Dr Nolan discusses ‘shocking’ level of underachievement

The inequality gap between richer Catholic girls and poorer Protestant boys in Northern Ireland is now a huge 57 percentage points, something peace-building expert, Dr Paul Nolan, describes as ‘astonishing.’

The author of the recent Community Relations Council (CRC) Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report, told the OFMDM Committee: “The inequality gaps are pretty extreme in that, if you look first at those who are doing best in the current system, you will find that they are Catholic girls who are not in receipt of free school meals, i.e. they are not socially disadvantaged.

“Those who are doing least well are Protestant boys who are in receipt of free school meals.”

He added: “At the very bottom of the table, we find Protestant boys, with 19.7 per cent achieving at that level. How big is the gap? It is a huge 57 percentage points.”

In his third annual stock-taking of the peace, which was published recently, Dr Nolan warned educational underachievement was “a seedbed for trouble.”

Elaborating on this theme, Dr Nolan, said he compared Northern Ireland with various sub-groups in Great Britain.

“The performance of Protestant boys is right down at the bottom. For the year that I looked at, they were below white boys on free school meals and only just above Roma and Irish Travellers. That is a shocking result.

“The worrying thing in looking at our peace process or public order in Northern Ireland is that, if four out of five are leaving school without the basic employability qualification, it does not augur well for the future of those boys in particular, the communities that they come from or society in general,” he said.

Dr Nolan pointed out that poorer than expected educational attainment was leading to greater youth unemployment.

“So I looked at what is happening with youth unemployment,” he told the Committee. “This year, in the labour force survey religion report, for the first time, the percentage of Protestant boys unemployed is higher than that of Catholics.”

He continued: “You can see that working its way through the labour market. I have traced it through the numbers applying for and being given jobs.

“You can see that there has been significant improvement, and this is a long-term thing, for the Catholic population.

“That has unsettled unionism, as, if you see this as a zero-sum equation, a gain for one is a loss for the other. I do not see it that way, but I understand that it has had that effect.”

However, Dr Nolan pointed out that whilst in percentage terms poorer Protestant boys presented the starkest example, poorer Catholic boys were also doing less well.

“If you look at the raw numbers, the number of Catholic boys leaving school without that basic qualification was about 1,500 against 850 Protestant boys.

“It is significantly more - almost double. It is fair to say that when you look at the kind of disadvantage created by that in respect of accessing the labour market and in respect of social exclusion, it affects both communities, but, at this stage, you would have to have a particular concern for what is happening in communities of Protestant social disadvantage, particularly with young males,” he explained.