The Effects of the Selective System of Secondary Education in Northern Ireland: Area Study

Penny McKeown, Ian Shuttleworth, Eamonn McKeown, Alan Smith, Ursula Birthistle, Alison Montgomery

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned reportpeer-review

39 Downloads (Pure)


The Area Study is based on interviews and fieldwork in 4 grammar and 5 secondary schools. The schools were all drawn from the same geographical area and provided the main postprimary provision for all pupils in that area. The purpose of the Area Study is:· to explore in some detail the dynamics of the interaction of the selective system with the operation of parental choice and the ‘market’ within a local area in Northern Ireland, and· to examine the effects of this competition on individual schools and types of school in the area.In each of the case study schools interviews were held with principals, members of the senior management teams, the heads of departments of English, mathematics and science, the head of Year 8, class teachers and groups of Year 8 and Year 12 pupils. In addition, questionnaire, attainment and destinations data were collected on pupils, and statistical data on the schools were analysed.Main findingsIn the Area Study schools, across a range of indicators, the selection system, in conjunction with the operation of open enrolment since 1990, has benefited the grammar schools as they have taken an increased proportion of the pupil enrolment. This trend has been further exacerbated by a number of local factors. In addition, the opening of an Integrated school has increased the enrolment difficulties of the other secondary schools.There is evidence of social segregation between the grammar and secondary schools. Thisis accompanied by a perception that the grammar schools are accorded higher status and esteem. The differential in esteem is a source of anger for principals, teachers and pupils in secondary schools.Within each sector, there has emerged a ‘pecking order’ of schools, as reflected in enrolment data. In both sectors, in those schools which enjoy the least esteem, as indicated by enrolment data, pupils are less likely to achieve average levels of attainment at GCSE.Issues of competition over enrolment are a concern for all schools, including those with thehighest levels of enrolment. Considerable time is deployed to monitor and promote enrolment. The principals of all the schools regularly visit their main feeder schools, as do the teachers with responsibility for the Year 8 intake. Almost all schools engage in marketing and public relations activities and some have adapted their curriculum to establish a ‘niche’. All schools report drawing pupils from a larger number of primary schools than they did before 1990, although recent changes in the home-to-school transport regulations have limited the choice options for some economically disadvantaged families.As the option of fee-paying places is no longer available in grammar schools, the perceived need to obtain high Transfer Test grades has increased. Indications of this included high levels of pupil anxiety, disappointment and a sense of failure for the unsuccessful, the distortion of the upper primary curriculum to accommodate practice testing, and the neglect of the learning needs of opted-out children in some primary schools.Secondary school teachers report the continuing adverse effects on learning for children whose self-esteem has been damaged by failure in the Transfer Tests, the skewing of the ability range of their intake towards the lower end, the higher incidence of pupils admitted with emotional and behavioural difficulties and a low confidence in their capacity to learn successfully among children admitted to their schools. These challenges have to be confronted within a context of declining enrolments, and therefore declining financial and human resources.Grammar school teachers report increasing numbers of weaker pupils. This included a perception that some pupils with Transfer Test grade A had been ‘coached beyond their ability’. This perception led some to question the reliability of the Transfer Tests. Some ofthese pupils have subsequently been ‘counselled out’ of grammar schools, a practice which is unwelcome in the secondary sector.Teachers’ and pupils’ views on selection are related to school sector. In general, those in grammar schools accept the principle of selection and wish to retain a more rigorous and reliable system. Those in secondary schools consider the system to operate unfairly to their disadvantage. A common view was that grammar schools should not be allowed to admit children with lower Transfer Test grades. They believe that they and their schools are considered ‘second class’, and consider the system’s effects to be damaging to the bulk of pupils in post-primary education. Many wish for the abolition or deferral of selection.While many secondary school pupils indicated that they were enjoying their secondary school experiences and anticipating productive careers, many still felt resentful about their experiences of selection and felt that the system had been unfair to them.Each group of teachers, secondary and grammar, believed that the weight of public and political opinion ran counter to their preference. Grammar schools teachers felt that theposition of grammar schools had been undermined, while secondary teachers believed that the strength of the grammar school lobby would prevent any change. Teachers in bothsectors expressed feelings of powerlessness about their capacity to influence policy-makers about desired changes.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherDepartment of Education
Number of pages83
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 28 Sept 2000


Dive into the research topics of 'The Effects of the Selective System of Secondary Education in Northern Ireland: Area Study'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this