Northern Ireland news

Review into why Protestant boys do worse at school will be 'meaningless' unless followed up by action

A new expert group is to look specifically at long-standing issues facing working-class, Protestant boys in schools

A FRESH review into why Protestant boys do worse at school will be "meaningless" unless followed up by action, it has been warned.

The New Decade, New Approach deal promised that the executive would establish a group to examine and propose an action plan to address links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background.

This will look specifically at the long-standing issues facing working-class, ".

Experts have asked "why?" given there have been several reports over the past decade on the theme.

Academics, politicians as well bodies including the Equality Commission and Community Relations Council (CRC) have all examined the issue.

Little progress has been made, however.

A study in 2014 noted that Protestant boys in receipt of free school meals were close to the very bottom in terms of exam achievement. Only Roma and Traveller children got poorer results.

Read More: Executive `will' work to improve education system

The situation has not improved since. Research last year found working class Protestant boys still struggled the most with education.

A CRC report noted that the patterns of underachievement were not new, unchanged or getting worse. Their persistence, it added, showed "the failure of the Northern Ireland government to tackle fundamental problems regarding the structure of education".

Professor Tony Gallagher from Queen's University Belfast said the shocking levels of inequality in education outcomes, mediated by gender, religion and, most significantly, by social background, remained "a scandal".

"For this reason, it is important that this issue has been identified as a priority for the new assembly," Prof Gallagher said.

"But we should not forget we have been here before, with many investigations, working groups and research studies providing copious amounts of analysis and evidence. In the past, few of the recommendations arising from this work have been implemented.

"Another review, without a commitment to tangible and meaningful action, cannot be enough - rhetoric and promises are meaningless unless they are followed up by action and a new approach."

A previous review by the PUP's John Kyle made 20 proposals on how to improve education in Protestant, unionist and loyalist areas, including scrapping academic selection. He failed to win support of the other main unionist parties, however.

"This is a long established problem. Educational underachievement, while worst among working class Protestant boys, is not limited to them but is common to all disadvantaged communities," Dr Kyle said.

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"There have been a number of previous reports, including Dawn Purvis' A Call to Action, and my own Firm Foundations, which have analysed the problem. The causes are well known and measures which need to be taken have been clearly articulated. The persistence of the problem indicates several things, namely: there are no quick solutions, a 10-15 year action plan is needed, which is adequately resourced and driven by strong, unwavering political support.

"Action plans to date have been piecemeal and short-term. A more comprehensive and sustained plan is necessary but this takes continued political commitment. The most contentious and difficult issue is academic selection at age 11. Most educationalists think this contributes to the problem and disadvantages pupils from poorer backgrounds."

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TACKLING underachievement in schools is a key priority, education minster Peter Weir has said.

Mr Weir acknowledged that there had been several reports looking at the issue over the last decade.

Asked why there was a need for another, he told The Irish News it was important to find solutions.

Education minister Peter Weir speaking to The Irish News. Picture by Mal McCann

Terms of reference he said had yet to be agreed.

"It is how we actually use the knowledge that is out there to the best effect. There are a lot of good things happening in different schools, and some of it is about pooling that information, sharing that information," Mr Weir said.

"Sometimes some of the best advice we can get in life is `don't do X because we tried X and it didn't work - maybe do Y'.

"It is unlikely that something will jump out that people have not heard before. It may well be, therefore, that the focus will be on taking the best practice from the things that should be done, and implement and support those."

Mr Weir said there had been developments in education since the issue was first examined, including school `nurture groups'.

These are improving social, emotional and behavioural outcomes among children from some of the most deprived areas.

"To take one example, even a few years ago we did not have nurture units and they have proved to be very successful," he said.

"Even if there have been a lot of reports in the past, it would be a little bit conceited if we did not think there was not anything new that could emerge."

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ANALYSIS

THERE are many idiomatic expressions that originate from the great sport of baseball.

There is probably a separate article to be written about the several phrases that have become everyday expressions without people realising.

Not an idiom per se, but the late Hall of Famer Yogi Berra's "it's like deja vu all over again" popped into my head when noting the executive's promise to tackle underachievement.

It plans to do this by setting up yet another "expert" panel, even though we have been here before, on many occasions.

We already know that Protestant boys, especially those from less well-off families, are less likely to achieve top results.

This fact has been well trailed for years and there have been at least seven separate reports.

And we have a good idea of what is needed to be done to buck this trend.

It has been speculated that it could be that the DUP minister, a supporter of academic selection, wants a review that does not link disadvantage to the 11-plus.

A few earlier reviews said there was a link, but Peter Weir is on the record saying he believes otherwise.

With there being so many issues demanding urgent attention in education, it seems odd that this has been elevated above others.

No one is arguing that it should not be a priority.

But rather than undertaking another costly, time-consuming review, the minister could easily act on the abundance of already-published information and recommendations.

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YEARS OF REPORTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

:: Peace Monitoring Report (2019): The CRC noted under-achievement among working class pupils generally, adding "working class Protestant boys continue to have lower educational attainment than Catholic boys". It criticised the "failure of the NI government to tackle fundamental problems regarding the structure of education in NI".

:: No Child Left Behind (2016): Led by DUP councillor Peter Martin, it reported that many of those most affected by underachievement came from the Protestant community. Mr Martin made several recommendations including addressing low parental expectations and aspirations. It also said early intervention in pupil non-attendance by schools should be a priority.

:: Investigating Links in Achievement and Deprivation (2015): Commissioned by the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister, ILiAD recommended the end of the current system of academic selection claiming it reinforced "privilege and disadvantage". It found Catholic areas had higher levels of attainment in GCSEs than Protestant areas.

:: Education Inequalities in Northern Ireland (2015): The Equality Commission/Queen's University found Protestant males entitled to free school meals had the lowest GCSE and A-level attainment rates and lowest proportions of school leavers moving on to higher education. It said the particular barriers to educational equality for Protestant males "must be considered closely".

:: Firm Foundations (2014): It offered 20 proposals to improve education in Protestant, unionist and loyalist areas, including scrapping academic selection. Originally instigated by the Unionist Forum after flag protests, its final report was never agreed by main unionist parties. The PUP's John Kyle continued the research.

:: Peace Monitoring Report (2014): The CRC compared ethnic groups using five good GCSE grades as the measure of success. It found half of Protestant boys failed to achieve this and warned they were being left behind. Dr Paul Nolan, the academic who led the research, said the attainment gap was "colossal".

:: A Call To Action (2011): Made up of educationalists, academics, community and voluntary representatives and early years providers, it recommended capping grammar places adding academic selection accentuated social division. Community and cultural factors, it said, affected how Protestant families perceived education and participation in schools.

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