Widening the gap: Education department policy discriminates against migrant children

26 Nov 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 26 Nov 2015

Pamela Yeh

Pamela Yeh has returned to Northern Ireland after eight years abroad to face the nightmare of the school transfer tests …

This weekend, my 11 year old and her friends will celebrate the end of their transfer tests, all four Saturdays worth of them.   For my daughter who has spent the last 8 years living abroad, this year has been her first real experience of education in Northern Ireland and much of it has been dominated by the thought of these tests.

We never considered not doing the tests.  As a relative newcomer to selecting schools in Northern Ireland, my experience is probably similar to many other ethnic minority parents with little cultural baggage or knowledge of the system and curriculum.

We’re not too concerned about Catholic, Controlled, Maintained or Integrated but we do want a “good school” and some “diversity”. Diversity being shorthand for a school where our children won’t stand out or be picked on as the only non-Caucasian children.

In our books, a “good school” is usually one recommended by word of mouth, or one you’ve had the opportunity to visit quickly on an Open Day or one of those featured regularly in ranking lists compiled by the local newspaper.

A quick Google reveals what many parents in NI already know - that grammar schools dominate the league tables of schools ranked by academic results. And that’s why parents like me choose to put our children through the tests. 

What I’ve quickly come to realise in the last year though is how the Department of Education’s directive that primary schools shouldn’t prepare children for these transfer tests is failing many ethnic minority students.

These are children who are most in need of support from schools to prepare them for the tests.  They come from families less likely to afford expensive private tutoring, a background where English isn’t spoken at home and whose parents are unfamiliar with the curriculum.

It’s ironic that the Department of Education’s directive is creating greater inequalities than ever before and putting an inordinate amount of stress on children who end up sitting multiple tests at weekends in unfamiliar environments.

Recent media reports suggest more parents than ever are enrolling their children for these tests and in the absence of formal support from primary schools, many parents in Northern Ireland are turning to private tutors, paying upwards of £15 to £20 an hour to ensure their children are prepared.  A whole shadow industry in tutoring seems to have sprung up in the time we’ve been away and we were definitely in the minority of parents who had opted not to tutor our daughter.

Inequalities where grammar school entrance is concerned are more pronounced than ever, with admission now heavily biased towards children whose parents can afford tutors or are able to coach them themselves.

The Equality Commission (2008) pointed to concerns about the difficulties faced by children from ethnic minority communities in accessing grammar schools in Northern Ireland.  Without support from schools, few of these children would make the grade for the tests. For some children, this will only serve to perpetuate the cycle of poverty, lack of skills and under-employment which already plagues large sections of some migrant communities in Northern Ireland.

Coming from Asia, I’m struck by how often the debate seems to only centre on selection or non-selection. Perhaps we need to widen that debate to one of raising educational outcomes for all children, regardless of social background.

In 2007, McKinsey released a report called “How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top” in which it studied 25 school systems around the world including 10 that consistently top global rankings.

One of these is the Singapore model which my elder child briefly attended.  The Singapore model administers selection in the final year of primary school after which pupils are streamed into 3 different types of post-primary schools.

Singapore children have in recent years consistently top global Science and Math rankings. Despite being highly selective, math scores for the most disadvantaged children in Singapore were equal to average scores from countries like the US. 

The McKinsey report suggests this is because Singapore places more emphasis on getting the right people to become teachers, developing them into effective instructors and then ensuring the system is available to deliver the best possible instruction for every child.

In Singapore, only the top 30% of graduates can apply to train to become teachers and crucially, applicants are screened, tested and selected before they enter teacher training, effectively guaranteeing them a job at the end of it.  The converse is true in Northern Ireland where large numbers of students take an undergraduate teaching degree, with no guarantee of employment or a teaching place upon graduation.

Singapore also provides qualified teachers with 100 hours of training a year and appoints senior teachers to oversee professional development in each school.  Finally, to eliminate the gap between highest and lowest achieving students, Singapore levels up its education, offering a differentiated curriculum and learning experience for weaker students. 

The Singapore system isn’t perfect by any means but there just isn’t the same debate about selection at 11 that there is over here. People seem to accept it as part of the system and the policy focus has been less handwringing about selection but more about getting the best to teach and concentrating resources and interventions at the levels where it’s most needed – in schools with the poorest outcomes. 

If the Department of Education here would focus more of our resources on turning around failing schools, it might have a greater chance of convincing parents that grammars aren’t the only pathway to success.

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