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The Transfer Test & Evangelical Idolatry

August 10, 2007

One of the issues raised in the community workshop on the Wednesday evening was the transfer test in NI. This is the process by which 11 year old children transfer from primary education to secondary. It takes the form of two province-wide exams which are graded, and those grades help determine the type of secondary school the child will attend. The higher the grade, the more likely it is that the child will get a more academic-style education.

My daughter did the exam this year, which is what really woke me up to the issues. She will now be attending a school in which the whole cohort entering the school in her year group scored A’s.

The transfer test is central to the preservation of the grammar school system in NI. ‘Passing’ the 11+ is the passport to an education in one of these more academic, and prestigious, schools. For all sorts of reasons it tends to be the case that the children of middle class parents predominate at grammar schools. Children from homes in areas like inner East Belfast do considerably less well in the transfer test, and so tend not to get to grammar school. It is possible to get a third level education after ‘failing’ the 11+, but it is often necessary to buck the trend to get there rather than it be the expectation.

Northern Ireland, to our shame I believe, has the best performing schools in the UK…and the worst.

My position on the schooling system here is that I would be willing to suffer an overall decrease in the standard of education in order to lift the standard for those at the bottom. I believe this to be a position that I could justify biblically.

I think that those at the top of the tree must be willing to sacrifice some of their rights for the sake of those at the bottom, trying to get up the tree. Including the right to an elite education. Furthermore, Christians should never be content to advance at the expense of others. And further again, the offspring of those at the top of the social ladder enjoy considerable advantage already, not the least of which is an awareness of the value of education, which is more likely to sustain them even if the education they receive is substandard.

Christians should never be comfortable to be advantaged at the cost of those at the bottom.

And finally, education is not a god. As I hear the debate in NI, it seems to me that some of those in our churches who defend the system attribute to our education system (or the top of the system) the powers of a Creator. It is education that determines our future, builds character, sustains the economy, etc. etc.

Evangelicals have made an idol of education. And we have ceded to the educational system many of the responsibilities of the home, particularly in the area of character formation. Just as we have left the spiritual formation of our children to the Sunday School.

Character is more important that knowledge or the capacity to get a good job. But you’d never know it to hear us. Indeed one individual who disagreed with me, couldn’t see any value to education other than the economic advantage it afforded his children. He and his wife have raised three kids, two of whom are young adults of fine character and integrity (the other is only 13), yet he credits the school for this and couldn’t take my compliments on the nature of their family life as key to their formation.

Just bizarre.

Enough of the rant.


From → Rant

  1. corb lund permalink

    Crooked S,
    Interesting post.Good to see someone moving beyond the narrow question of 11+: good or bad? Couple of observations: You say “Evangelicals have made an idol of education” – just wondering what you mean here. Why evangelicals in particular, why not Christians, Protestants, people in Northern Ireland? Perhaps you’re saying that evangelicals are as guilty as the next person of making an idol of education, but the force of your syntax and the title of the post suggests something else.
    Also have evangelicals (or others) made education into an idol or is it a means to an end- do we worship education or that which we believe education can provide?


  2. hey cl, thanks for the comment. First your last point, it made me think about ways and means and about how we come to give the means to the end a priority they don’t deserve. I think we (evangelicals) have ended up losing sight of the end and are left with a means…if you know what I mean. I guess this parallels developments in education as a whole. Even the govt now sees education in terms of its utility to the economy not for the formation of character.

    As for the first point I guess the force of my comments were directed at evangelicals yes because despite other things I still find (an uncomforable) home in their midst and it frustrates me how we talk about education. You’re right, we’re probably not much different to much of middle class NI. As an idealist I guess I expect more from this community.

    And next time, maybe there’ll be less of a rant and more of a thoughtful comment. Thanks.

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