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.