Education & Inequalities: Progress for Working-Class Protestant Boys; No Movement on Greater Catholic Inequality

In June, the Department of Education published the 2015/16 Qualifications and Destinations of NI School Leavers report, which outlines the academic performance of our pupils according to a range of criteria, including school types, gender, relative poverty and religious background of pupils.

After the publication of the 2014/15 report 12 months ago, I wrote this piece on Slugger, highlighting how more than 10,000 working-class Catholic and Protestant boys (ie those entitled to Free School Meals) had left school over the 8 years to that date without securing 5 ‘good’ GCSEs.

In the piece, I illustrated how the evidence clearly pointed towards the need to recognize the existence of two underlining themes if we are to decisively address educational underachievement and make serious inroads into addressing inequalities in Northern Ireland: firstly, the disproportionately high percentage of poor Catholics in the state, and, secondly, the disproportionately high percentage of working class Protestant males struggling to perform well in our education system.

There is no silver bullet to effectively counter educational underachievement.

Understanding the many and varied factors inhibiting children and young people from fulfilling their academic potential leads to an appreciation of the necessity of breaking the cycle of poverty affecting many working class communities as a central objective to make truly transformative changes across society.

Amongst others, these factors include parental, peer and communal expectations, pressures and influences; self-expectation; quality of teaching and learning exposed to at school; school culture; relative poverty household and community background; date of birth; special needs; social and emotional wellbeing.

The 5 ‘good’ GCSE benchmark is widely regarded as a useful one because a failure to obtain what can be viewed as a basic academic profile can severely restrict the employment and therefore life ambitions and prospects for young people, not least those in working class communities without the parental or community support and network to help secure stable employment paths.

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

But they are not an acronym. They are 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.

Fast forward twelve months, and the publication of the latest figures allows us to examine what, if anything, has changed.

On a positive note, there is clear progress being made with regard to improvements in academic attainment for Free School Meal Entitled (FSME) Protestant boys.

The 34% figure for Protestant boys achieving 5 ‘good’ GCSEs represents a significant advance on previous figures. With some 43.6% of FSME Catholic boys also achieving this in 2015/16, the gap in terms of percentage of poorer pupils obtaining the basic academic threshold of 5 ‘good’ GCSEs is narrowing as the percentage and numbers of poorer Protestant boys securing this academic outcome increases sharply, particularly when compared with pre 2012/13 figures, when less than one in five poorer Protestant boys left school with five good GCSEs.


% and Numbers of FSME Boys Securing 5 ‘Good’ GCSEs
Protestant Boys Catholic Boys Differential
2007/08 12.2% 66/542 26.6% 312/1174 14.4%
2008/09 18.8% 102/544 29.4% 332/1128 10.6%
2009/10 20.3% 101/497 28.2% 331/1173 7.9%
2010/11 18.6% 103/553 31.3% 405/1293 12.7%
2011/12 19.7% 116/590 33.2% 415/1251 13.5%
2012/13 25.0% 144/576 33.8% 452/1338 8.8%
2013/14 22.1% 130/587 32.0% 428/1337 9.9%
2014/15 26.7% 213/797 39.9% 672/1684 13.2%
2015/16 34.0% 329/969 43.6% 794/1822 9.6%
 23.0% 1304/5655 32.2% 4141/12,200
Number of boys failing to secure

5 ‘good’ GCSEs

4,351   8,059  

To put this in context, were just 94 more FSME Protestant boys to have secured 5 ‘good’ GCSE grades in 2015/16, then the percentage of working-class Protestant boys so doing would have exactly matched their Catholic counterparts at 43.6%.

For the record, the equivalent figures for girls shows that some 42.5% of FSME Protestant girls secured the 5 ‘good’ GCSEs in 2015/16 (351/825) whilst 53.1% of FSME Catholic girls also obtained those grades (979/1845.)

It should also be pointed out that, over that time period (2007/08-2015/16) just over 1,000 boys of No religion or Other religions with FSME have also failed to secure 5 ‘good’ GCSEs.

The increased academic performance being noted amongst poorer Protestant boys comes at a time when the issue of educational underachievement has gradually been replacing academic selection as the primary discussion theme in education based political discourse locally. Of course, the two are not unrelated, but it is certainly the case that educational underachievement is a feature in any and all education systems.

A number of excellent reports into the academic performance of working class Protestant pupils have been produced by Dawn Purvis and John Kyle over recent years, and this theme has been widely and properly recognized throughout and beyond the sector.

The BBC NI True North documentary series recently included an episode entitled ‘Jobs for the Boys’ which highlighted the plight of working class Protestant boys in Belfast as part of a programme focusing on a project involving three such boys.

The programme has also formed a part of BBC NI’s Make It project which seeks to promote training and employment prospects for young people. The series has also included the Belfast football agent and businessman, Gerry Carlile, visiting Belfast Boys’ Model School to speak with boys from the school.

The Department of Education has also been running two pilot full service provision programmes in Belfast over the past 11 years, with the first pilot being established in the two post-primary non-grammar schools serving the overwhelming majority of working class Protestant pupils in north and west Belfast: the Belfast Boys’ Model School and Belfast Model School for Girls.

Both schools have also benefitted from brand new state of the art school buildings in that time, to the tune of tens of millions of pounds. In 2014/15 alone, the schools also received an additional £385,000 as part of the full service pilot.

Since 2009, a similar full service community network has been launched in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast, also in receipt of £385,000 of additional funding in 2014/15.

The Delivering Social Change: Improved Literacy and Numeracy Signature Programme played a critical role in helping to target pupils at risk of underachieving across schools at primary and post-primary level in a way that demonstrably secured marked improvements for the duration of a programme that, unfortunately, could not be continued due to financial constraints (I wrote about the programme here and here on Slugger in recent years.)

Last year, the North Down DUP Councillor, Peter Martin, published a report called No Child Left Behind which explored the issue of educational underachievement and floated a number of productive proposals.

There remains plenty of room for improvement, and retaining a focus on the issue of educational underachievement and, more importantly, actions designed and delivered at government level to effect positive changes will be important to ensure that advances continue to be made.

With regard to Catholic inequality, there remains no sign of the gap closing, as evidenced by the stubbornly static levels of free school meal entitlement for Catholic and Protestant pupils. This merely confirms the picture of significantly greater Catholic deprivation in the state from the Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure (2010) which is due to be updated later this year.

The stark reality is that Catholic children continue to be disproportionately significantly poorer than their Protestant counterparts, and this is likely to be reflected in the results of the updated deprivation measure.

In 2015/16, 31.2% of Catholic pupils of GCSE age were entitled to Free School Meals. This contrasted with 20.6% of Protestant pupils.

As the table clearly illustrates, there is no sign of greater Catholic deprivation being effectively addressed within our society.

% of GCSE Age Pupils Entitled to Free School Meals by Religion 2007/08- 2015/16

Protestant Catholic Differential
2015/16 20.6% 31.2% 10.6%
2014/15 17.4% 29.3% 11.9%
2013/14 12.9% 22.1% 9.2%
2012/13 13.3% 23.2% 9.9%
2011/12 12.6% 22.1% 9.5%
2010/11 11.9% 21.1% 9.2%
2009/10 10.8% 20.7% 9.9%
2008/09 10.4% 20.3% 9.9%
2007/08 10.5% 20.3% 9.8%

The increases in pupils eligible for FSM entitlement since 2014/15 relates to an extension in criteria for inclusion (Working Tax Credit free school meal criterion), but this has only had the effect of further illustrating a poverty gap which shows no sign of narrowing.

Confronting the reality of greater Catholic poverty levels in Northern Ireland must be a priority for government agencies and any revived Stormont administration alongside the reality of greater educational underachievement amongst working class Protestant boys. The evidence clearly indicates that approaches to date have failed to decisively close the poverty gap. Furthermore, there is a clear correlation between relative poverty levels and academic attainment which indicates that a key primary obstacle to tackling educational underachievement in Northern Irish society is the higher levels of poverty amongst the Catholic population.

With regard to improving levels of attainment amongst working-class Protestant boys, there remains a marked cultural difference borne out in the relative performance of pupils at primary to post-primary transfer level which will continue to frustrate efforts to firmly close the gap in percentage terms between poor Protestant pupils and their Catholic counterparts in particular.

That is something I will address in more detail in a forthcoming article on Slugger.



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