Educational Underachievement-Part 1: Are Protestants getting left behind in education? The statistically based answer is an emphatic ‘No’

Since the publication of the third Peace Monitoring Report by Paul Nolan earlier this month, the issue of the educational performance of working class protestant boys has been centre stage. Yet the two inconvenient but still overarching statistics that should define the parameters of this discussion have largely been ignored:

Firstly, that the actual attainment gap between Catholics and Protestants is quite small, with 63% of Catholic pupils and 60% of Protestant pupils securing 5 ‘good’ GCSEs (more on that deployment of the adjective ‘good’ later on in this series.)

Secondly, that Catholics form the overwhelming majority of all children entitled to Free School Meals failing to obtain five ‘good’ GCSEs.

In the academic year 2011/12 (the year in which the statistics included in Nolan’s report were recorded and repeatedly cited since, the most recent from which NISRA generated data can be publicly obtained), 1,329 boys entitled to free school meals (FSM) failed to achieve the minimum academic requirement of 5 ‘good’ GCSEs. Of those boys, 835 (62.8%) were Catholic.

When girls entitled to FSM are included, a total of 2,405 Catholic and Protestant children entitled to FSM failed to obtain 5 ‘good’ GCSEs, with 1,552 (64.5%) of them being Catholic.

The fact that almost 2/3 of children entitled to FSM who fail to obtain 5 good GCSEs are Catholics sits very uncomfortably with the Belfast Telegraph headline (3/4/14) which screamed that ‘Protestants get left behind,’ an erroneous narrative that continues to dominate the local media.

I addressed many of the themes arising from this issue back in an April 2011 article when I noted the narrow sectarian agenda being peddled by the DUP ahead of the Assembly election, when the party pledged to develop a strategy “to assist Protestant working class boys” with no reference to seeking to assist the greater number of Catholic working class boys who fail to reach the basic 5 ‘good’ GCSE qualification threshold.

Introducing a sectarian agenda to the discussion over educational underachievement and low attainment is the surest way of ensuring that the discussion that needs to be had will be lost in the quagmire of our sectarian discourse.

There is an issue of underachievement and low attainment in working class protestant communities, and that must be effectively tackled just as the continuing problem of underachievement and low attainment afflicting the greater number of working class catholic communities must be addressed.

But what must be established from the outset is that the religious background of children should form no part of a schools or community based programme seeking to ensure that all of our children- not least those born into relative socio-economic deprivation- are provided with the support to have the opportunity to realise their full academic potential through our education system.

I intend on addressing some of the key issues which should be informing debate on this topic in subsequent articles in this series to appear in the coming days.