10,000 Boys: Educational Priorities & Our Need to Address Truths to make a Fresh Start

We are only a matter of weeks into the life of the new Executive, and already the DUP (through Arlene Foster and Peter Weir) have signaled their intention to make the issue of academic selection and the transfer tests a key theme in the early part of the administration.

Some may argue that this is understandable given the party’s avowedly pro-academic selection stance and long-time opposition to Sinn Fein’s refusal to support the bodies responsible for organizing the transfer tests.

Yet I believe it is a mistake.

As a parent of a Primary 6 pupil and a vice principal in a school where I know that many children will follow their parent’s instruction to sit one or both of the transfer tests, I understand only too well the human desire to organise the testing process in a manner that can relieve some of the avoidable stress and anxiety from pupils and parents alike. I don’t envisage this happening any time soon, given that both the GL Assessments and AQE tests have become firmly established in the relevant school sectors, but it is understandable to conclude that an agreed test at some point in the future might simplify the process and reduce the number of Saturday tests sat by children, which would be welcomed by parents and pupils alike.

Yet the reality remains that the greatest challenge to those tasked with organizing and shaping our education system is not to tinker with the number of tests sat by some P6 pupils in the autumn of each year, but rather to demonstrate how we can more effectively tackle educational underachievement in the time ahead.

One thing I agree with Peter Weir is that, were selection to be phased out tomorrow, the issue of underachievement would remain as prominent a factor as it is today. Regardless of our system of post-primary education, we will always be dealing with underachieving pupils and with a differential in outcomes between those from the poorest and more affluent family and community backgrounds. Thus is the world, and the evidence from other jurisdictions clearly shows that these themes remain prevalent regardless of the existence or otherwise of academic selection.

Therefore the onus for a DUP Minister should not be on rehearsing the selection argument, where attitudes remain as fixed as ever on both sides, but rather on taking practical, concrete steps to challenge underachievement with the aspiration being to provide an increasingly equal playing field for all children.

That’s going to be difficult, because whether the Minister wants to admit it or not, the reality is that a direct consequence of selection is the fact that the overwhelming majority of our poor kids, and of our children with social, emotional, learning and behavioural difficulties, end up corralled together in a non-grammar post-primary sector where we expect our school leaders and teachers to do the heaviest lifting of all in our system- and, because of sustainability problems caused by the grammar sector effortlessly filling its numbers to the brim due to the reputational advantage that comes with the grammar brand, these schools face budgetary and staffing problems when they should be the very places exempt from such difficulties (as far as is reasonably possible.)

Peter Weir will not have the luxury of a lengthy honeymoon phase in the post. With school leaders facing severe budget difficulties, it is highly likely that a significant number of redundancies at teacher and classroom assistant level will begin to dominate the educational agenda in the weeks and months ahead. Such pressures illustrate the financial challenges facing the Minister, who will also be concerned that the DSC Signature Project initiative, credited with helping significantly bolster attainment rates in the most deprived school communities over the two year period ending in 2014/15, has already been wound up for one year and there is little indication yet that he will be able to source funds to reinstate the programme or implement a similar one in the near future.

The selection debate is one that I have grown weary of over the years. Too often, fixed positions on selection are presented by politicians as the primary defining contribution to education as much because they are comfortable regurgitating learned scripts as due to any awareness or appreciation of the substantive consequences flowing from the outworkings of their stance.

The perspectives may be sincerely held, but simply articulating a viewpoint and stating a belief in what would be ideal is not enough.

Parents are instinctively pragmatic when it comes to their children, and I have always believed that school leaders in working-class communities must adopt a similarly pragmatic approach in order to ensure that any deficit with regard to parental/communal influence, awareness or interest is narrowed.

Most of us opposing academic selection stand guilty on the charge of hypocrisy. Virtually all of the opponents of selection I know in the teaching profession were past pupils of grammar schools and almost all have proceeded to send their children to grammar schools. I stand to be corrected, but I’m fairly certain that every one of the leaders of our local political parties was educated at a grammar school too. Yet it is a hypocrisy which is wholly understandable, for there is nothing of more importance to an adult then the idea of taking a step which they sincerely believe to be in the best interest of their children.

Consequently, so long as grammar schools continue to exist as an option, the demand side will not be a problem.

The harsh realities of life render any notion of a completely level playing field for children as a fantasy. The best we can demand is that government policy remains focused on tackling inequalities and closing gaps that can never truly be erased. That is particularly important in a society like ours which remains deeply divided on selection.

In the most ideal setting, a school’s intake will be broadly reflective of society, with pupils from a sprinkling of all classes and of all ability levels. The presence in schools across a society of classrooms with kids from broad social and attainment profiles is considered best conducive to developing a culture of achievement and aspiration that permeates all sections of society.

The fact that our grammar schools take 42% of our post-primary pupils has meant that, in far too many non-grammar schools, the attainment and social profile of the pupils is very narrow, disproportionately reflective of not just the poorest in our society but also the lowest ability learners.

If we are moving towards a pragmatic engagement between proponents and opponents of academic selection, then one early measure that could be introduced would be to begin to reduce the grammar sector’s percentage intake of the overall pupil cohort over a set period of years- for example, reducing the figure from 42% down to sub-30% over the course of 5-7 years.

This would have a dramatic impact upon the non-grammar sector in a number of ways that would bolster the capacity of non-grammar schools to be sustainable, improving their budgetary positions, whilst also introducing a greater social and attainment profile mix to the schools, which should bring a notable advance in academic performance in an immediate sense. It is also likely that this would lead us into an age of over-subscribed non-grammars, which would begin to introduce a more fixed idea of geographical identity for school communities.

But that’s just one idea.

Ironically, the latest figures for the educational achievement of school leavers are contained in the 2014/15 Statistical Bulletin published last month, and they make very interesting reading.

The trend over the past decade has been quite positive, with schools and pupils overall returning results showing the numbers and percentage of pupils securing 5 GCSEs or equivalents improving significantly, most specifically in the non-grammar sector. This reflects an ability on behalf of schools- particularly non-grammar schools- to match learners with qualifications to ensure that a significantly reduced number of children leave school with less than 5 qualifications at this level- in 2009/10 28.1% of school leavers left without 5 GCSEs; that figure is now down to 18.9%.

When the bar is raised with the stipulation that the 5 GCSEs include Maths and English, the 66% of pupils achieving that represents a significant improvement on the 59.0% of 2009/10, and this has been driven by a notable jump in the percentage of pupils from poorer backgrounds achieving this outcome (the 41.3% of Free School Meal entitled pupils who secured the 5 ‘good’ GCSEs in 2014/15 is a marked improvement on the 27.7% of FSM pupils matching that in 2007/08.)

All of which points to the fact that the trend has been positive for a number of years. That’s the good news.

But the bad news is never far away, and it is quite sobering.

% and Numbers of FSME Boys Securing 5 ‘Good’ GCSEs
Protestant BoysCatholic Boys
Number of boys failing to secure 5 ‘good’ GCSEs3,711 7,031

In the last eight years, more than 10,000 working class boys (ie those entitled to Free School Meals) have left school without securing 5 good GCSEs. Two-thirds of these boys are Catholics. The Protestant boys who escape this fate represent just 1/5 of the FSME Protestant boys. (The overall figures also include a much smaller number of boys declared as ‘Other.’)

These are where the NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) are to be found in our society.

Those figures represent real human beings, and addressing profound issues in our society ranging from employment and training to mental health, parenting responsibilities, crime, drug & alcohol addiction and paramilitarism requires recognizing these realities and planning to tackle them accordingly.

This is a job for the Executive to address on a cross-departmental basis, and there are clearly two underlining themes which must be recognized if the Executive, and not just the Education Minister, is to decisively address educational underachievement in Northern Ireland.

The first one is this: Catholics continue to predominate the most deprived in northern Irish society. In 2014/15, there were 3,351 Catholic school leaver kids entitled to FSM as opposed to 1,532 Protestant school leaver kids.

Those figures are for one year alone.

When collated over a period of years, it is clear to see how breaking the cycle of deprivation (with its inevitable impact on educational underachievement) will require decisively addressing the reality that is greater Catholic inequalities in northern Irish society.

When we look at the FSM entitled school leavers who are left on what I term the education scrapheap (i.e. those school leavers, already facing disadvantage due to their FSM entitlement status, facing into a life where problems and difficulties will be compounded by their failure to secure 5 good GCSEs), the number of poor Catholic school leavers remains significantly greater than the equivalent for Protestants. In 2014/15, the respective figures were 1,853 Catholic school leavers and 1,023 Protestant school leavers.

The second clear theme emerging is the continuing gap in terms of the % of FSM entitled Protestant school leavers securing the 5 good GCSEs when compared with their Catholic counterparts.

This has been a theme which, unlike the issue of greater Catholic inequality in NI, has received significant attention in the media and political mainstream in recent years thanks to several reports highlighting the plight of these children, including this one issued by Dawn Purvis in 2011 and another from the PUP’s John Kyle in 2015.

In 2014/15, 33.2% of FSME Protestant pupils secured 5 good GCSEs, compared with 44.7% of Catholic pupils. The figures for girls were 40.3% Protestant and 49.6% Catholic; for boys, the figures were 26.7% Protestant and 39.9% Catholic.

The figures for Protestant boys might be substantially up on the 12.2% registered in 2007/08, but it is clear that there remains significant cause for concern that should prompt action.

Therefore, using the lexicon of the new Programme for Government, we need a government strategy using Outcomes, Indicators and Measures which delivers a significant reduction in the number and overall % of poor Catholics and a similar strategy which delivers a significant reduction in the number and overall % of underachieving poor Protestant pupils.

Neither objective is beyond our Executive, and nor is it the case that such strategies should be organized in a manner which ignores the reality of poverty or underachievement affecting Protestants (with regard to poverty) nor Catholics (with regard to educational underachievement.)

But a power-sharing government of the people and for the people should not be one which ignores objective realities. Indeed, the very premise of a PfG which seeks to organise itself according to outcomes, indicators and measures is that it uses objectively verifiable data and statistics to inform and guide policy and actions.

Now that would represent a truly fresh start.