New way to boost working class pupils’ performance takes off in Protestant-dominated areas

Suzanne Campbell-Hanna pictured helping students at the 'reading between the lines' project in Londonderry
Suzanne Campbell-Hanna pictured helping students at the 'reading between the lines' project in Londonderry

A school teacher in Londonderry believes she may have come up with a way to help bridge the gap in performance between pupils from a working class background and those who are better off.

The ‘Reading Between the Lines’ project is the brainchild of experienced English teacher Suzanne Campbell-Hanna, and is aimed at bringing a relaxed approach to learning right to the children’s doorsteps.

Research has consistently shown that children from less well-off backgrounds underperform in the education system in Northern Ireland.

A study by Queen’s University researchers published in 2015 found that children entitled to free school meals were less likely to do well in exams than those who were not.

The study found one of the worst performing groups was Protestant boys who are entitled to free school meals, just 14.7% of whom achieved two A-levels, compared to 47.9% of Protestant boys who do not get free school meals.

Both of these figures compared unfavourably to their Catholic counterparts (see below).

The ‘Reading Between the Lines’ project in Londonderry has been operating in four mostly Protestant, largely working class areas, namely the Newbuildings, Caw, Tullyally and Irish Street areas.

Suzanne Campbell-Hanna, who is the daughter of DUP MP Gregory Campbell, explained that children in these areas are offered free tuition in small groups, using specially-developed resources such as games, competitions, quizzes, and creative tasks.

This is offered to the children in their own local community centres and youth clubs. Most of those who attend are entitled to free school meals.

“The children respond better when it is in a relaxed environment,” Mrs Campbell-Hanna explained.

“We have snacks for them, they can wear their own clothes, and it works well because they are the ones who choose to come.”

Focussed primarily, for now at least, on GCSE English, the project seems to be bearing fruit. Most (88%) achieved A*-C in their English GCSEs, with 60% exceeding the grades their schools had predicted.

The pupils mostly attend Lisneal College in the Waterside area of Londonderry. The school’s principal, Michael Allen, is backing the project.

“By providing high quality teaching and learning in local communities we have seen aspirations raised and greater value placed on education,” he said.

The project is funded by the Halifax Foundation. Mrs Campbell-Hanna hopes the Department of Education will look at rolling it out elsewhere.

“We need to do something about the disadvantage faced by students,” she said.

THE GAP IN NUMBERS:

Figures published by the Equalities Commission in 2015, based on a study by Queen’s University researchers, unveiled stark divides in educational attainment in Northern Ireland.

One of the most interesting findings was the breakdown of results by religious background, gender and entitlement to free school meals.

The following shows the number of pupils in each group who achieved at least two A-levels at grades A*-C, with those entitled to free school meals shown as FSM, alongside those not entitled to free school meals:

• Protestant boys (FSM) 14.7%

• Protestant boys 47.9%

• Catholic boys (FSM) 27.0%

• Catholic boys 56.3%

• Protestant girls (FSM) 24.1%

• Protestant girls 64.9%

• Catholic girls (FSM) 43.3%

• Catholic girls 75.6%