Infirm foundations – underachievement must be addressed
The Progressive Unionist Party’s Firm Foundations is a rallying cry, calling for action both from within and without the section of the community it considers its base.
Since its release the Department of Education has announced voluntary staff redundancies in schools while the number of empty places was revealed to have risen to nearly a fifth of the entire number available.
The fact that it, with a focus on the recurring underachievement of working-class protestants, especially boys, opened up with a salvo about the union flag and Belfast City Hall is prima facie laughable.
However, while a deeper reading of the issues still must conclude that arguing over symbols is not a valid reason for these outcomes, dismiss this point out of hand and you will miss a more subtle problem.
When you get past the flags, the remainder of the report’s introduction is not nearly so provocative, indeed it mostly amounts to a concise précis of the issues, combined with the PUP’s interpretations of how to solve them.
It breaks little new ground, is as polemical as it is analytical and cites little data – but makes no claims that obviously clash with the known and accepted terms of debate on NI education.
And while underachievement within this demographic is not an ignored problem, it still does not get the focus it deserves.
Everyone who lives here would benefit from a healthier economy, while the peace of the past 15 years is something on which we all rely and that should be nurtured to grow, solidify further and seed greater benefits.
Beyond those general reasons, there is something even more pressing: here we are, all aware of a whole swathe of the Northern Irish community born into a system – for whatever reasons – that sees them disadvantaged as children, something that will hinder many for the rest of their lives.
It is simply outrageous, a scandal that we talk about - but not nearly enough.
The meat of the paper assesses a number of areas where there are perceived issues.
Its assessment of the importance of early years is in line with what is close to a rare consensus in Northern Irish politics, and it outlines problematic trends therein prevalent in working-class protestant communities.
The report also states that government alone cannot provide a fix – and subsequently it discusses the need for greater parental and community involvement in schools.
“Within working class Unionist communities education can be seen as something that happens in school. Some parents appear to lack the confidence to engage with teachers. This contrasts with attitudes in disadvantaged Nationalist Communities where many have, with demonstrable success, viewed and availed of education as a right and a means of upward social mobility.
“Thus education has been seen, by parents and community leaders alike, as intrinsically valuable in itself but also as an incentive and a flexible response to changing patterns of employment.
“It is acknowledged that in unionist communities a change in culture to embrace education is needed. Although many parents value education highly others need encouraged, motivated and empowered. There is a need to make it easier for parents to be involved in their children’s education.
“This will involve removing real and perceived obstacles and creating a consistent positive flow of information between schools and parents. There are some outstanding examples of schools actively involving parents and community groups but in general many schools serving disadvantaged communities struggle to achieve this.”
The quoted paragraphs outline some well-worn and generally accepted problems. However, it also illustrates the conclusion of this article – more on that later.
The need for strengthening relationships between parents and schools, and involving other agents such as social enterprises and groups like Business in the Community and the CBI, is then noted.
A unified educational experience, involving after-school clubs, homework classes, mentoring schemes and greater involvement in sports and the arts are all to be encouraged – with part of the suggested solution the greater community use of school facilities.
The third and fourth sections – on the need to improve and better support leadership within education, and for better governance and stronger solutions regarding underperforming heads and teachers – cover similar ground.
One of the most controversial aspects of the report is next – a call to abandon the eleven-plus transfer test - controversial insofar that it is a major point of difference with the two largest unionist parties.
It’s not an argument this article wants to address in great detail. However, the DUP’s Peter Weir said, in response to Firm Foundations, that: “It is disappointing that once again the main focus appears to have been placed on academic selection.
“Selection on merit has been a driver of social mobility its removal will do little to improve educational attainment. What we would have is a race to buy homes in the catchment areas of the best schools, a race in which the working class would be the biggest losers.”
His first point – that the main focus is on selection – is straightforwardly incorrect. It is addressed in the fifth of six sections within the report. Clearly the PUP consider it a matter of importance, but not to the stated extent.
His other points are more substantial and deserve further consideration. Mr Weir argues that selection is a tool of social mobility that benefits the brightest pupils – while the PUP counters that that the system works against the interests of the majority of schoolchildren.
But perhaps the most telling point against the DUP MLA’s assertion is nothing within the report itself, but simply that it exists and that it needs to exist.
Decades of continuous academic selection, including in its current zombie form, have coincided with decades of underachievement amongst working-class protestants, stubbornly inherited from generation to generation – in other words, the opposite of effective social mobility.
It does not follow that the 11+ is the reason for all these problems, but both the DUP and UUP have been unwavering of their support of a system about which they should perhaps be more wary.
The matter of housing – and the fact that those with more money have sharper elbows when it comes to living in desirable catchment areas – is definitely a matter of consideration.
However, it is also fair to say this is a matter than can be addressed on its own footing, and is under the remit of Social Development at least as much as Education.
To close the issue of selection, it is worth highlighting here the amazing success of St Patrick’s High School in Keady and the driving forces behind this: an aggressive move away from any form of tiered-ability schooling – including the abandonment of streaming – and a concurrent reduction in focus on testing. Food for thought.
The report quotes the Community Relations Council’s Dr Paul Nolan in saying: “The problem is we are creating inequalities....and a community which feels it has no route out of poverty.”
Some of the issues faced by these children are systemic. These can be fixed by educationalists, the government, and so on – albeit there is no consensus on what the fixes are, and the persistence of this problem indicates just how difficult this might prove.
Then there are the things the community itself needs to address.
As stated above, citing identity politics as a reason why children underachieve in school – starting from a very young age - seems absurd.
However, working-class protestants are not manifestly less able to achieve good educational outcomes than other local demographics, so the problem within is necessarily cultural.
On the one hand, any fundamental undervaluing of education within the community needs to be tackled immediately and aggressively. But what about flags and emblems?
If there are some people who say this is a cause of educational underachievement, when rationally there is no direct link, then there is an issue – just not the one they say it is.
The problem is the perception itself. I have no answer to the dominant debate within NI (the one over symbolism) but the fact is it has no relevance to attitudes towards the value of education.
It is not that working-class protestants have to forget about problems on identity – real or perceived - but if this does provide a demotivation to education then that barrier has to be smashed, and quickly.
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