Working-class Protestants fall behind Catholic peers

1st April 2011 at 01:00
In Northern Ireland, just one in 10 goes on to university, report shows

Protestant teenagers from disadvantaged areas of Northern Ireland are underperforming at school compared to their Catholic peers, according to a new report.

Just one in 10 working-class Protestant pupils goes on to university, compared with one in five Catholics from similar backgrounds, the study found. Protestant pupils also perform considerably worse in school exams.

The findings have been highlighted in A Call to Action, a report by headteachers, educationalists and community leaders which was led by Dawn Purvis, an independent member of the Northern Ireland Assembly representing a mainly working-class unionist area of east Belfast.

The group was formed partly in response to the 2008 GCSE figures, in which only 48 per cent of Protestant boys achieved five A*-C GCSEs, compared with the national average in Northern Ireland of 75 per cent.

The report found that the areas of greatest deprivation are often those that endured the greatest political tension and violence. While the Catholic community has traditionally placed a high value on educational achievement, Protestants have favoured vocational over academic education, it said.

The post-primary school system in Northern Ireland is divided into a mix of Catholic and Protestant grammar and non-selective schools. But Catholic grammars attract a higher proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals - an average of 9.6 per cent compared with 4.6 per cent in Protestant grammars, according to Tony Gallagher, professor of education at Queen's University Belfast.

Huge numbers of Protestants are "losers in the current system", said Mark Langhammer, director of teaching union ATL Northern Ireland and chair of the working group. "The question is: why are schools attended by mainly Protestant kids more socially segregated?" he added.

Ms Purvis said: "There is no culture of learning within the Protestant working class. If you don't see education as an opportunity you're not going to scream and shout about the problems."

The report calls for the Northern Ireland Executive to invest more in early-years schooling and to introduce a child poverty strategy. It also wants a single education authority for all of Northern Ireland to ensure funding is allocated more efficiently in disadvantaged areas.

Jim Keith, principal of Belfast Boys' Model School, who was part of the working group, said schools needed to adopt more flexible learning styles to improve performance within disadvantaged groups.

"This may be particularly true for boys from communities that continue to experience socio-economic deprivation, poverty, academic underachievement and suffer most from the legacy of the troubles," he said. "These boys and young men will do best in a classroom environment that understands and connects to the influences in their lives beyond the school gates."

Caitriona Ruane, Northern Ireland education minister, welcomed the report. "I have prioritised raising standards and tackling underachievement in all areas," she said. "All these issues need to be tackled so that every child can receive the education they are entitled to."

FINDINGS - Key points

- Funding priorities are currently "back to front" in Northern Ireland and too little is invested in early years.

- Academic selection does not cause social division, but it does accentuate it.

- Lack of social balance in many schools leads to an unequal distribution of resources and an unfair burden on non-selective schools.

- There is insufficient flexibility in the curriculum and in school funding to allow teachers to respond to the needs of disadvantaged pupils.

- The lack of co-ordination and co-operation among government departments and agencies wastes resources and potential.

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