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8 February 2007 Edition

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The Mary Nelis Column

Mary Nelis

Mary Nelis

Real change beckons

Pearse called it the murder machine – the most grotesque of English inventions for the debasement of Ireland. He was writing of the English education system, which he believed was designed to make the Irish “willing or at least manageable slaves”.

The woman who phoned the BBC Radio Talkback programme this week complained that the postman was late with the 11-Plus results and her nephew was quite sick with worry. She was upbraiding the Post Office for the quality of its service rather than an examination that has debased the very concept of education.

Every child is special and needs education that will meet their needs. The philosophy of that great educationalist Paulo Freire that “All are teachers, all are learners, no one is superior to the other” challenges the view of an education system under British rule that is traditionally based on privilege and patronage. The 11-Plus has promoted and encouraged this distasteful elitism, which was the reason Martin McGuinness and Sinn Féin decided to abolish it.

The notion that a child’s life can be set at age 11 and that a small minority will be educated to run the world while the rest will be labelled failures and spend the rest of their lives trying to overcome the stigma is symptomatic of a system that is not just elitist but structurally unjust. Any system of education that denies the talents of working-class children to preserve the privileges of an elite is inherently corrupt.

What kind of education leaves a child in such a state of anxiety that they become physically ill? And what sort of educational system creates division and snobbery of the worst kind in working-class communities?

The inequalities of the 11-Plus, produced a  ‘bussing system ‘ in Derry in the 1960s when ‘failures’ were bussed in to the four secondary intermediate schools with their tarmac playgrounds located in the Creggan Estate and the ‘successes’ bussed out to the grammar schools with sweeping green lawns and located in the more affluent areas of the city.

Last Saturday, 15,000 children in the North learned whether they were ‘successes’ or ‘failures’. Five years after Martin McGuinness, the Minister for Education in the Assembly, abolished the 11-Plus, after extensive consultation, the lobby to retain it is as strong as ever.

Led by principals and governors of the grammar school section, and headed up by Kenneth Bloomfield, former head of the Civil Service and promoter of a hierarchy of victims, their purpose is to undermine the decision by Martin McGuinness and retain the selective system. Bloomfield believes that the idea that every child can succeed is ‘pie in the sky’ and seeks to give the impression that the selective education system is the most effective.

Schools and school arrangements should work for the benefit of all children. Given the current debacle on post-primary education, it is clear that academic selection and ‘The Murder Machine’ will be with us for some time yet. But those who have fought for real change in this area will not be deflected from the struggle for equality of opportunity in education.

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