Educational underachievement and disadvantaged PUL males

One subject which didn’t get raised on Slugger last week was the publication of the report into educational underachievement and disadvantaged protestant males by Dawn Purvis and her independent working group.

Protestant educational underachievement has been a much talked about situation over the years: generational unemployment, last of aspiration, lack of positive role models on top of the Troubles legacy, poverty, deprivation and family breakdown. Statistics bounce around the media about the low number of boys on the Shankill Road passing their 11 plus or gaining university places.

The set of reports and associated consultation reports and research has pulled together the figures along with consultation responses from individuals, education boards, teachers, academics and voluntary organisations. First-hand experiences from a focus group of Protestant teenagers was also considered.

While it can be an emotive subject, the reports made fascinating reading … and from my perspective as a parent and as a parent governor, will spark of some conversations.

In her “Call to Action” Dawn Purvis notes that

Given the sensitivity of inter-communal competition within Northern Ireland, it was not the intention of this initiative to enter into, or promote, any sort of zero-sum competition for scarce resources. Rather it was to shine a light on a serious and growing problem. Additionally we argue that educational needs must be addressed via cooperation, mutual concern and the specific targeting of barriers and impediments, wherever they are found, to [promote] effective and inclusive education.

And in her blog post introducing the report, I note that Dawn reaches out beyond PUL communities:

While the statistics point to protestant males being the worst off, they are not the only group our education system fails, our findings are being presented in such a way that they can be extrapolated for other groups facing the same problems.

Did you know (according to the initial consultation document) that:

  • 24% of children in NI live below the poverty line with 10% living in severe poverty?
  • children in NI are more than twice as likely to be living in persistent poverty as in the rest of the UK?
  • 8% of boys aged <15 have a disability, compared with 4% of girls?
  • 24% of working age adults in NI (in 2006) possessed no qualifications (in England the figure was 14%)?
  • socially disadvantaged Catholics perform better than their Protestant counterparts [in non-grammar schools], whereas grammar schools pupils have more similar educational profiles?
  • at GCSE English and Maths, 15% of Controlled schools are under-performing, as against 4% of Catholic Maintained school?

Consultation respondents coalesced around the need to tackle:

  • early years education, boosting support, investment and early intervention;
  • encouraging positive parental involvement in children’s education
  • promoting vocational education as a positive alternative to academic education;
  • priming teachers and school leaders with training about methods and approaches to address this type of underachievement.

The working group’s principal findings can be summarised as:

  • Local, UK and international research shows that differentials in educational performance lie (to a degree of 80% or more) outside schools and the classroom.
  • Funding priorities are back to front, with per-individual spending – £5,126 higher education, £4,745 further education, £5,287 secondary education, £3,969 primary education – meaning that opportunities to address problems in early years or primary school are missed.
  • Community and cultural factors affect how Protestant families perceive education and participation in schools. The report suggests that:

Historically, the Protestant community has been more at ease with ‘representative’ democracy than ‘bottom up’ or community development approaches. For that reason, there is greater comfort in universal provision (such as Sure Start, Extended Schools, libraries, statutory youth clubs, Citizes Advice, etc) rather than locally or community driven efforts. Tender calls or funding initiatives therefore need to consider broader development approaches which might include, for example, churches or sports associations in Protestant areas.

  • Insufficient flexibility in the curriculum and funding of schools weakens the ability of educators to respond to respond creatively to the needs of students who are not achieving, and to adapt to different learning styles.
  • Even though external factors play the primary role in the academic success of a child, exceptional teaching and leadership in a school can make a tremendous difference.
  • The lack of coordination and cooperation among government departments and agencies wastes resources and potential. [Sadly, couldn’t that be a line in nearly any NI report?]
  • Bhe lack of social balance in many schools leads to an unequal distribution and an unfair burden on non-selective schools.

If standards are to rise for all, we need schools which are socially mixed, which have a leavening effect in which peer group pressure can be used to open minds, change outlooks and raise aspirations … Educationally, with socially balanced intakes everyone does better, even those pupils who are already achieving at higher levels. Economically , as a society we cannot afford such a long tail of underachievement.

  • Academic selection does not cause social division, but it does accentuate it. Working group members did hold a variety of individual views on academic selection, but did agree that with 42% of pupils transferring to grammar schools, many secondary schools have to cope with high concentrations of special educational needs and social disadvantage.

Interestingly, the working group lacked complete confidence in the default disadvantage proxy, Free School Meals Entitlement, suggesting that this should be reviewed.

As I said above, the set of reports are well worth a read and a ponder.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.