What would happen if we abandoned academic selection?

16 Dec 2021 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 16 Dec 2021

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

A new UU report looks at education north and south of the border. In any such comparison, it’s hard not to focus on the transfer tests.


Academic selection might exacerbate Northern Ireland’s educational inequalities, but it doesn’t cause them all.

Abandoning the tests could improve outcomes for those in more deprived areas but every indication is that there is no single, magical fix to create a system that gets the best out of all children, leaving none behind.

That is because social circumstances play a huge role in outcomes. However, that does not mean that selection is a good thing, or should not be under question.

Academic selection is a strange beast because it is both an educational outcome (and one where a child’s home life and socioeconomic status give and indication of how they will score in the P7 tests) and a factor in later outcomes, given the part it plays in determining a child’s post-primary education.

This week saw the publication of Education across the island of Ireland: comparing systems and outcomes, the latest paper from UU’s Transforming Education series of academic reports, which compares and contrasts education north and south of the border.

The paper, unsurprisingly, looks at education structures north and south. It isn’t out to pick a winner. It discusses how the two systems have diverged significantly in the century since partition, and ultimately notes that both jurisdictions should invest more in education.

As a report, it certainly is not about selection per se. However, selection cannot help but stick out as an issue when education in Northern Ireland is compared with that in RoI (or with Great Britain, or with any of the vast majority of jurisdictions that do not routinely divide children based on testing at age 11).

Per the report: “In the Education Order (NI) debate in the House of Lords in 2006, the virtues of the education system in NI were repeatedly voiced, largely by NI peers. Lord Steinberg, who took great pride in his NI grammar school background, argued that ‘…for countless years the standard of education in NI has been higher than that in Great Britain, and that continues to be the case.’

“Many other speakers repeated this assertion and there was little evidence of a contrary view, although Lord Rogan, one of the few to attempt balance, said ‘It is true that, at the top end of the achievement scale, more pupils leave school with good GCSEs and A-levels, but the overall performance figures for pupils on average are on a par with or slightly below those for England. Northern Ireland has one of the most unequal education systems in the world… Such a system cannot be regarded in total as excellent.’

“The unequal education system in NI is largely based on academic selection and social class, and ‘…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’. It has been argued that ‘…the division into grammar and non-grammar schools facilitates a form of social segregation’…”

The UU report does not give a positive portrayal of selection. However, what also emerges from the research is the effect that social status has on educational inequalities – something that is hardly unique to NI.

Social immobility down south

Education in RoI is largely non-selective but that doesn’t mean it has no problems. Again, socioeconomic status has a clear and strong correlation with outcomes.

Furthermore, some of the social divisions seen in NI, which are perhaps created or exacerbated by selection, can be replicated elsewhere without academic tests at age 11.

“Ireland’s combination of voluntary secondary schools and vocational schools (now known as ETB schools) in post-primary education, with a small number of community and comprehensive schools occupying the middle ground, has some parallels to NI’s division between grammars and secondary schools but, crucially, unlike NI, Ireland did not embrace academic selection, although many schools do run entrance tests and even community schools have used entrance examinations to stream learners…

“Nonetheless, the post-primary school sector in much of Ireland is said to cater for learners from a range of backgrounds and representing all abilities, whether academic or vocational, under the one roof. In some towns, this has been strengthened as a result of the amalgamations of post-primary schools, and the development of comprehensive/community schools. Even the incidence of streaming in Ireland schools is much reduced, as its impact on outcomes was found to be of limited value, at best. However, policies for dealing with oversubscription in Ireland’s schools can replicate social division…

“The quality of education in Ireland is generally deemed to be relatively high and there is a ‘positive regard in which education, teachers and school principals are held by wider society’. However, just as in NI, the Irish education system seems not to be fully successful in addressing persistent social inequalities.

“While gender inequalities have been reduced through education in Ireland, ‘the effects of social class background on third-level participation do not appear to have changed substantially’. This has continued, with 94% of pupils from middle class schools applying for higher education, compared to just half from working class schools.”


Ultimately, however, RoI can point to broader success than NI with its post-primary outcomes.

The minimum age for leaving school south of the border is 16, the same as in NI, but only 6% of learners leave school before the age of 17. The vast majority finish their Leaving Certificate, whereas in NI only 63% of 16- to 17-year-olds are studying for A Levels, or equivalent.

The report notes that 63% of all RoI learners move into Higher Education, compared with 48% in NI. In 2020, a third of NI’s adult population were educated to degree level. In RoI, that figure is 43%.

In 2017, 16.6% of NI residents of working age had no qualifications at all, compared to a UK average of 8.0%. Meanwhile, in RoI around 7% of people leave education early.

One factor behind the disparities in the working-age population will be the “brain drain” that sees significant numbers of high-achieving young people leave Northern Ireland after school.

The brain drain is little or nothing to do with academic selection. Instead, it is a consequence of Northern Ireland’s persistent social divisions, and the fact that many young people find local politics a turn off.

However, together with the significantly higher numbers of pupils staying in school to finish their Leaving Cert (or equivalent) compared with rates who finish A Levels (or equivalent), it seems clear that the education system in RoI caters for more young people for longer.

Any declaration of Northern Ireland’s education system as a world-beating marvel requires, to put it kindly, a narrow framing of selective facts.

The question is what can be done to make it better.

What next?

When the results from NI’s education system are compared with RoI, or the rest of the UK, it appears that the effect of selection is to turbocharge socioeconomic inequalities (and that is before any consideration is made about any possible knock-on effects of putting ten-year-olds through exams of such importance).

Which is why, as a matter of urgency, Northern Ireland needs to get beyond appearances, and should examine and determine the effects of selection, specifically and in detail.

Some work has been done previously. Indeed, this UU paper cites OECD reports which say that selection in NI has resulted in “…a high concentration of less socially and economically advantaged students in the non-selective post-primary schools”. It notes other studies that have found selection pushes down the performance of children in general, and not just those who do not pass the relevant exams.

The ongoing Independent Review of Education will no doubt put significant focus on academic selection (it cannot help but stick out as an issue, after all) but the question is whether that review will go far enough.

That isn’t enough.

If legacy issues and green/orange divisions are set aside, selection is the most divisive and emotive issue in Northern Ireland. Debates about its pros and cons are interminable – and inexact.

Surely, given its importance, we should make every effort to find out exactly what academic selection achieves, for good or bad?

It is incredible that no truly comprehensive study into the effects of academic selection in Northern Ireland has been carried out. This should be done, and quickly.

Whatever the findings from such work – whether selection is clearly good, clearly bad, or altogether more complicated – they won’t fix education in Northern Ireland. But they would improve (or provide a sound defence of the status quo).

Social circumstances play a significant role in educational outcomes. This is laid bare by the combination of two facts. Firstly, there is a strong correlation between attainment and socioeconomic background. Secondly, targeted interventions – such as RoI’s Delivering Opportunity in Schools programme, mentioned in the report – can reduce this correlation by improving attainment in areas of high deprivation.

In short, there’s a gap, and that gap can be shrunk, even if doing so might be complicated and require several different approaches.

Would ditching academic selection reduce that gap? Let’s find out.

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