Integrated Education and All-Ability Schools

Michael Wardlow -Thought Piece

NICIE – Dunleath Lecture – Michael Wardlow – QUB – 7th March 2019
Photograph by Declan Roughan

In light of the cancellation of Primary to Post Primary transfer tests, there has been significant debate about academic selection. In this thought piece, Michael Wardlow outlines his views on the benefits of all-ability schooling in keeping with the ethos of Integrated Education.

Integrated Education and All-Ability Schools

The early movement for Integrated education was not based on a belief that the two “separate systems” were inherently flawed, that grammar schools should be abolished, or upon any philosophical understanding of what constituted an alternative, Integrated environment. The movement was rather predicated on the belief that Integrated schools could become places wherein pupils from the two main communities could meet safely to explore their differences, in safe environments, with specially trained teachers. Why? Because the first parents involved believed that if separating children in a divided society might perpetuate that division, then facilitating shared schools might allow children to get to know one another, learn to live with difference and develop lifelong friendships.

It soon became clear to the founding parents that in addition to being intentionally cross community in intake, the schools should be essentially Christian in character as that was the basis of the educational system in place. In addition, the parents were equally clear that the schools should be places of inclusion and therefore be open to all children regardless of their abilities. It was their view that this approach would ensure the maximum potential to allow the schools to best reflect Northern Irish society at large. These remain the three key principles at the core of today’s Integrated schools.

The recent debate around the cancellation or postponement of the so called “transfer tests”, has been difficult to resolve, because under the surface lies the as yet undetermined matter of whether or not academic selection should be used as the basis of entry to post primary schools.  My own view is that it is a method with more problems than solutions. But it is all too easy to condemn something rather than offer an alternative.

Selection at 10 years of age, for that is the reality, is measured by whether or not children achieve a particular grade in 2 or 3 unregulated tests. The tests cannot be said to be predictors of future prowess or ability. The best they can do is state whether or not on the test day that pupil did “well” or “poorly” in those tests. In fact the two tests used by the two private companies, are not the same. The 2 GL tests – taken mostly by Catholic children – are 45 mins and 50 mins long and are based on multi choice questions on Maths and English while the 3 AQE tests taken by the other, mostly Protestant, children are based on 3×1 hour tests each carrying a total of 64 marks, and which take account of the Maths and English  components of the primary school curriculum. In brief in my view there is no consistency of approach or methodology in this process.

In addition, although children with free school meals are allowed to enter the test at no cost, the AQE tests are not free for the majority of pupils, and cost approx. £50 per child. GL offers the test at no charge to parents, a significant advantage to that cohort. If this fee is added to the now, almost ubiquitous, tutoring involved with preparation for the tests, the cost can be significant for many families.

Finally, there is a fundamental question of why do we select at 10/11 and not be consistent using a similar process for entry to primary school? Or even if we were wed to the concept, why not consider 14+, when children are arguably better able to make personal choices, as  a deferred “election” point, such as is already in place in the Dixon Plan area?

So, let me suggest why I believe all ability schools offer an alternative to the current situation of selection by academic ability.

  1. There is now a cohort of schools both Integrated and non-Integrated which do not use academic selection to determine entry and their achievements can be openly scrutinised over decades. Many offer significant value added for pupils and allow them access to shared classrooms where they can both challenge and be challenged by peers of differing abilities. A few Integrated colleges use a form of partial selection to ensure a more academically balanced intake, particularly in areas of N Ireland where there is a high level of parental commitment to selection and significant numbers of grammar schools.
  2. All Ability does not mean that the schools focus teaching on some presumed academic mid-point of each class – which would feed a fear expressed by many parents of all ability education – a fear that their child will “not be challenged in such an environment”. Many Integrated schools “set” children in ability groups for individual subjects which means children who are stronger at Maths can be challenged by their peers in those settings while children who excel at languages, for example, have a similar opportunity. These groups are fluid in most cases so children can move within the subject groupings as they develop through the school.
  3. Significant numbers of parents are choosing to opt their children out of the tests. Of the c24,000 P7 children eligible to sit the tests, one in 3 opt out, with about 16500 taking the test. About 2000 of these do both tests with about 1000 pupils more sitting GL. The remainder transfer to post primary without the recourse to an academic test, including many to all ability, Integrated schools.
  4. Integrated schools focus on what happens after transfer, rather than the results of transfer, because they believe that it is what happens during the subsequent time spent in the school that builds character and develops a love for learning. This allows a less pressured year 6 and 7, where focusing on “the test” is not the main issue for the pupil.
  5. Finally Integrated schools have never sought to set up a one size fits all, all-ability, post primary system, or indeed to dismantle grammar schools. At the core of the movement has always been that choice should remain with parents and children and that this should be voluntary. The problem has always been that there are insufficient Integrated places for that choice to be met.

So, in this short piece I hope that I have challenged some of the negative stereotypes which abound on the dangers of all ability education. The fact that the majority of Integrated post primary schools are oversubscribed is testament to the fact that that they must be doing something right!


Michael Wardlow served as Chief Executive of NICIE between 1995 and 2009. From 2012 -2020 he was the Chief Commissioner at the NI Equality Commission.