Why are the DUP not interested in addressing educational underachievement amongst catholic children?

 Having perused the education policy elements of the main parties’ Assembly Manifestos, there was little that stood out until I came across this pledge within the DUP document:

Develop a strategy to assist Protestant working class boys who tend to have the lowest level of achievement, addressing issues such as aspiration, parental involvement and the value placed on education.”

 The DUP’s proposals would appear to be a reaction to the report into protestant educational underachievement entitled, ‘Educational Underachievement and the Protestant Working Class.’  That report was instigated by the former PUP-now Independent- MLA Dawn Purvis, working alongside primarily controlled-sector educationalists and academics (NB Here’s the final version of their work, entitled A Call To Action– thanks Stephen.)

At a time when Peter Robinson has toyed with inclusive language with regard to schooling, the deliberately narrow focus of this pledge betrays a nakedly tribal aspiration which is not only potentially divisive but also reflective of an, at best, cavalier attitude to underachievement amongst catholics or other groups (such as ethnic minorities) in the community.  

The Purvis-inspired report compiled a series of statistics delivered in a comparative framework to highlight the perceived lack of attainment in working-class protestant communities, using grade performances, inspection reports and other observations. No one reading the document can be left in any doubt but that there is an issue needing to be addressed in many of the controlled sector schools if the level of attainment is to be increased and underachievement addressed, and the authors are to be wholly commended for pooling their energies to ensure that this issue would be brought to the fore.

Yet the report is quite clear in pointing out that the majority of boys not achieving 5 GCSE grades (A*-C) are catholic, not protestant- some 2,900 as compared to 2,600. When these figures were translated into percentage terms, the figures marginally reversed to indicate that these statistics represented 48% of catholic boys and 52% of protestant boys. 

Given the higher numbers (and percentage of the total) of catholic children residing in working class communities in the north, these figures do clearly suggest that the catholic maintained sector has been able to bridge a significant educational divide in spite of the greater obstacles associated with educating a higher percentage of pupils from socio-economically deprived backgrounds.

The annual School Performance Tables produced by Simon Doyle in the Irish News provides an annual affirmation of the relatively superior performance of the higher achieving catholic schools when compared with their predominantly protestant counterparts at both a grammar and non-grammar level.

But the raw figures regarding the numbers of pupils, both catholic and protestant, leaving school without the basic level of qualification expected (5 GCSEs or equivalent) clearly points to a consistent level of low attainers and underachievers across both communities.

Indeed, the Assembly Education Committee’s own recent investigations into school performance have included highlighting the strong performances of post-primary schools in north and east Belfast which serve the catchment areas of working-class protestant Belfast (the Ashfield and Model schools.)   

This is not the first time we’ve been at this juncture. There is a recent precedent for a sectarian funding programme in education. Sixty-nine schools received additional funding through the Renewing Communities programme(across five government departments) as a result of the Task Force on Protestant Communities set up following DUP pressure after the Orange Order/loyalist riots following the rerouting of the contentious Whiterock parade in 2005. These schools included controlled sector schools with pupil catchments of varying social classes, special schools and even integrated schools, thereby proving that the solitary qualification for funding was the existence of some protestant children amongst the school enrolment.

Needless to say, catholic schools needed not apply.

Back then, the DUP was using its leverage with a British Government eager to entice Ian Paisley into playing with the power-sharing ball to win concessions across a range of areas. Delivering a protestant-only funding programme to a DUP party not yet prepared for the cut and thrust compromises of a shared administration was probably considered a small price to pay by the British government.

But the indications from the DUP Manifesto are that it is keen on reintroducing a similarly divisive programme which is guaranteed to cause considerable discord within the education sector and beyond.

There is an incorrect assumption that the number of protestant pupils attending grammar schools from working class communities is significantly lower than that of their catholic counterparts.

Indeed, one of Eamon Mallie’s tweets yesterday illustrated the prevalence of that erroneous assumption.

Again, whilst there is evidence to illustrate a higher level of working class catholic enrolment in grammar schools in some areas, the evidence is quite decisive in pointing out that it is the similarities and not the differences in attainment across the two communities which are remarkable.

Let’s take the most recent crop of Year 8 children (first year pupils in post-primary schools) for which statistics are provided- 2009/10.

In that year, just 9 of the 60 year 8 pupils transferred to a grammar school in the Falls ward; 19 of 73 pupils residing in Highfield transferred to a grammar school; 7 of the 48 year 8 pupils in Shankill ward transferred to a grammar school whilst fewer than 5 of the 62 pupils residing in the New Lodge transferred to a grammar school.

Far from suggesting a pattern of working class catholic pupils outstripping their protestant counterparts, those figures reveal that, in working class catholic areas like the New Lodge and Falls, there is an even lower level of attainment than on the Shankill.

Those figures suggest that a robust programme should be put in place to tackle underachievement and low attainment on a targeted basis across the entire community to ensure that the 2,600 protestant males aren’t deemed as a greater priority than the 2,900 catholic males.

If objective criteria indicates that a greater number of controlled sector schools must be supported by additional resources and financial support as part of a targeted programme also addressing underachievement and low attainment across all education sectors, then that is perfectly acceptable and an example of effective governance being determined by objective assessment- a critical benchmark of a society based on equality and fairness, as highlighted by Inez McCormack recently.

But what should not be permitted is the sectarianising of funding which indicates a mindset viewing the needs of underachieving protestant children as being superior to those of their fellow underachieving catholic neighbours.

  • Chris. I wonder has this bit of the DUP manifesto been approved by Robinson? because if it has has, it contradict’s completely his claims that there should be one type of school for all so as to avoid divisiveness. They seem to be promoting positive discrimination here, while condemning it in Police recruitment.

  • Chris Donnelly

    I’ve a sense that the party were wanting to be seen to react directly to take the initiative off of Purvis.

    The DUP’s pronouncements regarding the Social Investment Fund- what Alex Attwood’s rather insightfully labelled the ‘slush fund’- indicate that it sees the SIF as the means by which to deliver this programme.

  • Kadfoomsa

    In fairness, they dont promote themselves as ‘cross community’, they openly promote protestants over catholics so I see no call for the ‘surprise’ here.

  • Cynic2

    Its very simple Chris. They see their vote as lying in that community. As a Minister they would have to do both but as a party they can and will be sectarian. Thats an approach that suits both them and SF.

    By the way, speaking of Ministerial responsibilities, in her wondrous management of the education system exactly what has Catatonia done for the Achievement of Catholic or Protestant children from deprived backgrounds – other than destroy any hope? And why, given that she s seen as such a joke in the Catholic as well as the Protestant community , is she still put forward for Ministerial office?

  • Chris Donnelly

    By the way, speaking of Ministerial responsibilities, in her wondrous management of the education system exactly what has Catatonia done for the Achievement of Catholic or Protestant children from deprived backgrounds – other than destroy any hope? And why, given that she s seen as such a joke in the Catholic as well as the Protestant community , is she still put forward for Ministerial office?

    I’m very glad you’ve asked that question.

    The Sinn Fein Minister spent scores of millions building two new state of the art campuses for the Model schools which serve the overwhelmingly protestant working class communities of North and West Belfast.

    During the Sinn Fein Minister’s tenure in office, a strong emphasis on raising standards through ESAGS (Every School A Good School) and other interventions has meant that there has been a dramatic increase in GCSE Pass rates at many working class protestant- and catholic- secondary schools- just look at the link provided in the thread to the Assembly Education Committee’s report into ‘successful’ working class schools.

    As I said, so glad you asked….

  • “They see their vote as lying in that community”

    This will be a bit like all the other ‘sweeties’ that appear in the run-up to an election. The Equality Commission sometimes has to indulge in a bit of fancy footwork in response to the various demands made upon it. This linked report contains some information about neighbourhood statistics as well as this glorious phrase: “not a policy but simply a definitional tool”.

  • Chris. It certainly looks that way. slush fund is an apposite description alright.

  • Cynic2


    Two swallows dont a summer make.

  • Surely it’s pretty obvious why the DUP don’t include the concerns of catholic children in their manifesto. They don’t care.

  • JAH

    I think I’m right in saying there are few votes for the DUP up the Falls and the Shankill doesn’t vote. With the remnants of the Loyalist left quite rightly pointing out the utter mess education is in for protestant boys it gives the DUP a retort that they are aware and that they will act as they are likely to form the next Govt. There also must be sneaking concern that SF might actually start picking up loyalist working class votes or is this just some wistful thinking on SFs part?

  • Aontachtach


    And do SF really care about the protestant working class? Did they care about protestant school kids when they gunned down protestant bus drivers driving protestant kids to school during the “troubles”.

  • ranger1640

    Could the DUP be starting where the report states the worst educational standards are, and if or when they improve they will bring the others up. Or should the DUP leave the children in state educational sector in favour of those in the maintained sector, just because they are in the maintained sector? And what of choice? Why not bring back grammar schools and let them get on and do what they do best, the assembly can then concentrate on the underachieving state and maintained sectors. Why can’t we have more vocational schools, say from the age of 13. They can receive 1 hour a day on both English and maths and then the rest of the day on vocational skills that might be of some use to an employer???

  • ayeYerMa

    I agree that they could have used more inclusive language; but to be fair to the DUP, saying you want to help a group who have been identified in recent studies as being the biggest group of underachievers, is not the same as saying that “the DUP not interested in addressing educational underachievement amongst catholic children”.

  • Chris Donnelly

    saying you want to help a group who have been identified in recent studies as being the biggest group of underachievers


    Erm, I think 2,900 is a greater figure than 2,600, don’t you?

  • alan56

    There is an election coming up!

  • Stephen Blacker

    Chris Donnelly,

    This is the Final report from Dawn Purvis and her team on Educational Underachievement and the Protestant Working Class The link posted above is not the final report.

  • pauluk

    You lost me at ‘nakedly tribal’ in your third paragraph. More like ‘scratching where it itches than your ridiculous assertion.

  • “a nakedly tribal aspiration which is not only potentially divisive”

    An observation that could be made about some of the contents of the manifestos of the four main parties, not least CD’s Sinn Fein. So nothing new there then …

  • Chris Donnelly


    Read the whole post, including references to statistics contained within the working group’s own paper as well as figures pertaining to transfer of year 8 pupils as recently as 2009-10.

    If you do, then the only logical conclusion that can be reached, informed by evidence, is that underachievement and low attainment are not predominant themes within just the protestant working-class community, but something consistent across both communities.

    Suggesting, then, that we simply focus on addressing such educational difficulties within just one community is quite suspect and should give rise to well grounded suspicions of tribalist motivations, not least given the precedent outlined above.

    Of course, if you’ve any factual evidence for your assertion then I’d love to hear it……..

  • joeCanuck

    Yes, it is totally wrong of the DUP to propose additional help for Protestant children. But it raises the question of how they are supposed to identify the religion of this group; State schools are not Protestant schools.

  • Zig70

    The unionist voters seem to enjoy the mess over the 11plus as an embarrassment for SF. The mess over the 11plus is as much the DUP’s fault as the endlessly stubborn Ruinator. The DUP created a tribal war over childrens education. Now, the one tool that they could use to help under achieving kids, getting rid of the elite grammar system, they can’t endorse without losing face. Alliance, SDLP, SF all support removing the 11plus. Maybe Catholic schools should do there bit to help, open the doors to both sides, recruit on a equality basis, drop compulsory catechism. That would be the Christian thing to do, especially as they are moving to a comprehensive system.

  • Reader

    Zig70: Now, the one tool that they could use to help under achieving kids, getting rid of the elite grammar system, they can’t endorse without losing face
    The report is clear that the grammar schools aren’t the cause of underachievement, which has already set in by the age of 11. In fact, the report seems to suggest that most of the problems set in at home, and, at best, the state and schools can help by recognising that.
    Zig70: The DUP created a tribal war over childrens education.
    It became a tribal war the moment that Martin McGuinness announced he had abolished transfer testing with a stroke of a pen on the last day of the first Assembly. How did he expect that was going to be received?
    Zig70: The unionist voters seem to enjoy the mess over the 11plus as an embarrassment for SF.
    Nope, Unionist voters include parents of the children who are so badly affected by the mess, and are not enjoying this. However, it is some small compensation that the politician responsible for making a bad situation worse is getting a bit of a kicking. Surely there can be no real sympathy for such an inept politician, or for a party that has kept her in the post for a full assembly term?

  • pauluk

    [comments edited for breach of Slugger Rules.]

  • Chris Donnelly


    It should be possible for you to make your comments without resort to the type of personal insults which inevitably drag threads off into a destructive dead end.

    Had you read the entire piece above, I’m sure you would have noted my complete support for a remedial programme tailored to meet the needs of any and every school not effectively meeting the needs of children.

    But that’s the key difference. The evidence, of which I have provided above including from the welcome report compiled by controlled sector educationalists and academics, clearly indicates that low attainment and underachievement is not restricted to one community.

  • Reader

    Zig70: Maybe Catholic schools should do there bit to help, open the doors to both sides, recruit on a equality basis, drop compulsory catechism.
    Between them , my 4 children have spent 37 years in the maintained sector, with probably another 6 years to go. Most of the obstacles are imaginary.

  • “But what should not be permitted is the sectarianising of funding”

    Chris, are you recommending the merger of the controlled and integrated sectors? What savings would accrue following such a merger?

  • or the controlled, maintained and integrated sectors 🙂

  • pauluk

    Chris, wow, talk about touchy! I said nothing anyway near as insulting as your original assertion. Be assured that I will neither comment on nor, indeed, read another one of you posts.

  • Chris Donnelly

    I don’t think a merger is either practical or ideal, though the type of strategic planning being introduced at present involving the sharing of facilities and provision of subjects/ classes open to pupils on one site to pupils from diverse range of schools is to be welcomed.

    btw I’m not a member of any political party, though happy to be identified as a strong (though sometimes critical) supporter of Sinn Fein.

    Just implementing the rules. Stick to the subject matter and you are free to comment as critically as you’d like.

  • “I don’t think a merger is either practical or ideal”

    It’s simply tribal/sectarian, Chris – take your pick. The Catholic hierarchy opted for a form of self-imposed apartheid and the other denominations were probably relieved that this was so.

  • Chris Donnelly

    I don’t really agree with that definition, but rather than go off on that tangent let’s keep the focus on the theme of this thread. Any thoughts you’d have on the matter are quite welcome.

  • ThomasMourne

    Simple answer –
    the DUP is a sectarian party, and not ashamed of that.

  • granni trixie

    As a teacher by profession, I support a recognition that the system of selection has militated against working class children….in order to address the problem.
    Unless there is compelling evidence not to do so, I did think that Dawn Purvis played up Protestant underachievement at the expense of making this point to gain politivcal advantage.

  • Chris Donnelly


    I think Dawn Purvis deserves a considerable amount of credit for taking the initiative in this regard and bringing together educationalists and academics to produce this report.

    My problem is not with those whom I regard as fellow educationalists seeking to find ways of improving the life chances of the children who they are tasked with providing an educational foundation for life.

    It is with those who do not wish to acknowledge the need to address underachievement in all the places it exists, regardless of sector.

    The evidence I’ve produced above clearly illustrates that need is not restricted to working class protestant children.

  • Stephen Blacker

    Chris Donnelly,

    Dawn Purvis changed her stance of NO academic selection to selection at 14, something that her working group collectively recommended. I few members of that working group stated that if the group started to become political instead of genuinely seeking solutions to the underachievement problem they would leave. No members left and as you state Dawn Purvis and every member of the working group needs to be given credit for at least trying.

    It is a total disgrace that the problems that are helping underachievement to continue and in some cases get worse have been known for decades will the ruling politicians doing patch up jobs instead of major changes. I fear that there will be little done in the next Assembly because the changes necassary will need a lot more than one electoral term to fix Education and our politicians (some of) would be scared to commit.

  • “let’s keep the focus on the theme of this thread”

    Chris, I was responding directly to the content of the thread, including the reference to tribalism. Why are you pointing at one particular tree? Why are you defending Irish Catholic tribalism? I could be wrong but I thought it was a Nationalist politician who drew attention to Protestant underachievement relative to Catholic academic prowess.

    With regard to your critical friend postscript perhaps you could shed further light in a future thread on SF cronyism and relationships with developers; it’s links to organised crime are already in the public domain.

  • Congal Claen

    Hi Nevin,

    “Why are you(Chris) defending Irish Catholic tribalism?

    Because that’s the raison d’etre of strong supporters of “ourselves alone” policies. That’s why they see no conflict in supporting academic institutions divided on religious belief whilst displaying mock outrage at the thought of an academic institution being divided on academic ability. Then, just in case the church goes a bit off message, they further support the segregation of Catholic kids into gaelic and non-gaelic speakers were they can be sure of no dissent.