Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Selection isn't the only way to get good grades

I am sick of hearing the mantra that Northern Irelands Education system is the gold standard and that any changes will be for the worse.

I worked in the non-selective education system in England for 8 years. Sometimes it was tough but it was always rewarding and my students of a whole range of abilities received good grades across the board . I taught English, one of the core subjects, in an area with a real social mix. Many of my students got all As and I am still in contact with some who went on to study at Oxford and Cambridge. I am extremely proud of the fact that two of ex-students in the one year group came first and second respectively in English Literature in Cambridge University, one is now studying at Princeton. Both were educated in the non-selective system the whole way through their education.

I am equally proud of the profoundly dyslexic students whom I taught, who really struggled in their English, but because they received excellent learning support from the special needs department, gained good GCSEs in English and attended University. They would never have got so far as a grammar school but were no less “academic” than their contemporaries.

There were also the GNVQ or vocational students who struggled to get a C grade in English, but after a few attempts managed to do so. This is of course the basic requirement for many jobs. And some for whom a D or an E was a real achievement.

All these students were taught together, ate together in the canteen, played sport together and socialised together. Yet they were streamed for their academic subjects to ensure they learned at the pace they needed and got the support they were entitled to . There was a genuine spirit of community and little elitism.

In Northern Ireland we may well get excellent grades at our top end but our treatment of the remainder is abysmal. Defined at 11 as less academic. Separated on class lines as much as on academic ability. Some of the worst literacy rates in Europe at the bottom end.

We can do better for our children than this it just takes a little imagination. This week a close friend’s son has refused to go back to school after his 11 plus result because he was too embarrassed. This 11 year old child received a C1 a very respectable grade, but he knows at the age of 11 that only an A or B1 is good enough to get into the same school as his sister and move with the majority of his year into his grammar school of choice. He feels that he has failed and no amount of encouragement from his parents can convince him other wise.

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