Educational underachievement and a lack of progression among poorer Protestant boys was one of the topics of discussion at a hustings event attended by the three main unionist candidates in Londonderry on Wednesday.
And there were strong calls from the floor, and indications from the panel, that a new Education Minister nominated when the Assembly convenes next month could be a unionist.
That would likely require the DUP to hand over the Stormont coffers to Sinn Féin in the form of the Finance Ministry but there’s a palpable desire for unionist control of education, judging from the mood at St Columb’s Park House.
Alison Wallace from the Waterside Neighbourhood Partnership (WNP) expressed a frustration felt by many within the Protestant community at what they see as an education system failing their young people.
“As you know I work in the Waterside among a lot of deprived communities and 33 per cent of the population here in the Waterside have no qualifications whatsoever and educational attainment among Protestant boys is absolutely shocking here in the Waterside,” she remarked.
“What would the parties do to address this situation and Gary, you’ve kind of indicated already, if given the opportunity, would you take the education portfolio?
“And in Maurice’s case would you sit on the Education Committee if you went as far as Stormont, because I do believe that unionists have been let down in terms of education for the past ten years.”
Ulster Unionist Party candidate Julia Kee said: “I know the fantastic work that’s being done in Lisneal but there’s more to be done, there’s a bigger job of work to be done and that needs invested in and that needs a unionist in the Education Ministry. It’s as simple as that.
“If it was happening with any other group in our society, there would be outcry. There would be absolute outcry. If it was the travelling community, which can I just say, are just below young Protestant boys in education and they don’t attend school. There needs to be a concerted effort to address educational underachievement within unionism, within Protestantism.”
During the exchanges, DUP candidate Gary Middleton warned of the danger of underachievement becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Just this week Arlene Foster was down and we visited various places throughout the city,” he said.
“One was Lisneal College and let me tell you something there is no lack of aspiration in that school.
“And see if we go about telling people that they are uneducated and we tell them often enough they’ll start to believe it.”
Independent Maurice Devenney said: “I believe for education to move forward there needs to be investment, there needs to be a root-and-branch review of education, and I believe, whenever our children are leaving primary school and go in to secondary school they should be sign-posted to courses, especially in science, maths and technology.”
Ms Wallace said she thinks it is vital that a unionist is in control of the school system during the forthcoming mandate.
“I do believe that unionists have been let down in terms of education and I think it’s really important that a unionist takes the education portfolio this time around.”
The candidates were also asked about their views on academic selection with one audience member querying whether there’s any evidence it’s of benefit, particularly to working-class Protestant communities.
Ms Kee responded: “Well, I probably wouldn’t have any evidence for you...here now, but as a party we support selection of some sort.
“We definitely don’t support the three or four exams for eleven-year-olds at the minute.
“I think Sinn Féin made a big mistake when they did away with the 11 plus with nothing to replace it and there probably is very little evidence to support academic selection, however, as someone who has come out of academic selection and she’s come from a working class unionist background it was a path for me, therefore for my personal reasons, it’s one of the reasons I do support it, support some form of selection.
“I wouldn’t say 11 is probably the best age and I do think evidence does show that 14 might be a better age but I do support some form of academic selection for our young people.”
Mr Middleton said: “I do think academic selection does work...we will be looking to retain some form of academic selection.
“Unfortunately, it has become a bit of a mess and we do need some form of unionist Education Minister to come in and give clarity because I can assure you that the schools are as fed up with this as we are.”
Mr Devenney also backed testing.
“I would agree with some form of academic selection. As I said earlier on, the question is: Is 11 the right age?
“I suppose 11 fits in well because it’s in between that age when they leave primary school and go to the secondary school. My worry is, if you take it to 14, those children have already left primary schools, and only using Lisneal as an example, if you’re 14 in Lisneal and you sit an exam like the 11 plus and you have to leave school then, that is more trauma on that young child so it is because doing the exam is traumatic enough.
“I have to say this idea of two or three exams...that is a mess and it needs to be resolved and, as I say, education is in a bad place at the moment, and I‘d say if there were betting odds, the betting odds that the DUP would take education next time would be good.”