We don’t know enough about academic selection

30 Jan 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 6 Feb 2020

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

A comprehensive study on the effects of academic selection in Northern Ireland is needed. A new report from Stranmillis University College's Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement shows why.


Educational inequality is a mainstay of schooling in Northern Ireland.

A lot of local pupils achieve excellent results. A lot do very poorly. The system is one of extremes.

According to new research from the Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU) at Stranmillis University College: “Internationally, a long tail of underachievement belies Northern Ireland’s reputation for producing academically high-achieving pupils, indicating a country-level problem requiring a Northern Ireland-specific focus.”

That identification of a “country-level problem” is one of the key findings from Educational Underachievement in Northern Ireland: Evidence Summary, a report from researchers Leanne Henderson, Jonathan Harris, Noel Purdy and Glenda Walsh.

The paper provides an overview of all knowledge and studies from the past 20 years, relevant to educational underachievement in Northern Ireland.

But it is impossible to talk about underattainment without looking at academic selection. One of the other key findings from the Stranmillis research states:

“A shift in policy regarding schools and communities has seen numerous studies of the impacts of Shared Education and Extended Schools Provision, but academic selection remains a largely untouched element of education policy in Northern Ireland since Gallagher and Smith [a previous study from 2000, one of the works considered by the Stranmillis evidence summary], despite its determinant effects on pupils’ attainment.”

Most of Northern Ireland’s P7 pupils sit transfer tests. Post-primary schooling is divided between selective and non-selective schools. This has been the case for decades.

And, yet, we do not know the full consequences of this delineation. That needs to change.


The 11+, and the tests that have come since that statutory examination was disbanded, are not the root of all ills in the Northern Irish education system.

The factors relevant to pupil attainment are numerous, cover a very broad range (including schools, governmental policies, poverty, family life, and more), and are related to each other in complicated ways.

CREU’s research cites various studies looking at social, economic, cultural and familial factors. It notes, for instance, that relatively little is known about the attainment of local minority ethnic children, such as the Chinese community, the Traveller community and European migrants “as so much attention has focused on the sectarian divide.”

Nonetheless, while selection does not take place in a vacuum, CREU is at pains to state that we need to do more to examine its effects, specifically.

“One of the most comprehensive programmes of education research undertaken in Northern Ireland considered the effects of the academically selective system (Gallagher & Smith, 2000). The resulting series of reports provides significant insights into the social, educational and economic consequences of selection.

“For our present purposes the area of greatest concern is the finding that the most important factor which influenced student achievement at GCSE level was whether individuals had been placed in a grammar school or not.

“This is of particular concern given that access to and performance in the transfer tests, and eventual placement in a grammar school were found to be mediated by socio-economic status.”

Although the Gallagher & Smith study is nearly two decades old now, the Stranmillis researchers point out that several more recent studies point to similar findings.

Moreover, the differences between selective and non-selective post-primary schools are not just that they have pupils who generally achieved different scores in transfer tests.

One study examined by the Stranmillis team suggested that “non-subject specialists are significantly more likely to deliver learning in non-grammar rather than grammar schools.”

More to know

We know that academic selection has consequences for our children that go beyond education. There are also social and economic effects.

However, per the conclusions of the CREU study: “The comparative performance of Northern Ireland learners in international large-scale assessments does show that the Northern Ireland education system consistently produces academically high-achieving pupils.

“However, in terms of educational underachievement the less favourable comparisons provide greater insight and assist in the identification of areas for improvement. Of particular concern is the fact that the socio-economic attainment gap widens as children progress through school, demonstrating that social mobility is not being helped by the current education system…

“What is clear is that experiences of educational underachievement are multi-faceted and have significant consequences for young people. However, the extent of existing research does not fully address many of the issues discussed here. There remain significant gaps in the current body of knowledge.”

That is not good enough.

Stormont has begun again. All our major political parties say they are committed to creating the best education system possible (of course – it’s impossible to imagine a political party not taking that position) but how is anyone in a position to do that when we don’t really know the effects or underlying dynamics of the system we have at the minute.

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