I Was That Dunce


According to his teachers, Isaac Newton was 'idle' and 'inattentive'. Yet he went on to write the Laws of Motions and invented the Calculus (the old 'log' tables, to you and me). Einstein's mother was told by his teacher that he was a dunce who would go nowhere. He was a slow talker and even his parents thought he was 'somewhat backward'. He went on to write the Theory of Relativity.

My first years at St Teresa's primary school were happy times. It was only as we were being prepared for the 11 plus that a divisiveness crept in. That the class seating arrangements imperceptibly changed as the teacher - under pressure to produce precocious pricks - concentrated his attention on prospective scholars in the front desks. At nine and ten years of age more than half the class was left to doodle, stare out to space, or swap marlies. What other message were they given but that there is no future for you in education?

I was among the privileged in the front rows. Preparation for the test was nerve-wracking. We were told that our entire future depended on the outcome. Eleven years of age and obsessed about a wife, a mother-in-law, a bank manager, the mortgage and the July holiday. I think the exam was spread over two diarrhoea days, followed some time later by diarrhoea morning when the results came through.

My mother assured me I was 'on the borderline'. A friend of mine said he passed but rumour had it that he too was 'on the borderline' and that his father, an insurance agent, bought him his scholarship into a grammar school to join those judged to be the brightest 10%. I resented that. Twenty years later when he returned from university in England to teach our kids his lack of general knowledge astonished me. He thought Lisburn was the capital of Portugal.

The other 90% of us went off to Glen Road CBS where I had more of the happiest years of my life under some cruel, but mostly, very kind and dedicated Christian Brothers. Here also the system was streamed into As, Bs, Cs and Ds, with Class 1A being deemed the brightest. If a boy didn't quickly jump up through the streams he was written off and would be on the street at the end of third year. Whatever the real purpose of education it has an aptitude for decreeing people as failures.

I passed the Junior and then did O-Levels. Thanks to Jimmy Brankin I did very well in English Language and Literature, but thanks to Brother Nannery I also did very well in Pure and Applied Maths, and my results in Physics were good thanks to Paddy Flanagan. (Barney Eastwood wasn't a teacher, okay?)

Ironically, Glen Road CBS in 1969 only taught up to O-Level so, at this stage, I and other class-mates, crossed the road to St Mary's Grammar School to do our A-Levels. I don't know what the school is like now but I doubt if it has any of the middle-class ambience that the school had back then. I hated the snobbery and couldn't settle and after a year I moved to St Peter's Secondary School in Britton's Parade.

What happened next is for another day because the story this week is the report just published on the effects of the selective system of secondary and grammar schools and what is to be done about it.

Fifty years ago, unionists opposed the reform of education (including the 11-plus) introduced by the post-war Labour government in Britain because of the opportunities free secondary education afforded Catholics. In fact, bigots forced the Education Minister at Stormont to resign.

As it turned out, the effects of the 11-plus actually accentuated class differences. Many well-to-do parents had their children tutored for the exam and thus obtained free the education they could have afforded to pay for. The grammar schools got the cream of pupils and the rest went to secondary modern schools where classes were large and teachers paid less. That is why comparisons of performances between the two systems are not analogous.

Today, unionists defend this system which fails society as a whole. That is why 90% of English and Welsh secondary schools are non-selective and have long abandoned the 11-plus which is not an accurate measure of ability.

We need a flexible system which gives our children greater equality of education, which reflects the needs of future careers and thus values and respects vocational and technical training as much as the current emphasis on academic curricula.

The 11-plus has to be abolished because it is discriminatory and refuses to recognise that children, including the likes of Martin McGuinness, develop at different ages. He failed his 11-plus, pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and by the time of fiftieth birthday he had become the Minister for Education, for a while!

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison