Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster
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Education and Religion in Northern Ireland
by A M Gallagher
Section 3: Selection at Eleven
During the 1960s and 1970s post-primary education in England,
Scotland and Wales developed into a comprehensive system. Barring
a few exceptions, as discussed in Section 1, Northern Ireland
did not follow this comprehensive route, but rather retained a
selective system which continues to effect some 90% of eleven
year olds (Wilson, 1986). It should be noted that Educational
Reform proposals published in 1988 plan to discontinue the use
of selective tests in favour of a system where grammar schools
have more autonomy on their selective criteria. This change will
not occur for a number of years.
A variety of selective procedures have been used in Northern Ireland since 1948 (Sutherland and Gallagher, 1986; Wilson, 1987; Gallagher, 1988). but the basic model in recent years has been as follows. Pupils in their final year of primary school sit two verbal reasoning-type tests. On the basis of their performance on these tests, and with an age correction to take account of the twelve month range in the Transfer age group, boys and girls are ranked in separate lists. A proportion of the top ranked pupils are then deemed qualified for a non-fee-paying place in a grammar school. Pupils are not required to take the tests and in each year a proportion chose to opt-out. This option must be declared by the pupil's parents, in writing. before the first test is administered.
Between 1981 and 1986 the top 20% of boys and the top 20% of girls were awarded an A grade, the next 10% of boys and of girls were awarded an M grade and the remaining pupils who sat the tests were awarded a G grade. For the purposes of determining the A and M grade boundaries, pupils who opted-out of the tests were treated as if they were G grade pupils.
Under this system A grade pupils were entitled to a non-fee-paying place in a grammar school as of right. M grade pupils were entitled to a non-fee paying place in a grammar school if they could find a grammar school willing to admit them (in practice about three quarters of the M grade pupils did enter grammar schools). G grade and not entered (opted-out) pupils normally transferred to secondary schools, although a small number of G grade pupils entered grammar schools as fee payers. The intention of this system was that approximately 27% of the Transfer age group would enter grammar schools.
From 1987 onwards the system of grades was replaced by a simpler
arrangement where the top 27% of boys and the top 27% of girls
were deemed qualified for a non-fee paying place in a grammar
school as of right. In other words, this system removed any provision
for border-line pupils. In 1988, following a court-case supported
by the Equal Opportunities Commission, the practice of treating
boys and girls as separate groups for the determination of qualified
status was discontinued (Gallagher, 1989).
Within the constraints of the selective procedure, parents had
a degree of choice on the Post-primary school for their children.
A Transfer Report was compiled for each pupil by the primary school
principal. This Report included the principal's assessment of
the child, and the child's transfer grade. In addition parents
could nominate up to four post-primary schools in order of preference
for their children on the Transfer Report. These Reports were
forwarded to the local Education and Library Board. The Boards
forwarded to each post-primary school the Transfer Reports of
those pupils nominating the school as first choice. The school
would accept a majority of these pupils for entry and return those
not accepted to the Area Boards. These Reports would then be forwarded
to the school nominated as second choice. This procedure was followed
through the nominated list until each pupil had been accepted
for entry to a Post-primary school. It was possible for parents
to appeal the placement of their child in a particular school
although in practice about 90% of the pupils were placed in their
school of first choice.
The 10% or so of each Transfer age group who transfer to either
the recognised non-selective schools or to the junior high schools
in the Craigavon delayed selection system undergo a slightly different
procedure. Pupils in the designated feeder primary schools can
automatically transfer and thus not take the transfer tests. However,
these pupils can, if their parents wish, opt-in to take the tests,
and each year a certain proportion make this choice.
'Me most recent evidence on the operation of selection in Northern Ireland has been provided by a series of studies carried out by the Northern Ireland Council for Educational Research (NICER). The second report from the NICER Transfer Procedure project (Wilson, 1986) detailed the transfer status of all pupils entering post-primary education between 1981 and 1985. Data in the appendices of that report allow for an examination of the differences between those pupils entering Protestant post-primary schools (controlled secondary, junior high or grammar schools and some voluntary grammar schools) and those entering Catholic post-primary schools (maintained secondary or junior high schools, and some voluntary grammar schools).
Figures 3.1 and 3.2 present some of the patterns in these intake
figures (since boys and girls are treated as separate populations
in the allocation of transfer grades these figures are broken
down by the religious affiliation of the school and by sex). A
general feature of the period between 1981 and 1985 was that the
proportion of pupils who did not enter for the tests increased
slightly. Consistently, a higher proportion of boys, compared
with girls, did not enter for the tests. Since the proportions
receiving an A or M grade were held stable, the proportion receiving
a G grade declined slightly.
In addition Wilson's data suggest that while a somewhat higher proportion of boys entering Protestant schools, as compared with those entering Catholic schools, did not enter for the tests between 1981 and 1985 the reverse was among girls. Thus over the period 24.2% of boys entering Protestant schools did not enter for the tests, as compared with 22.5% of boys entering Catholic schools. By contrast, 20.8% of girls entering Catholic schools did not enter for the tests, as compared with 19.5% of girls entering Protestant schools.
Overall then, Wilson found a broadly similar pattern of transfer
grades among pupils entering Protestant or Catholic post-primary
schools between 1981 and 1985. The slight advantage for pupils
entering Protestant schools in 1981 (in terms of the proportions
receiving an A or M grade) had narrowed almost to parity by 1985.
Despite this, Wilson found a significantly higher proportion of
pupils in Protestant grammar schools as compared with Catholic
grammar schools (30.9% vs. 25.7%). This difference has been noted
in other studies (Osborne, 1985; Livingstone, 1987).
This may be partially explained by a differential extent of fee paying in that a higher proportion of pupils enter Protestant grammar schools as fee payers. Wilson (1986) found that 5.0% of G grade pupils and 1.9% of Not Entered pupils entered Protestant grammar schools as fee payers, compared with 2.3% of G grade and 0.3% of not entered pupils in Catholic grammar schools. This may be related to the tendency for preparatory departments to be based in Protestant, rather than Catholic, grammar schools.
More significant, however, are the different proportions of A
grade pupils entering grammar schools. Thus, among the A grade
pupils entering Protestant post-primary schools, 98.0% entered
grammar schools. By contrast, among A grade pupils entering Catholic
post-primary schools, only 90.9% entered grammar schools. Among
M grade pupils a slightly higher proportion entered Protestant
grammar schools as compared with Catholic grammar schools (73.9%
vs. 71.4%) although this difference is much smaller.
Related to the differential rate of entry of A grade pupils, and to a lesser extent M grade pupils, into Protestant and Catholic grammar schools, is the differential extent of, what Wilson has termed, all-ability schools. Unlike the majority of secondary schools which had few A or M grade entrants, 'all-ability' secondary schools were those which included in their intakes 10% or more A or M grade pupils.
In his examination of post-primary intakes from 1981 to 1985,
Wilson identified 16 all-ability schools, which were fairly evenly
spread across all five board areas. Of these 16 schools, one was
the only integrated maintained school recognised by the Department
of Education. Of the remaining 15 schools, 11 were Catholic and
4 were Protestant schools. Thus, among pupils entering Catholic
post-primary schools, a significant proportion who were eligible
to seek a place in grammar schools in fact entered secondary schools.
This produced a disproportionate extent of Catholic all-ability
There are two possible explanations for this differential pattern of intake to Protestant and Catholic schools. On the one hand it could be that some of the parents of pupils who enter Catholic schools, and who are eligible for a non-fee paying place in grammar schools, chose, for whatever reason, to send their children to secondary (or all-ability) schools. In other words, the differential pattern is produced by voluntary choice on the part of the parents involved.
One study in the NICER Project (Sutherland and Gallagher, 1987) provided some evidence on this issue. The study looked at a total of 484 M grade pupils in the first, third and fifth forms of sixteen grammar and fourteen secondary schools. Access was gained to the Transfer Reports of 414 of these pupils and this allowed for an examination of the expressed post-primary school preferences recorded on these reports. In addition. the parents of the pupils in the sample were sent a questionnaire which included an item about the parents' preferred type of post-primary school for their child.
From the evidence of the Transfer Reports Sutherland and Gallagher found that significantly more pupils in the Catholic than in the Protestant schools were in the school of fist choice. This tendency was most marked for pupils in secondary schools: whereas four-fifths of the pupils attending Catholic secondary schools were in the school of first choice, this was so of less than half the pupils in Protestant secondary schools.
Of course there may have been a pragmatic element in preferences stated on the Transfer Reports. For the Catholic parents of an M grade pupil there was little point in putting a grammar school as first choice if the school was too far away in any case. This pragmatic element may have played a part also in the pattern of Transfer Report first preferences identified by Livingstone (1987). This analysis indicated that more Catholic than Protestant parents of A and M grade pupils opted to send their children to secondary schools.
On the other hand this pragmatic element played a lesser role in the questionnaires Sutherland and Gallagher sent to parents as part of the M grade study. In response to the question about their preferred " of post-primary education, a higher proportion of the parents of pupils in Protestant secondary schools, compared with those of pupils in Catholic secondary schools, would have preferred their child to be in a grammar school (45.6% vs. 27.8%).
Following from this, it may be significant that when the parents were asked to state the reasons for their preferred type of post-primary schools the parents of pupils in Catholic schools were more likely to praise the standards and reputation of an individual school.
The alternative explanation is based on a differential availability
of grammar school places. Given that there are fewer Catholic
grammar schools compared with Protestant grammar schools (29 vs.
46 in 1985), some Catholic parents of children who obtained either
an A or M grade on the transfer tests had to choose between sending
their children either to the local Catholic secondary school or
the local Protestant grammar school. In other words, there may
not be a Catholic grammar school within a suitable travelling
Arguably the most important issue requiring further research here is the differential extent of grammar places in the Protestant and Catholic school systems. More detailed investigation is needed on the reasons why a larger proportion of 'qualified' pupils from Catholic primary schools attend non-grammar post-primary schools.
The educational reforms referred to in section 2 include a proposal to scrap the present transfer arrangements, based on pupils' performance on two verbal-reasoning type examinations, in favour of allowing grammar schools more autonomy on their selective criteria. The information available to grammar schools will include the pupils' performance on the attainment tests to be introduced within a number of years. Clearly there will be a need to monitor the operations of the new procedures: this will include performance on the attainment tests in primary schools, the selective criteria adopted b grammar schools and the impact of both on the relative extent of the Protestant and Catholic grammar school systems.
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