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Eleven Plus: A Generation Poised

By Kasya O’Connor Grant, NULab/DITI Research Fellow

Over the course of the 2023-2024 school year I began researching and developing a digital exhibit about the 1947 Northern Irish Education Act. I was hoping to build an online learning tool that was effective in teaching visitors about education as a form of liberatory justice while also remaining accessible to a broad audience. 

The 1947 Act made secondary education more accessible in the region than it had ever been before. This was of particular importance to the working-class Catholic population who, through a variety of government-led discriminatory practices, effectively experienced life in the region as second class citizens. The first generation (deemed the ‘Eleven Plus’ after the entrance exam introduced under the act) to benefit from this newfound accessibility came of age in the 1960s, when the fight for civil rights exploded across the country. This was a generation of working-class Catholics who were highly-educated, tapped into the civil rights movements happening across the globe, and who had grown up in a society that treated them and their communities as inferior. Who better to lead the Northern Irish civil rights movement than the students of the Eleven Plus Generation?

Before the passing of the 1947 Northern Irish Education Act, the majority of the Northern Irish population only experienced primary education, with a small minority continuing on to secondary education. The only way to enroll in secondary schools was by paying tuition fees or receiving a Ministry of Education scholarship, which were few and far between. Given the acutely classist nature of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, wherein the majority of the upper class was made up of Protestants and the majority of the working class was made up of Catholics, this meant that secondary education was dominated by Protestant citizens (Galagher, 1995).

While secondary schools still charged tuition following the 1947 Act, the Ministry of Education greatly expanded its scholarship program through “a selection procedure in order to identify those pupils most able for the academic curriculum” (Galagher, 1995). Teachers would select students they believed to be most promising and these students would take the Eleven Plus exam, so-called because of the age at which students would sit the test. Those who passed would then go on to have their secondary school fees completely covered by the government. Though this still perpetuated a classist system, wherein upper-class Protestants could access education through tuition and working class Catholics could only do so through merit, it greatly increased the diversity of secondary schools in the country (Galagher, 1995).

The impact of this new accessibility cannot be overstated. Professions (such as lawyers, doctors, journalists, and politicians) that had previously been out of reach for Catholics were now attainable. The opening of secondary schools to this population led to the emergence of a Catholic middle class, a status that had been inaccessible before (McKeown, 1947). This increased social mobility, however, was not the only significant impact that the 1947 Act had. Secondary schooling did not just provide Catholics with the newfound ability to escape poverty, but also with the ability to understand and fight the specifics of the discriminatory system under which they lived.

Arnold Toynbee, a world historian of the London School of Economics, developed a theory that, “in order to see the consequences of an important education act you have to take the date in which it was passed and then add twenty years” (Deane, 2010). Twenty years after the 1947 Education Act, Northern Ireland was in the midst of its civil rights movement, a coalition that was fueled by the grievances of the Catholic working class. At this point, the Eleven Plus Generation was coming of age in the country. This was a generation of Catholics who were highly educated, tapped into the civil rights movements happening across the globe, and who had grown up in a society that treated them and their communities as second class citizens (Deane, 2010).

When establishing my goals for this exhibit, I wanted to ensure that it encouraged visitors to consider the significance of education in the formation and success of activist movements demanding increased equality. On the other hand, I hoped it would also demonstrate to visitors how powerful a tool for oppression the gatekeeping of education can be. Much of the region’s best known history has been dominated by the Troubles, a conflict spanning three decades (1969-1998) waged over the status of Northern Ireland. I wanted this exhibit, therefore, to highlight the importance of understanding the circumstances that led to the eruption of violence in 1969. Organizing the exhibit around the 1947 Education Act was designed to further the audience’s appreciation of education’s role in the self-determination of a people.

I began this project by considering the various platforms and tools that exist for hosting a digital exhibit. When completing my Digital Humanities Certificate I used WordPress to create an online learning resource built around the 1969 Battle of the Bogside. While I found WordPress more than adequate for my DH Cert project, it didn’t quite make sense for a digital exhibit. The dynamic nature of the website lent itself to an asynchronous form of educational exploration, but I wanted the digital exhibit I was designing to be more intentionally guided and curated for the visitor. I also looked at various oral history platforms (LINK HERE) but, given the scope and content of the project, ultimately decided that this would be limiting. 

So, in the end, I settled on hosting the digital exhibit on an Omeka site. Though at first glance the platform resembles a traditional website, Omeka actually allows creators to have much more control over how their audience moves through the content on the site. While there remains a navigation bar that links to all the various pieces of content on the site, each page includes hyperlinked text at the bottom that links to whatever page the author suggests the visitor should navigate to next. This is especially helpful when considering the sequencing of content. In a traditional exhibit, designers are able to arrange a room in such a way that the visitor is guided through the material (based on entrances and exits, labeling, graphics such as arrows, etc). The same considerations must be taken when designing a digital exhibit and Omeka allows for this to be fairly streamlined. 

For example, my exhibit contains three major components: an education timeline that traces the major legal shifts in the United Kingdom that lead to the 1947 Act, a civil rights timeline that highlights major moments in the 1960s in the region, and then a set of profiles of ‘Eleven Plus’ alumni of St. Columb’s school in Derry. It’s important that visitors are introduced to this information intentionally, otherwise they would encounter content without the appropriate context. The education timeline provides the background information, the St. Columb’s profiles provide descriptions of the experiences of ‘Eleven Plus’ students, and the civil rights timeline provides evidence of the impacts of this piece of legislation. Omeka’s structure allows me to guide visitors through this content in a way that ensures increased effectiveness.

Additionally, Omeka has ‘modules’ (like ‘widgets’ on WordPress) that host a variety of functions on the site. Most useful for my project is their ‘timeline’ module, which integrates the SIMILE and KnightLab timeline tools. This allowed me to make my education and civil rights timelines more dynamic and interactive. For example, the education timeline contains a variety of legal documents (1902 Education Bill of England and Wales, 1920 Government of Ireland Act, 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1944 Butler Act, 1945 Scotland Education Act, and finally, the 1947 Northern Ireland Education Act) that Omeka allows to be hosted on the timeline. This means that visitors are able to engage with the primary sources as they move through this portion of the exhibit. Similarly, the civil rights timeline contains a variety of artifacts (images, videos, tv and radio reports) that are associated with the events I selected to demonstrate the key elements of the region’s civil rights movement. 

Both of these timelines also have associated supplementary primary documents (education timeline: Integrated Schools – Information for Parents Pamphlet, copy of the Eleven Plus Test, selection of Seamus Heaney Poems; civil rights timeline: Fred Heatley’s “NICRA’s Beginnings” for Fortnight Magazine, the Campaign for Social Justice’s The Plain Truth, One Man, No Vote, and Why Justice Cannot Be Done) that can be displayed alongside the timelines using Omeka’s ‘carousel’ feature, which functions like a gallery. This feature was also useful when creating the profiles of the St. Columb’s alumni as it allows for linked content as well. All of these features allow for the integration of alt-text, ensuring that the exhibit remains accessible for all visitors.  While Omeka is not as flashy as some of the other platforms I considered (such as WordPress or StoryMaps), what it lacks in glitz it makes up for in functionality. 

Unfortunately, the more functional Omeka-S has a financial barrier: its free version only functions as a temporary testing ground for users. All users are able to create sites using a shared login, but then the sites are periodically wiped clean. For this reason, I have also created a static version of the digital exhibit on a basic Omeka site. This means that the website does not have all the plugins that were included in the original Omeka-S site. However, the skeleton remains the same and allows for the exhibit to exist in a rudimentary state until I’m able to receive funding and/or the project takes on a new form. 

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