Educational Underachievement: Getting a Clear Picture

% of pupils achieving 5 GCSEs including Maths and English (A*-C)

NI Avg Boys Girls Prot Cath Other FSME Non-FSME
2015/16 67.7% 63.3% 72.2% 65.8% 68.7% 69.1% 44.8% 75.8%
2014/15 66.0% 61.6% 70.5% 65.2% 66.4% 66.9% 41.3% 73.7%
2013/14 63.5% 58.6% 68.6% 63.0% 64.3% 61.8% 34.9% 69.7%


% of pupils achieving 2+ A Levels (A*-E)

NI Avg Boys Girls Prot Cath Other FSME Non-FSME
2015/16 57.3% 48.8% 66.1% 52.2% 61.1% 57.0% 36.6% 64.7%
2014/15 57.7% 49.5% 66.2% 54.0% 61.0% 55.3% 35.3% 64.7%
2013/14 55.7% 48.1% 63.6% 52.4% 59.1% 51.3% 31.0% 61.1%

The issue of educational underachievement has once again featured in the news, with last night’s BBC The View including a report on a new initiative by the Goliath Trust to fund some schools as part of an attempt to address the matter.

The facts relating to educational attainment levels are quite clear and provide us with a notably different picture to the one which, at times, appears to dominate the media and political agenda.

The gap between overall Catholic and overall Protestant attainment at both GCSE and A Level is considerably smaller than the gap between attainment at gender level and is dwarfed by the deficit in achievement when gauged on relative poverty- as measured by entitlement to Free School Meals.

League tables paint a misleading picture of relative academic attainment on religious grounds exaggerating the extent to which Protestant educational underachievement is a problem in isolation from underachievement as a whole within our society.

As the tables above illustrate, the gap between Catholic and Protestant attainment at GCSE level has ranged from 1.3% to 2.9% over the past three years in which data is available. The figures for gender range from 8.9% to 10%, but for relative poverty are set at 31% to 34.8%.

At A Level, the religious attainment gap ranges from 6.7% to 8.9%, while for gender it is 15.5% to 17.3%. For relative poverty it is 28.1% to 30.1%.

As is the case for prescribing the causes of underachievement in itself, there is a multiplicity of factors which have contributed to the misleading perception that Protestants are being left behind in our education system.

What feeds the false perception is the production of annual league tables which, in the bald manner in which they are presented, ignore a range of critical factors which exaggerate the attainment gap at a school sectoral level.

League tables are based upon academic performance at school level for pupils included in returns. We know from the Department of Education’s own Statistical Bulletins that these returns annually exclude some 7% of all pupils, a factor which can considerably boost the percentage success rate figures for individual schools at exam performance level, something I have written about before on this site.

The practice of double selection (ie grammar schools, selecting at age eleven, repeating the process by dismissing pupils after GCSEs or Year 13 on academic attainment grounds) acts to enhance a school’s capacity to maximize A Level attainment percentage rates.

But there are other more nuanced cultural factors which have given Catholic schools the edge at League table level.

Many Catholics have demonstrated a willingness to embrace comprehensive, all-ability school settings for their children, meaning that the non-selective sector serving the Catholic population (be it Catholic Maintained, Irish Medium or Integrated) tends to be more socially and academically mixed than the Controlled sector. This more authentically mixed ability setting has provided the environment within which more pupils have been able to maximize performance and realise their full academic potential.

The demographic dynamics within the two communities are decisive in this regard as well.

Protestant numbers have been declining at school level for quite some time, which has had the effect of ensuring that a greater percentage of Protestant middle class pupils have been able to secure grammar places, leaving the non-selective Controlled sector intake with a narrower ability range at intake level and less representative of the overall Protestant community socially.

Ironically, another consequence of this is that the ‘Protestant’ grammar can have a wider ability intake, which can be a critically important factor when it comes to measuring performance by league tables which operate on the basis of the percentage of pupils securing a grade threshold.

This has been compounded by the fact that Catholic parents have proven themselves to be much more pragmatic when it comes to choosing their children’s educational pathways at post-primary level.

Across the north, Catholic children at P7 level will sit both the GL and AQE tests as their parents seek to maximize their children’s opportunity to secure a grammar school place regardless of sector. This pragmatism has meant that many Catholic pupils who fail to secure the highest grades to gain a place in the most competitive Catholic grammar schools are still able to secure a place in a non-Catholic grammar due to the entry ‘bar’ being lower. In contrast, Protestant parents across the north have yet to display a similarly pragmatic approach.

The net effect of these factors is the appearance of a significant attainment gap between school sectors which is simply not supported by the most important statistical evidence in this regard, namely the overall attainment performance of pupils when assessed on their religious backgrounds.

On the specific issue of the performance of pupils from the poorest backgrounds, ie those entitled to Free School Meals, there are two important points to be made, which I have written about more extensively within the past year here.

Firstly, there are a significantly greater number of poor Catholics in Northern Ireland than poor Protestants. Worryingly, the gap in this regard shows no signs of narrowing, as the publication late last year of the most recent statistics relating to deprivation clearly illustrate, meaning that there are considerably more Catholic pupils entitled to Free School Meals than their Protestant counterparts.

As statistics consistently confirm, the greatest deficit in terms of educational attainment continues to be on the grounds of relative poverty, meaning that addressing the issue of greater Catholic inequalities in Northern Ireland is central to tackling educational underachievement. Put simply, lifting more children out of the poverty cycle will accelerate the process of countering underachievement.

Secondly, in spite of the significantly greater levels of Catholic inequalities, the fact that the academic performance of both Catholic pupils in general and poorer Catholic pupils (FSME) specifically exceeds that of their Protestant counterparts points to a particular problem of underachievement amongst Protestant working class children which has been underlined by a number of important reports from Peter Martin, Dawn Purvis, John Kyle and others in recent years, which I wrote about on Slugger last summer.

An effective comprehensive strategy to tackle educational underachievement must be informed by a desire to address both Catholic inequalities and the specific case of working-class Protesant male underachievement. Whilst there has been ample recognition of the desirability of addressing the latter, the former continues to be an issue largely ignored at a political level. In any event, the most significant advances towards eradicating greater Catholic inequalities in the north of Ireland are likely to be made by equipping young people with the skills and expertise to lift themselves above the poverty line once they enter the world of work, precisely the same approach required to address the identified problems regarding educational attainment facing working class Protestant boys.

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