Peter Shirlow responds to Sentinel report on Protestant educational advantage

Professor Peter Shirlow.
Professor Peter Shirlow.

FOLLOWING our shocking report recently on how few Protestants who were entitled to free school meals, went on to university last year, the Sentinel asked Professor Peter Shirlow, Queen’s University Belfast, for his opinion on why this should be so, and what could be done about it. Professor Shirlow has been involved in a number of reports highlighting the issue of under-achievement. Here is his analysis.

In Northern Ireland less than 1 in 5 school leavers who were entitled to free school meals entered university this year. Some 90% of those who were Protestant and 80 per cent of those who were Catholic failed to gain entry into a form of education that is strongly linked to future social mobility and economic well-being.

I know this from personal experience in that getting to university provided me with the opportunity to match those who were born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouths. Moreover, a friend of mine, who left Boy’s Model in Belfast in 1982, often mentions that he and thirty of his peers got to university and that was in an era when around 10% gained entry to the ‘ivory tower’. Would that happen today?

Both universities invest heavily in outreach and have a commitment to challenging this problem, so what is happening elsewhere?

It is clear that social class still determines lifestyle and outcome and all the more so as we are living in a knowledge driven economy.

The city of Londonderry with regard to its economic future needs to produce a better educational base. Investors will not come for a low wage economy as they now seek a workforce that is highly trained and educationally capable.

Your city is probably already losing many of its brightest to Belfast and beyond who seek stable and well-paid employment. The cities that are succeeding within the global economy are those that produce and keep university graduates.

A failure to create a stable and attractive labour market will lead to a city such as Londonderry being hollowed out as economic exclusion and poverty grow. To paraphrase Bill Clinton ‘it’s about education, stupid!’

Right across our secondary sector there are signs of failure in both communities but it appears that in certain places that the Protestant working class are falling behind in educational terms.

According to The Poverty Site in wards with high levels of deprivation, many more school leavers in Catholic wards go on to further or higher education than do school leavers in Protestant ones. For example, among wards in the most deprived fifth of all wards, Catholic wards saw 63 per cent of school leavers going on to further or higher education in the three years to 2009/10, compared with 49 per cent in Protestant wards. Among wards in the second most deprived fifth of all wards, Catholic wards saw 73 per cent of school leavers going on to further or higher education, compared with 60 per cent in Protestant wards.

Unsurprisingly there is little disparity between middle class Catholics and Protestants. So what makes this difference between the working classes?

Pupils are taught a national curriculum and there are no allegations of unfair funding with regard to the religious composition of schools. So the problem must lie elsewhere.

We could possibly point to varying cultures of achievement or bemoan the loss of traditional labour markets that hit the Protestant community hard, but that in itself does not explain much of the gap. In reality there is one issue that comes first to mind.

Every sector except for the controlled secondary sector has a representative body. Grammar schools, special needs schools and Catholic schools all have representative bodies that champion their needs, instill an educational ethos and make have influence.

Protestant pupils exist without such support although efforts have been made to create a sectoral body. But one really has to ask why unionist political leaders or head teachers never, despite long-term evidence of working class Protestants doing less well in their education, demanded equal representation? In effect does anyone really care about the Protestant working class and their needs?

When in 2010 we launched the report ‘Educational disadvantage and the Protestant working Class: A Call to Action’ more republican and nationalist MLAs came to listen than did, I was going to say unionists, but in fact attendance was in the singular.

What we as a society need to grasp is that education is a need and not a want. Academic selection undermines the deprived and there are societies much more economically successful than ours without academic selection.

We seem to get fixated upon the academic selection debate without examining international evidence regarding what suits society best as opposed to what a minority wants.

In addressing this significant disadvantage in education we need to foster the idea of educational need and frame it around several key questions.

What are the international examples of best practice with regard to improving social mobility and how do we match these?

How do we re-organise educational resources to promote better outcomes? How do we create learning environments that create greater opportunities?

We must shift from being partisan about education and view it as an enabler and common good and be prepared to use evidence of what works as opposed to fulfilling an educational system that some want that ultimately undermines that very common good.

At the local level there is much that can be done through invoking the American educationalist Kepple’s idea that ‘education is too important to be left solely to educators’.

Communities must involve themselves in local education through parent associations, they should demand change and in particular those leading community-led initiatives should be developing homework clubs.

Parents, community leaders and people of influence should be offering assistance to controlled sector schools within your city. Derry City Council must review the issue of educational disadvantage and create plans and funding for change.

Those whose children are in controlled sector schools should be demanding to know why their children have no representational body. These parents should not allow their children’s needs to be secondary to other more affluent parents wants.

The call to action remains and if it is not up-taken someone will be writing this article again and again as they have done for the past two decades.