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Irish Christian Brothers Boys School, Oxford St. Belfast 1964-68

July 25, 2019

I don’t usually use this website for personal reminiscences or opinions. However, on a recent trip to Belfast, where I am from, I was in a taxi driving past my old primary school in Oxford St, which is now the tattoo parlour Skinworks. I happened to mention to the taxi driver that this was my old primary school and he replied that he had never known that the building had been a school. This prompted me to write this short memoir about the school and my time there. I can justify the presence of this memoir on the site as it concerns education and does make some reference to music. I attended the school between 1964 and 1968, that is, between the ages of 6 and 10.

It is not my intention to provide a history of the school or a full account of the context, but I have provided a few links that provide more detailed information.

Barry MItchell

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1. Location and infrastructure

St Malachy’s primary school was built in 1873 and was a school for Roman Catholic boys aged 5-12. It was located in Oxford St, Belfast, on Belfast Quay near Belfast docks. The location was influenced by the fact that the school was originally founded to teach boys whose fathers worked as bargemen on the river Lagan. Once built, the school remained unchanged until it closed as a school in 1968. The school was never referred to by its official name but was always known simply as Oxford St School or just Oxford St. Oxford St was an Irish Christian Brothers school. The Christian Brothers are a religious order founded by Edmund Ignatius Rice in 1808 with a particular interest in education. The first Christian Brothers school, though not officially called so then, had opened in Waterford in 1802. The headmaster of Oxford St was always a Christian Brother, but three of the four teaching staff were usually laymen. The Christian Brothers, usually referred to just as the Brothers, always dressed in black suits and most wore a Pioneer badge in their left lapel. This was a small circular silver badge which indicated that they never drank alcohol.

Oxford St consisted of two very large rooms, one on the ground floor and one on the first floor, plus a smaller but still large room at the back of the first floor, which overhung a small playground area. The playground area was about 15 yards square. At the back of the playground was a toilet area which consisted of about 6 urinals, which were uncovered and therefore open to the elements in all weathers, and three toilets which were covered. There was one cold water tap in the toilet area. These were the toilet facilities for c. 140 boys and six members of staff, five male and one female. There were no separate female toilet facilities. Access to the first floor was from the playground via a cast iron staircase. This was the only entrance to the first floor. A cold water tap in the playground area provided the only source of drinking water.

As can be seen from the photograph below, the ground floor of the building is currently at street level. This was not how the school was originally built, as steps descended from street level to the front entrance and the original ground floor was about six feet below street level. There must therefore be a substantial basement area under the current ground floor. The ground floor room was therefore a semi-basement room and was not particularly well lit, though the ceiling was much higher than currently.

The former Oxford St primary school. View from the other side of Oxford St.

The school taught primaries 1-7 but only had three rooms. This meant that up to four classes were taught in one room. The two largest rooms had a partition sitting in the middle of the room which divided the room into two. This only covered about one third of the width of the room and was about six feet high whereas the ceilings were very high, as can be deduced from the photograph of the exterior. In the downstairs room primaries 1 and 2 were combined into one class, as were primaries 3 and 4. Upstairs were primaries 5, 6 and 7. As far as I remember primary 7 was taught as a a discrete group. So the situation was that often a teacher could be teaching two classes and, in the same room, another teacher would be teaching another two classes.

Heating was provided by a larger boiler in the in the primary 1&2 classroom on the ground floor. This had to be filled up with coal, which it was the teacher’s job to do. The boiler fed radiators which, given the size of the rooms, were not particularly effective. Boys had to dress warmly when the weather was very cold. There was no school caretaker or handyman. The state of the infrastructure was very poor and the roof leaked and was noticeably crumbling. The desks were of the old-fashioned type with lift-able lids and holes for inkwells. If these were not the original desks from 1873, they were very like them. Each half room was equipped with a blackboard, which was the only teaching aid.

There was no food provided for the children, apart from school milk, so boys either brought their own lunches or the money to buy something at lunchtime from the local shops. Some biscuits could be bought from the school’s small supply.

The school day began and 9.00am and finished at 3.15pm. There was a short break in the morning and a lunch break.

There are a couple of points worth making about the infrastructure of the school. First, it was very poor, even by the standards of the early 1960s. The school had been condemned as unfit for purpose as early as 1925, but continued until 1968, no doubt because of the lack of a suitable replacement. Second, there were no private rooms, no staff room or headmaster’s office. All praise and blame, punishments and rewards, took place in public. Any meetings the headmaster had with parents or visitors had to take place in front of the class. The headmaster would give the boys some work to do and then have whatever discussion was necessary.

Problems such as poor infrastructure and overcrowding seem, on the basis on anecdotal evidence, to have been endemic in Roman Catholic boys schools in Belfast the 1960s. Oxford St was not my local school, which was Rosario and was in the street where I lived. However, the situation there was that the pressure of numbers was such that boys could only attend a half day: at lunchtime one cohort of students would leave and another would arrive.

No doubt problems of poor infrastructure and overcrowding in primary schools were common in Britain and Ireland in the early 1960s, and must have had a detrimental impact on children’s education. While the case of Oxford St may have been particularly bad, I doubt very much if it was unusual.

Former Oxford St primary school, Belfast, front entrance. Photo Barry Mitchell June 2019.

2. The curriculum

The number of subjects taught was fairly limited. There was a strong emphasis on mathematics and reading and writing. In the earliest years great stress was made on learning the times tables, which were permanently written on the blackboard. From that, the basics of mathematics were taught. In the higher years the study of algebra began.

In the later years literature was studied. This was invariably Irish literature, i.e. literature in English by Irish writers. Writers such as Liam O’ Flaherty and Mary Lavin were studied, with short stories being particularly popular. The teacher would read out the stories which would then be discussed.

Apart from English the only other language studied was Irish. This was studied mainly in the later years. Geography was studied. History was an important subject and consisted mainly of Irish history.

As the school was a Roman Catholic school managed by a religious order, inevitably religion was a very important part of the curriculum. This took the form of the teaching of Roman Catholic doctrines and theology. These were particularly related to the three sacraments which the boys took for the first time while at the school: Confirmation, Confession and Holy Communion. The boys attended Confirmation at St Malachy’s Church which was not far away near The Markets area of Belfast. The boys would attend Confession and Holy Communion in their own parishes.

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In primary 7 there was specific preparation for the 11 plus exam, which as it name indicates, was meant to be taken at the age of 12. A pass at the 11 plus was usually required to attend a grammar school. There were two Roman Catholic grammar schools in Belfast that Oxford St boys would usually go on to attend: St Malachy’s College and St Mary’s Christian Brothers Grammar School.

There were therefore no what could be regarded as non-essential subjects studied such as art, music, drama, foreign languages. The school had no sports facilities but was able to use local facilities. It had a Gaelic football team, which trained and played off site. The children attended swimming lessons at Ormeau Baths, which was within walking distance.

3. Demographics

It is difficult at this distance in time to comment with much accuracy on the demographics of the school. Despite being close to a working class Roman Catholic area of Belfast known as The Markets it seems the school was not set up primarily to serve that area. The students came from a wide area. For more information see the article by Brother Maurice Finn, referenced below. The children were a mixture of working class and middle class children, an insight that comes with hindsight, the boys at the time not being class conscious. Certainly a good proportion of the boys who attended had parents who were in middle class professions.

4. Organisation

There appeared to be no set timetable, or least not one that was communicated to the pupils. Every day would begin with prayers, which the boys stood up to say. The Hail Mary was probably the most popular prayer, along with the Our Father and The Apostles’ Creed. Mathematics or reading and writing would usually follow, but apart from that there appeared to be no set times for subjects, which could change according to the decision of the teacher. Particularly in the later years the lesson would continue for as long as the teacher felt was necessary, so a whole afternoon could be devoted to one topic.

There was no formal mechanism for parents to be involved in the running of the school and any issues they had were dealt with informally. There was therefore nothing like a parents’ day. Apart from day to day feedback on boys’ work there was no formal testing. There were therefore no end of term reports or school reports. The period leading up to the end of term was therefore characterised by a more relaxed atmosphere as everyone looked forward to the break. The only after school activity, excluding sports, was a very informal chess club which was held once or twice a week.

5. Culture

There are aspects of Oxford St 1964-68 that are of their time, but surely not untypical of primary schools in Britain and Ireland at the time. There are other aspects which are more specific to this type of school, which combined to form the culture of the school.

5.1. Context

First, Oxford St was a Roman Catholic school and has to be understood in the light of the educational policies of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland going back at least as far as the beginning of the nineteenth century. This is too large a subject for me to comment on here. Second, these education policies in N Ireland have to be considered in the context of political developments in twentieth-century Ireland. Ireland was, and is, mainly a Roman Catholic country which had up to the early twentieth century been ruled by England. However, the 1916 Easter Rising or Revolution had set the country on the path to independence, though the whole of Ireland had not become independent: in 1922 the country was partitioned and divided into N Ireland, which remained in the United Kingdom, and the Irish Free State (to a large extent, but not completely, an independent country). The Irish Free State became the independent country The Irish Republic in 1937. The Irish Republic was overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and Roman Catholicism was recognised has having a special position. Irish (though only spoken by a minority) was the official language.

In Northern Ireland after partition in 1922 the situation was very different. Roman Catholics made up about one third of the population, with protestants making up the majority. Belfast at the time was to a large extent divided along sectarian lines, with economic and political activity dominated by protestants. For example Harland & Wolff, only a short walk from Oxford St, the shipyard that built The Titanic, was notorious for not employing Roman Catholics and the few that were employed were often subject to harassment.

As Brother Maurice Finn points out in the article referenced below, in the 1960s mixed marriages were forbidden by the Roman Catholic church in the diocese of Down and Connor which provided the catchment area for Oxford St. By mixed marriages is meant marriages between Roman Catholics and non-Catholics (i.e. in effect marriages between Roman Catholics and protestants). Such marriages were of course legal but could not take place in a Roman Catholic church. The children of such marriages were accepted as pupils at Oxford St, which is an interesting point about the demographics of the school as well as illustrating the sectarian divide in Belfast at the time.

This might help to place Oxford St in its general context, but it is also important to remember that the Brothers who ran the school were not from N Ireland: they were mostly from the Irish Republic, and specifically the very southern counties of Waterford, Cork and Kerry. As they set the tone for the school their views on politics and religion formed the basis of a quite specific ideology that was communicated to the children. The Brothers were always enthusiastic nationalists, that is, they believed in the primary importance of the unification of Ireland, essentially that the partition of 1922 should be reversed and Ireland become one country.

The mainstays of the culture of the school were history and religion. Even in the brief account of the context given above, it is obvious that history and religion could easily merge to become part of an ideology. History meant almost exclusively Irish history and this was presented in a very specific way: as primarily the struggle of the Irish people to throw off the yoke of the English oppressor. The cruelties and injustices of English rule were often dwelt on in some detail, such as the massacres of the campaigns (1649-53) of Oliver Cromwell, the hardships of the Famine (1845-49) , and perhaps most of all, the violent repression of the 1916 revolution.

As a counterpoint to this went the lives of the heroes of Irish Nationalism who had fought for Irish freedom, such as Wolfe Tone (1763-98), leader of the 1798 rebellion and Daniel O’Connell “The Liberator” (1775-1847) who campaigned for Catholic Emancipation. At the very summit stood the heroes of the 1916 Easter Rising, many of whom had been executed by the English. The children therefore became familiar with historical events such as the execution of James Connolly, one of the leaders of the revolution, who had been executed by firing squad while in a wheelchair  (or tied to a chair). Connolly had then been buried without a coffin in an unmarked mass grave. Padraig Pearse, one of the main drivers of the revolution, was a particular hero. He was one of the first of the revolutionaries to be executed in 1916 and was buried in the same unmarked mass grave as Connolly. It can be seen that history and religion easily melded into one, for the struggle of the Irish people for freedom was also the struggle of Roman Catholics to throw off oppression and unfair discrimination. The Penal Laws were often discussed. These were laws which placed serious restrictions on the rights of Roman Catholics, and were used by the Brothers to illustrate English oppression. The Penal Laws were mainly in place 1660-1693, though they not completely abandoned until the 1820s. The eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke describes the Penal Laws as “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” (By “wise” Burke means clever.)

5.2. Irish Nationalist songs

The Brothers were very fond of Irish rebel songs, and one of the most popular activities with the children was a spontaneous sing song, where most of the songs were invariably Irish Nationalist ones. These were songs such as The Jolly Ploughboy, which begins:

Now I’m a jolly ploughboy

And I ploughed the fields all day

Until the thought came to my head

To join the IRA

Now we’re all off to Dublin

In the green, in the green

With our helmets glistening in the sun

And the bayonets flash and rifles clash

To the echo of the Thompson guns

The ballad Grace was also popular. In this ballad James Connolly, the 1916 revolutionary who was executed in his wheelchair, is visited in Kilmainham Goal by his wife Grace on the evening before his execution. The two say a tearful farewell as Connolly expresses his willingness to die for the cause of Irish freedom.

I distinctly remember being taught The Croppy Boy, a very beautiful traditional Irish lament. In this song, set at the time of the 1798 rebellion led by Wolfe Tone, a young Irish man describes how his father has betrayed him to the English for money: he is sentenced by the English to be hanged.

Other popular songs were Sure We’re All United Irishmen and The Fields of Athenry, a song which is still popular today, though the rebel aspect is maybe not so obvious: the song is about the famine and English policy towards Ireland during it, but you need some contextual information in order to be able to understand the references in the lyrics.

There were a few songs that were popular that had nothing to do with Ireland, such as The Camptown Races, When the Saints go Marching in and She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain. The rousing hymn Faith of Our Fathers was also very popular, and contains the lines:

Faith of our fathers living still

In spite of dungeon fire and sword

A sing song such as this would be started at random, and in general the topic and tone of the class could change in ways that seemed random. While the Brothers eschewed alcohol, they could be heavy smokers and would often smoke while teaching. After a session of a difficult subject like algebra the teacher might pull out his packet of Senior Service untipped, light up and then entertain the children for a few moments by blowing smoke rings, before starting up the rebel sing song.

The children were of course fascinated by such tricks such as the blowing of smoke rings and the teachers would often break up the day with jokes and stories. One teacher would entertain the children during break time by bending iron bars with his bare hands. He had a collection of iron bars in his desk specifically for this activity and would also try to bend the bars back into shape, quite often while puffing on a cigarette. Needless to say, the children loved this and he was always surrounded by an admiring crowd.

One practical joke the boys particularly enjoyed was something I would describe as The Surprise Attack. The Surprise Attack worked like this. Usually the children had their desks arranged in pairs, so that two boys sat together (boys who sat together were normally friends). At times a pupil would be absent so a child would have an empty desk beside them. The teacher would come and sit in the empty desk and pretend to be perusing the boy’s work. Then the teacher would suddenly grip a nerve point in the boy’s leg just above the knee. This is quite painful though the pain is short-lived (it seems to work more effectively on children than on adults) and the boy would invariably jump up and scream. This was very amusing to everyone apart from the victim.

5.3. Language

The Brothers usually spoke fluent Irish but only very rarely would talk among themselves in Irish in front of the children. This perhaps was motivated by a desire not to be seen saying things that the children could not understand. Given their ideological standpoint it is perhaps surprising that the Irish language was not pushed more strongly. There was much more emphasis on mastering the English language which was presented in a very positive light, partly because of the achievements of Irish writers writing in English. However, I can not remember the work of any English writers ever being studied.

5.4. Sport

Stories of sporting achievements were popular. The only sports that were given any credence were the traditional Irish sports of Gaelic football and hurling. Soccer, if mentioned at all, was mentioned in a negative light, with the transfer system being described as people being sold like cattle, a kind of modern slave trade. This contrasted with the amateur purity of Gaelic sports. The Brothers never missed an opportunity to point out the equality, and preferably superiority, of things Irish over things English. The sports of cricket and rugby were never mentioned. The exploits of Christy Ring, a famous Cork hurler, were told often, and the boys listened enthralled to such stories. This attitude to sport should be understood in the context of the policies of the governing body of Gaelic sports, the Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA), which banned its members from taking part in sports such as soccer that were perceived to be English.

Christy Ring (1920-79), famous Cork hurler, was a great sporting hero of the Oxford St school Christian Brothers.

I believe the school Gaelic football team was quite good. I can only remember going to see them play once. This involved a rare bus trip to somewhere out in the country. The playing field looked very much like a farmer’s field with goalposts at either end. I remember Oxford St won quite easily. On the way home we were reprimanded for singing songs that were deemed over-triumphalist and therefore not showing sufficient respect to our beaten opponents.

5.5. The annual trip to Dublin

At a time when people did not travel much, certainly not as much as nowadays, the most eagerly anticipated extra-curricular event of the year was the annual trip to Dublin. The parents contributed the cost throughout the year. Not only was this an exciting trip away to the Capital of the Irish Republic but it was also, if not primarily, a pilgrimage to iconic sites of Irish Nationalism, particularly the General Post Office (GPO) in O’Connell Street and Kilmainham Goal. In 1916 the revolutionaries had read the Declaration of Irish Independence from the steps of the GPO, something which marked the beginning of the 1916 Easter Rising. The revolutionaries who were arrested were kept in Kilmainham Goal before many of them were executed. In the period 1964-68 the President of the Irish Republic was Eamonn de Valera, one of the 1916 revolutionaries who had been earmarked for execution but reprieved. De Valera went on to become a dominant political figure in the Irish Free State/Republic. The annual trip to Dublin was talked about months beforehand and was reminisced about for months afterwards.

5.6. Charity

Charity was encouraged. The children, especially in the early years, were given a few pence by their parents to bring to school to donate to The Collection for the Black Babies. The money was collected once a week. The beneficiaries were left rather vague: it was never explained very precisely who the black babies were and what the money was to be used for. One teacher attempted to collect for babies without specifying the colour of the babies but this was met with loud protests from the children, who demanded to know whether the babies were black or white. The teacher explained that it did not really matter what their colour was, but this innovation was not popular.

5.7. Egalitarianism

An egalitarian ethos was inculcated. The boys wore school uniforms and the reason given for this was to exclude obvious differences between boys when it came to quality and cost of clothing. One January the children were encouraged to bring in their Christmas toys, but this practice was soon discontinued. The reason given was that some children would have toys that were obviously a lot more expensive, and better, than those received by other children. During the year there was no obvious indication of what children were doing well and which were not.

The results of the 11 plus exam came out while children were still at school. Any discussion of the results was banned as some children would have failed and there was to be no distinction made between those who passed and those who failed. This ban was taken very seriously and was strictly enforced. Today this reluctance to distinguish between the successful and the less successful might be attributed to namby-pamby liberalism, something no one has yet had the temerity to accuse the Brothers of. I decline to be the first, for reasons that will be outlined in what follows.

6. Discipline

The Brothers had a reputation as innovative educators but also as severe disciplinarians. They certainly lived up the latter reputation at Oxford St. Those of a sensitive disposition may want to look away now.

Corporal punishment was considered as an essential part of the process of education. It took the form of the use of a strap, a piece of black leather about 9 inches long and half and inch thick. This was used to slap children on their hands, with the target being the fingers and the palm of the hand. The resulting pain was quite severe and if the ball of the thumb was hit the pain was excruciating. Children were given up to six slaps depending on the severity of their misdemeanour. The strap was in constant use. It was used not only for disciplinary offences but as an educational tool. For example, children who had got a mathematical problem wrong were often called up to the front of the class to receive a slap. This obviously made school a painful experience – literally – for the weaker students. There were no qualms about giving children aged 7 or 8 quite serious beatings. When I was in primary two I remember a child from primary 3 on the other side of the partition getting a particularly severe beating. He returned to his desk sobbing loudly. The teacher’s response was to tell him to stop behaving as if his bladder was in his head. I remember being quite frightened by the experience, as you would expect a six-year old child to be.

It should be pointed out that the practice of corporal punishment in primary schools represented mainstream thinking at the time. The necessity for it was almost universally accepted by children, parents, teachers and those in charge of managing educational institutions. However, at Oxford St teachers would also use their own improvised methods of corporal punishment, such as hitting children on the head with their hands. The blow would usually arrive from behind very suddenly and was quite painful when delivered to the ear. Or, the hair just in front of the ear could be grabbed and pulled upwards, which is extremely painful.

The constant use of corporal punishment ultimately resulted in the children becoming fairly blasé about it. It was accepted as a kind of occupational hazard, and you could even demonstrate how tough you were by boasting of the beatings you had taken. There was an element of oneupmanship here. Children were expected to be able to take beatings and there was kudos involved if you could take one without crying: you gained the respect of your peers and perhaps even the teachers. Because of the layout of the school there was no private doling out of punishments: everything was acted out in public and both the child’s and the teacher’s character were open to scrutiny. Was the teacher fair? Was the child tough? It was all there to be seen and judged.

As a behavioural modification or educational tool corporal punishment was ineffective, though it might have helped to keep order. However, in every disciplinarian scheme there has to be an ultimate sanction, something so terrible that it’s very existence acts as a deterrent. Such a sanction did exist and had nothing to do with delivering slaps: the ultimate sanction was exclusion from all the activities of the Gaelic football team.

One episode that took place in primary 7 gives some interesting insights into the culture of the school and particularly the attitude to discipline. It was one teacher’s habit to walk after school with a group of boys to a nearby bus stop, which they all used. This was part of the informal and generally good relationships between pupils and teachers. Formality in the context of an educational institution can only be maintained by the person who makes a relatively short and controlled appearance and then disappears to the privacy and safety of their power office. This was not an option for the Oxford St teachers, who were in front of the children for every minute of every day. Apart from children referring to male teachers as Sir and female teachers as Miss there was therefore little formality. To think that the disciplinary regime soured pupil-student relationships would be to project the values of today back half a century.

Towards the end of one school day a teacher said that on several occasions while walking with students to the nearby bus stop after school he had been spoken to in a way that had been very disrespectful, to the extent that he had had to restrain himself from inflicting physical violence there and then in the form of a blow to the head. He then identified the child to the class and gave an account of what punishment he had decided to give, emphasising that the decision had been made only after long and difficult deliberation. The normal punishment of slapping was discounted as not of sufficient severity. It looked very much like the ultimate sanction was about to be used. But no, the children heard with horror that even exclusion from all the activities of the Gaelic football team had not been considered severe enough. The teacher then went on to describe how the only sanction suitable was one of the greatest imaginable severity: exclusion from the annual trip to Dublin. This decision had been arrived at only after a long and difficult period of deliberation. The children were of course shocked and the child in question became very upset and immediately started crying and begging for clemency, but the teacher stuck by his decision. This was the last business of the day and the boys went home in a sombre mood.

There are several aspects of this incident which are revealing. First, there is the tacit admission that corporal punishment was not an effective punishment for any misdemeanour considered serious. Second, the teacher felt the need to give a long explanation for his decision and particularly the reasoning behind it, and was open about the emotional turmoil that reaching this difficult decision had caused. It was not at all unusual for teachers to give detailed explanations in justification of their decisions and behaviour. This was probably from a conviction that it was important for decisions to be seen to be just.

7. Teaching methods

As mentioned before, teaching aids were very limited (it was the mid 1960s after all) and as a consequence “chalk and talk” was the main teaching method. The school had a very limited supply of books though there was a small library which worked as follows. The children brought in the money to fund the library and then a pupil book buyer was elected by the children. The book buyer, accompanied by a couple of pupils he picked as advisers, would then go into Belfast to a bookshop and buy books they thought were suitable. One book buyer came in for serious criticism for buying books that were unsuitable and it was decided by the pupils and the teacher to remove him from that role. The child was quite upset by this and, as usual, the whole episode was acted out in public. Children took this kind of public criticism very much to heart, much more so than the routine doling out of corporal punishment.

In the later years quite a lot of time was spent just having informal discussions with the children. The topics could be anything of topical interest but favourites were Gaelic sport, Irish literature, Irish history and Irish politics. The Brothers did not shy away from controversial topics and were more than happy to discuss politics with the children. Children in primary 6 and 7 were assumed to be capable of understanding political issues. It should be noted in this regard that children were regarded as reaching the age of reason at 7 years old, which was why the sacrament of Confirmation took place at that age.

The main educational challenge facing the teachers was to get boys through the 11 plus exam. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many Roman Catholic boys schools were struggling to achieve good results. I have already mentioned the problems of Rosario school, where the children only attended a half day. This obviously affected the school’s 11 plus results, which anecdotal evidence suggests were very poor. Another factor, I suspect, is that children were not specifically prepared for the test. As far as I remember the thinking behind the 11 plus was that it was supposed to be an intelligence test, which tested innate abilities rather than academic attainment: it was therefore meant to be a fair test, not discriminating against those who had not had the best educational provision at primary school (in the mid 1960s there would be many such children). Teachers may even have been discouraged from specifically preparing children for the 11 plus. As I have not researched this my impressions here might be wrong.

There is, however, no test devised by man that does not test some kind of skill. There is no skill that cannot be learned, and if a skill can be learned it can be practised, and if it can be practised it can be improved. Far from testing innate intelligence the 11 plus exam consisted to a large extent of exercises in logic, and logical thinking is a skill that can be taught and practised. It is also difficult to see how the skill of time management in an exam can in any way be a test of innate intelligence.

The Brothers must have realised this and had no scruples about teaching what we would now call “exam preparation”. I can not say to what extent this was a common practice in primary schools during the mid 1960s. I have already mentioned the introduction of algebra into the curriculum in the later years. This was justified to the children on the grounds that it promoted logical thought. The children were also introduced to exercises that were essentially logic puzzles, and taught the techniques of solving these problems. Finally, an 11 plus past paper was studied and there was a mock 11 plus exam. The teacher went to great trouble to obtain the 11 plus past paper and we got the impression that the source was not entirely legitimate. The teacher became visibly distressed when some of the papers went missing.

These methods brought results. In 1968, the school’s final year the 11 plus pass rate was very high. It is difficult to know exactly what it was but it would not surprise me if it was as high as 70 per cent. The pupils who passed included one particularly clever young lad who the Brothers saw fit to enter into the examination even though he was only nine years old: a rather unorthodox move, but perhaps a tribute to the Brothers’ exam preparation methods.

Oxford St closed as a school in 1968, 43 years after being condemned as unfit for purpose. It lay empty for some time and was then a solicitor’s office and finally became Skinworks tattoo parlour.

The building is listed and the exterior is in excellent condition.

Former Oxford St primary school, Belfast, front. Photo Barry Mitchell June 2019.

References and links.

History of Oxford St school

https://theroamingmind.wordpress.com/2013/10/23/st-malachys-christian-brothers-school-oxford-street-belfast/

Edmund Rice School Trusts website (bilingual Irish/English), with an article by Brother Maurice Finn about Oxford St school.

http://erstni.org/child-test/oxford-st/

Article in The Independent about the Christian Brothers.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/christian-brothers-make-their-deathbed-confession-1268168.html

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