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11-Plus to go in the North

Enthusiasts for the Good Friday agreement have always argued that the process represents a reform. The new reformist atmosphere would provide the base of for everyday politics, class politics. Finding a real political solution would become irrelevant because the new structures would deliver a new, better, life for all.

Finding examples of this reform has however proved difficult. The RUC? Democratic rights? Rights for workers? And for women?   Whatever issue was picked the new ‘Norn Ireland’ looked suspiciously like the old reactionary sectarian state. Finally, with a sigh of relief, the local politicians in the North of Ireland settled on the eleven plus. Removal of a selection process at eleven that had become an increasing embarrassment would surely stack up as a genuine reform.

Now the Burns report has been published and calls for the ending of selection at eleven. Does this represent real reform?  Have the opponents of the Good Friday agreement got it wrong?

In order to answer this question we have to remind ourselves of the needs of working people in the north of Ireland. Within the education system workers need an end to sectarian divisions and class privilege and the removal of church and state control to be replaced by democratic control.

What does Burns say?  Essentially it is that the present mechanism of selection is to be removed – and everything else is to remain the same. There should be no change in the secondary education sector, the argument being that the North has a great education sector that can’t be improved on.  In fact the evidence is of all the faults of a selective system – the top band, which includes the well-off at the elite schools, does relatively well while the disadvantaged are left in a long ‘tail’ of educational failure.

In fact the Burns report is yet another Good Friday solution.  Not only is there no real change – present structures are to be preserved in stone.

The mechanism is to be a collegiate system.  The secondary sector is to be banded into groups containing one of each kind of school; Grammar, secondary, Catholic, State, integrated and Irish medium.   Right away this prevents genuine reform by, for example, abolishing grammar schools.  Entry to schools is by parental choice.  Primary schools will provide a transfer report which is sent to parents.  Years of ‘parental choice’ in England have indicated over and over that in practice the elite, oversubscribed, schools do the picking.  Burns recommends a list of criteria on which selection can be based.  Many of these are highly conservative.  Proximity to the school and presence of brothers or sisters is likely to keep schools with the present social mix of pupils.  In any case if you preserve the selective system the grammar schools are bound to find ways to select on that basis.

The outcome looks suspiciously like partnership schemes between Catholic and state schools that are claimed to reduce sectarianism while preserving all the elements of a sectarian education system.  Burns manages to preserve both sectarian and class privilege!

A final farcical twist to this pseudo-reform was given by Paisley’s DUP and many Official Unionists.  Burns was a step too far, they declared, and they would be unable to support these revolutionary changes!

For all this Burns is no joke.  Trade Unionists will now be asked to support Burns.  If they do one of the positive aspects of the current situation – that trade unionists formally oppose social injustice in the education system – will have been lost.


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