Scrap the 11+ in Northern Ireland


The ongoing debate about how school pupils should transfer from primary to post-primary school in Northern Ireland raises fundamental questions about the type of society we want to live in.The abolition of the Eleven Plus exam opened the possibility of establishing a fairer system than the one which had streamed children academically at the age of eleven, and one which was biased against children from poorer areas.

However it is clear that there are many in Northern Ireland for whom the prospect of fairness or equality is a scary concept. The extent to which those who wish to maintain the status quo have been successful is seen by the fact that they have been given huge media coverage, and have forced the Minister for Education Caitriona Ruane to introduce “a 3 year phased approach which will allow those schools which need time to adjust to the new system to use academic selection in a 3 year time bound limited manner…”

Buoyed by this success, grammar school principals are now attempting to introduce entrance tests for pupils to gain entry to their schools. This is nothing less than an attempt by them to maintain the current unfair system. In this regard they have received the support of the unionist parties. It is ironic that those who wish to maintain the current unfair system are using arguments about greater access to education for poor children to bolster their case. These arguments are totally spurious.

The Democratic Unionist Party argues, for example, that “Children do much less well in areas of social deprivation. It is important to have more young people from working class areas reaching grammar school and university. Only 1.8% of the male student population in Northern Ireland is from a Protestant working class background, but it is a process of academic selection that gives these young people the best opportunity of succeeding.” (

Surely however it would be more honest to argue that it is the lack of adequate funding for education at all levels that contributes to the fact that children from working class and poorer families do less well. And the process of academic selection at the age of 11 re-inforces and compounds that inequality. Inadequate funding of education combined with other social effects of poverty such as poor housing, poor diet, less access to the internet and to books, less time and space for parents to read to their children ensures that the cycle of disadvantage continues from generation to generation.

The maintaining of a system that brands huge numbers of children as failures by the age of 11 will do nothing to challenge this cycle of educational disadvantage. Those who really want to challenge it must be prepared to take on the issues of inadequate funding of education and must be willing to pursue policies which will tackle poverty head on.

Otherwise their statements about wanting to see ‘more young people from working class areas reaching university’ remain empty platitudes.

International studies all point to the fact that comprehensive education system whereby pupils of all abilities are educated together is the best way to raise education standards for all children.


From Workers Solidarity 104 July August 2008