The DUP-appointed panel released its interim report on 10/12/22. A disturbing reality lurked beneath the surface, found on page nine of the report. In addition to the work undertaken by the panel, other literature reviews were undertaken, one of which was on the ‘Impacts of Academic Selection in Northern Ireland’. This review of academic selection was undertaken by a research company called “Pivotal”, presumably to provide an even greater sense of independence. The group does not explain in its interim report why, for example, it did not conduct a literature review on program design and effectiveness, which might have been expected given Dr. Bloomer’s own commitments ( group chair) to focus on the program and evaluation. I will come back to this later in the article.
In this uninspiring “literature review” we see a series of flawed arguments, based on a selective literature base, buttressed by the same old, tired and seemingly ignorant arguments for academic selection. While Mansfield (2019) is cited as the pro-selection argument (as is often the case), it is quickly (and weakly) refuted and consigned to a simple footnote.
The failure to undertake a solid literature review is illustrated by the argument that: “contrary to the argument that selection allows for social mobility, evidence shows that the selective system prevents children from different socio-economic backgrounds and different academic abilities to learn together Academic selection can act as a structural barrier to equity (Shewbridge, et al., 2014, p.20) with transfer testing acting as a social sorting mechanism (Wilson, 2016, p.117).
The review authors conclude: “In summary, there is little evidence to support the argument that high schools are an important tool for social mobility. While some children from disadvantaged backgrounds may succeed in entering high school, a quality education should be available to all children. In fact, school selection poses a structural challenge to equity in Northern Ireland, because children who attend secondary schools are more likely to perform better academically than those who do not, and we know that children from affluent backgrounds are much more likely to attend grammar schools.
In this they are simply wrong. First, the last concluding sentence that (erroneously) links a tentative multivariate relationship between high school attendance, wealth, and academic performance is a simple error of analysis of the variables at play in this equation. It should be of great concern to us that such rudimentary analysis is undertaken incorrectly. Moreover, in a seminal work by Heath, Ermisch and Gallie (2005), examination of a plethora of evidence led to the following conclusions: . They also found that: “The main conclusion of sociological research must be that much of this reform activity, such as the introduction of comprehensive schooling, has been ineffective in reducing social inequalities in outcomes.” In other words: the abolition of academic selection had no impact in terms of reducing the social inequalities that prevailed at the societal level.
The reader should at this point be led to ask precisely why a research agency, charged with reviewing all the available literature, might conclude that there is ‘limited evidence’ to support the continued use of selection in Northern Ireland. North. This literature is not hard to find! More worryingly, I personally presented this evidence to previous and current education ministers and their officials, most recently in November 2021. I also provided this evidence as part of a TUV submission to the Independent Panel . Why is it ignored?
Finally, to come back to a final remark. The choice of literature reviews is unsurprising, but worrying. Earlier in this article I asked why a literature review had not been undertaken in the potty studies program that we continue to use in Northern Ireland. Perhaps because if they had undertaken such a search, they would have found the real culprit of academic inequality and underachievement in NI.
Indeed, the Northern Ireland curriculum mirrors Scotland’s ‘curriculum of excellence’ in structure and design, which has recently been described as ‘the betrayal of a generation’ because of ‘what it does teach children. It belongs to a current of curricular thought known as constructivism. It is the same for Northern Ireland. I also presented this evidence to the current Minister of Education and her officials, when I presented the conclusion of the eminent Harvard scholar, Jean Chall: a more formal and traditional education. … The teacher-centered approach was also more effective for students with learning disabilities at all social levels.
Unfortunately, this evidence continues to be ignored. The obsession with abolishing academic selection in Northern Ireland looks set to continue. His adversaries will continue to conspire for his ultimate elimination, not because of anything so honorable as evidence. New decade, new approach? I do not think so.
Dr. William H Kitchen is an academic and author, with expertise in mathematics education, educational philosophy, pedagogy, curriculum design, and assessment theory.