it did us harm; and — guess what? — the evidence tells us that academic selection is harming our young people. It is harming our education system, our economy and the well-being of our citizens, so let us do something about it.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I will give way very quickly.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

Is the Member concerned, as I am, that those who defend the current system tend to focus on "pulling up your socks" stories and not on the people who are being failed by academic selection, including grammar schools?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Very much so. We always hear anecdotal stories about those who have done well, but they are conveniently quiet on those who have not done well. They are very quiet on that subject.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Yes, certainly.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

This is on the issue of how the ending of selection will also end grammar schools and how the DUP is apparently very concerned about social mobility. I went to a grammar school — Loreto in Coleraine. That school abolished selection in 2013. That did not drag it down. It is still one of the top-performing schools in the North. That is because it is a good school, and that is what the focus should be on.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Exactly. The debate about grammar schools being destroyed is false. It is a distraction. The status of a grammar school is set out in legislation, completely separately from academic selection. It is about management type and is nothing to do with academic selection. Indeed, there is a non-selective grammar in my constituency. At the time that academic selection was done away with and unregulated tests were coming in, there were messages of doom about grammar schools coming to an end. A significant number of grammar schools have moved away from academic selection since then, and a significant number are planning to do so. It is slowly ebbing away.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

There are more doing the test.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

There may be more doing the test, but there are more pupils about. I also know parents — we all hear this — whose children sit the test and have no intention of going near a grammar school, and they do not support academic selection. A school does not have to be a grammar school to be a good school. As a result of the entitlement framework and measures that were introduced by me and other Ministers, including Caitríona Ruane, we now have a non-selective post-primary sector that has the ability to deliver high-class and world-class education.

That socio-economic mix at Queen's University, Ulster University and elsewhere that the Minister talks about is as a result of non-selective schools producing high-quality education for their pupils. As long as the system is against it, however, the challenge will always be one for the non-selective sector. As long as we ignore the evidence, the non-selective sector will always face pressure. The non-selective sector has the majority of working-class kids in it, so who is being served by protecting academic selection?

Often, when we are discussing Brexit in the Chamber, the DUP will tell Sinn Féin, "You used to be opposed to the European Union". Guess what, folks: the DUP used to be opposed to academic selection. It had a policy of being against it right up until, I think, the 1980s, for the reason that it discriminated against working-class kids. As is the DUP's right, it changed its policy, but who is being defended? Those who benefit from the system are being defended. Those who benefit from academic selection are being defended, and the evidence shows us that, at the upper echelons of that, there are higher earners, those who are in positions of influence and those who are in positions of power. It is like Mr Stalford's comment that it would be a brave person who commits to change. If those holding the power are being defended, we have to ask ourselves a serious question, which is this: if all the evidence tells us that academic selection is damaging our education system, damaging working-class communities and damaging non-selective schools, why protect those who are in power? Surely our job is to stand up for those without a voice. Surely our job is to ensure that everyone in society is given an equal opportunity. That is our role. Our role as legislators is to make change, so do not continue to suggest that there is no alternative. There is an alternative. The vast majority of post-primary schools currently use it, and it is a successful way of transferring children from primary schools to non-selective schools.

Will change happen overnight? No. Will social mobility improve overnight? No. Will the practice of hereditary grammar-school places that the Minister talked about change overnight? No. Unless we start to make change, however, it will never happen, and the working-class kids who are let down by academic selection will continue to be let down by academic selection. The people who support academic selection have shown no evidence today that it is a good policy. Those who oppose it have rhymed off list after list after list of why it is a bad policy, so let us remove it.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I remind Members that, while they are in the Chamber and are casting their votes, social-distancing requirements still need to be adhered to.

The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 48; Noes 37

AYES

Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Mr Blair, Mr Boylan, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Ms Brogan, Mr Carroll, Mr Catney, Mr Dickson, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Durkan, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Mr Muir, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Miss Woods

Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Brogan, Mr Carroll

NOES

Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Beggs, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Stewart, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann, Mr Weir

Tellers for the Noes: Mr M Bradley, Mr Stalford

Question accordingly agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I have been advised by the party Whips that, in accordance with Standing Order 113(5)(b), there is agreement to dispense with the three minutes and move straight to the Division.

The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 48; Noes 37

AYES

Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Mr Blair, Mr Boylan, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Ms Brogan, Mr Carroll, Mr Catney, Mr Dickson, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Durkan, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Mr Muir, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Miss Woods

Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Brogan, Mr Sheehan

NOES

Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Beggs, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Stewart, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann, Mr Weir

Tellers for the Noes: Mr M Bradley, Mrs Cameron

Main Question, as amended, accordingly agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly notes the recent publication of Ulster University's Transforming Education project's research paper on 'Academic Selection and the Transfer Test'; further notes that this is yet another report that outlines the psychological harm that academic selection causes to children; acknowledges the finding within the report that there is little evidence that social mobility is increased by academic selection; agrees with the conclusion articulated in the report that the current arrangements for school transfer at age 11 are damaging the life chances of a large proportion of the school population; further notes that the right to use academic selection is currently enshrined in law; and calls on the Minister of Education to give notice that he will repeal this legal provision by 2023 and replace it with a system that has the widest support and prioritises educational excellence for all without academic selection.

Adjourned at 6.00 pm.