Tackling Educational Underachievement: Poverty, Selection & Comparative Levels of Attainment for Poorest Boys

Last month, I wrote about the welcome improvement in the number of poorer Protestant boys (Free School Meal Entitled) who have secured 5 ‘good’ GCSEs when compared with the figures from previous years.

This formed part of a broader article in which I outlined 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.

The most significant gaps in educational attainment levels relate not to religious background, nor gender, but to socio-economic background (FSME) and to school type in our system of academic selection ie grammar v non-grammar, as the table below illustrates.

 Academic Performance of NI pupils at GCSE/ A Level (2015/16)

Securing 5 ‘good’ GCSEs2+ A Levels A*-E3+ A Levels A*-C
Non-FSME pupils75.8%64.7%45.0%
FSME pupils44.8%36.6%20.0%
Grammar pupils94.5%80.9%62%
Non-grammar pupils47.5%39.6%20.8%


The gap in attainment between those from more affluent and more deprived backgrounds is a universal theme, far from specific to our local context. Striving to narrow the gap is a recurring issue and priority for governments in most jurisdictions, and it rightly provided one of the PfG priorities at Stormont’s Executive level prior to the power-sharing administration collapsing earlier this year.

Our system of academic selection ensures that the attainment gap between school types provides the widest division. In the sense that the grammar cohort of pupils has been selected through an academic assessment in the core cross-curricular subjects of literacy and numeracy, it is to be expected that a significant gap would exist.

However, the sheer breadth of the divide is something that has been accentuated by the fact that the many factors contributing towards underachievement are more pronounced in the non-grammar sector precisely due to how we have decided, as a society, to educate our children. Conversely, school communities in the grammar sector benefit to the same degree that non-grammars are challenged by this schooling structure.

Those factors include the peer, parental and communal influences, pressures and expectations upon the children; the school’s own context: culture, levels of expectation, quality of teaching and learning, capacity to meet challenges in terms of finance, personnel and resources; self-expectation of the child. And so on.

The Class Divide

The class divide is a stark feature of the grammar v non-grammar debate.

Middle class parents are attuned to the advantages of securing a grammar school place for their children, which is why kids from across suburbia and the commuter belt will be transported on buses (or in their parents’ cars) to and from a school up to 10-15 miles from their homes each weekday for seven years.

In 2016/17, there were 201 grammar and non-grammar schools in total: 66 grammar and 135 non-grammar.

Non-grammar schools had an average of 40.6% FSME pupils.

Grammar schools included only 14.3% FSME pupils amongst their enrolments.

Whilst over one-half of all non-FSME pupils move on to Higher Education each year, less than one in four FSME pupils do likewise.

Only one grammar school, St Mary’s CBGS Belfast, features amongst the top 100 post-primary schools with the highest percentage of FSME pupils.

One in a hundred.

Narrowing the relative poverty attainment gap must always remain a priority, but it is wildly unrealistic to believe that it can ever be fully erased.

For the purposes of this article, I will focus on the levels of grammar enrolment for FSME pupils on their own, examining the differential attainment levels of pupils from similar socio-economic backgrounds but of differing religious backgrounds.

 Attainment Divide for Poor Catholic and Poor Protestant Boys

At surface level, there should not be a significant chasm between the attainment levels secured by pupils of similar backgrounds.

Yet one of the reasons for the publication of reports into the plight of working-class Protestant boys is precisely because the evidence illustrates that, for some time, their attainment levels have been markedly below the levels secured by their Catholic male counterparts- for whom there remain a significantly greater number across the north of Ireland, something that requires acknowledgement and action in itself.

In the last article, I outlined the reports that have explored this theme and the work undertaken at Departmental and school level to make inroads into this issue, with a notable degree of success.

Yet fully erasing the attainment gap for FSME male pupils (on religious grounds) is unlikely to be achieved in the short term due to the peculiar system of academic selection that continues to exist in our education system and the manner in which it has impacted upon pupils from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds.

The table below illustrates a significant statistic which goes some way to explaining the differing levels of attainment for Catholic and Protestant males from poorer backgrounds.

% FSME Yr8 Pupils in Grammar School by Religion

YearProtestant Catholic  Protestant Catholic
 Boys Girls


The outlying statistic from the table is the relatively high percentage of FSME Catholic boys who are enrolled in grammar schools annually when compared with both their female and Protestant male counterparts.

In effect, the 1 in 4 FSME Catholic boys annually enrolling in grammar schools provides a distinct advantage above their Protestant counterparts, for whom only 14% of boys enrolled in grammar schools in the last academic year.

This is particularly important for boys as girls’ attainment levels illustrates how the sharpness of the potential inhibiting factors contributing to underachievement tends to be blunted by girls.

Issues relating to levels of maturity amongst boys, peer pressures, role models, behavioural issues and straying into involvement in anti-social activities all would appear to accumulatively ensure that boys continue to perform less well than when compared with girls.

Consequently, the distinct advantage of greater grammar access routes seemingly being afforded to poorer Catholic boys contributes to the persistently higher levels of attainment for Catholic boys than Protestant boys.

The Heavy Lifters

The heroes in our education system are those teachers and school leaders in the non-grammar post-primary sector whom we ask to do the heaviest of lifting.

Academic selection ensures that the vast majority of the poorest, academically weakest, socially/emotionally and behaviourally challenged are filtered out of the grammar school stream and into non-grammar schools from age eleven.

The failure to place a cap on the number of grammar pupils (as a percent of the annual incoming Year 8 cohort) has meant that some 44.9% of our post-primary pupils are now enrolled in grammar schools, the highest that it has ever been.

The implications of this for non-grammar schools continue to be enormous.

It is the non-grammar schools which annually face severe problems on account of falling enrolments, which impact directly on school budgets; and it is the non-grammar schools which are the subject of constant plans and reviews inevitably resulting in the amalgamation or closure of existing non-grammar schools. Given that a school culture is intrinsically linked to its tradition, sense of place and community, the fact that grammar schools are much less likely to be disturbed by such a process only further widens the gap.

The failure to cap the number of pupils enrolled in grammar schools has meant that pupils who previously may have provided the top learning group in a non-grammar school are instead securing entry to grammar schools. Whilst this may please the pupils affected and their parents, nevertheless it poses serious problems for non-grammar schools who benefit from mixed ability intakes and who need to maintain enrolment numbers to sustain viability.

High Hurdles and The Peleton Effect

The reason grammar schools remain in demand is that parents view the grammar school as providing the optimum opportunity for their child to fulfill their academic potential on account of the perceived and real advantages associated with enrolment in a grammar school.

A surface level analysis of the comparative performance of pupils at examination level would appear to vindicate that perception, yet it would be misleading.

As I have outlined already, many of the inhibiting factors to pupils fulfilling their academic potential relate to external influences. These act as hurdles which must be jumped in order to ensure that children do not fall short of reaching their potential. This is true in any education system. But the reality of our academic selection system is that one of the consequences is that these hurdles become higher for those in the non-grammar sector.

That so many of our non-grammar pupils perform exceptionally well at examination level is a testament to the dedication and resilience of all in school communities that have been and continue to be tasked with the hardest role in a system designed and operated in a manner that further compounds the already formidable challenges they face to ensure children fulfil their potential.

In contrast, the side-effects of academic selection for grammar schools are very different.

Restricting pupil enrolment to those of higher academic ability allows teachers to maintain a teaching and learning pace which ensures that our higher-ability learners outperform their counterparts in Britain.

It also has the effect of ensuring that most of the remaining grammar pupils (ie of middle learning ability) benefit from a Peloton Effect, moving with the bulk of the class, positively impacted by a learning culture not challenged to the same extent by the many and varied high hurdles faced by pupils and staff in the non-grammar school.

Of course, none of this is to take away from the role played by school leaders, teachers, parents and the pupils themselves in grammar schools in obtaining examination results and following career pathways through Higher and Further Education.

Every school community is unique. There are some grammar schools with significantly higher levels of FSME pupils than others, including some which defy the odds and consistently outperform other schools in the sector.

Rather, it is more about recognizing how academic selection provides an accelerated learning pathway for pupils securing grammar school places, giving them an advantage over their non-grammar peers.

The higher level of FSME Catholic boys (and girls) in grammar schools than FSME Protestants serves to further exacerbate the attainment divide.

How that situation arises is an interesting story in itself.

 Analysing Grammar School Entry from our Poorest School Communities

The table below illustrates the sectoral background of the 46 primary school communities with 65%+ of enrolled pupils who are entitled to FSM (essentially, the schools where 2 of every 3 pupils are from the poorest backgrounds.)

Primary Schools with 65%+ FSME Pupil Enrolments (2016/17)

SectorNo. Schools
Catholic Maintained26
Irish Medium3


In 2016/17, there were some 821 primary schools in Northern Ireland (the figure changes regularly due to closures and amalgamations), meaning the 46 schools analysed represent roughly the poorest 5% of school communities in terms of socio-economic background and (roughly) 7.5% of the overall pupil cohort at a Northern Ireland-wide level.

The 26 Catholic Maintained schools and 3 Irish Medium schools represent almost 2/3 of the poorest school communities, with the remaining 17 Controlled sector schools having overwhelmingly Protestant school enrolments, again demonstrating how much more significant poverty remains as an issue in Catholic communities than their Protestant counterparts in the north.

The table below sets out the percentage of pupils transferring to grammar school over a three-year period from these 46 schools (2013/14 to 2015/16) to illustrate the extent of the problem:


% Pupils transferring to grammar school

No. Schools 

Catholic Maintained


Irish Med

More than 44% (ie above the NI average)





















Less than 4% (including schools where the small numbers of pupils transferring mean data withheld under FOI terms.)






Only 16 of the 46 schools with 65%+ FSME pupils sent more than 20% of pupils on to grammar school over a 3 year period (ending in 2015/16.)

Fifteen of these sixteen schools were from the Catholic Maintained sector.

Seven of the schools sent 30%+ to grammar school, though only one sent an annual average above the 44% threshold mark which sits as the NI-wide average figure. Six of these seven schools were Catholic Maintained schools.

In 50% of the schools (23), 15% or fewer pupils transferred to grammar school, with a significant number of the schools sending fewer than 5%.

It is important to note that the Irish medium schools concerned send the overwhelming majority of their pupils to Colaiste Feirste, which acts as a truly comprehensive, all-ability school for children to learn through the Irish language.

Worth noting: the small number of fee-paying primary schools in the north annually send 90%+ pupils on to grammar school, with a significant number of schools based in more affluent parts of Belfast and other towns also sending 80%+ pupils on to grammar school every year.

Key Conclusions

  • In order to more effectively counter educational underachievement in NI, we need to address the significantly higher levels of Catholic poverty and the poorer rates of Protestant male attainment at schools.
  • Progress being made to date is hampered by the existence of academic selection as the means of primary to post-primary transfer, its impact on the capacity of non-grammar schools to perform their roles.
  • The failure to cap grammar school numbers has meant that they now sit at 44.9%, the highest ever share of the post-primary pupil cohort. This has severe repercussions for the viability of non-grammar schools, impacting adversely on enrolment, mixed pupil intake and in a budgetary and cultural sense.
  • Higher levels of poorer Catholic boys gaining places in grammar schools continues to exacerbate the attainment divide in terms of religious background.
  • The improvements in poorer Protestant males’ levels of attainment in recent years, coupled with the reality of the significantly greater number of poor Catholics, means that just 94 FSME Protestant males would have been required to obtain 5 ‘good’ GCSEs to eradicate the attainment gap at that level in 2015/16.
  • The widest attainment gaps continue to relate to poverty and the grammar/ non-grammar divide. Adopting strategies with the primary focus of narrowing these divides should form the basis of any programme to effectively tackle underachievement.