Strategy need to support attainment

15 Sep 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 15 Sep 2017

Never mind academic selection, the ILiAD report identifies several wider issues that affect academic attainment. These need to be dealt with together.

A controversial report into educational underachievement in Northern Ireland was published last week.

You can tell that it is controversial because there were two years between completion and publication.

The Investigating Links in Achievement and Deprivation (ILiAD) report was commissioned by OFMdFM (now the Executive Office) in March 2012, with a draft received by the department in 2015. It aimed to try and pick apart the effects of deprivation on academic attainment, looking at seven of the most deprived wards in Northern Ireland and asking why some pupils in these areas did better than others, and vice versa.

Experts from QUB and Stranmillis compiled the study and its publication was widely covered in the media – especially the finding that academic selection favours parents who can pay for tuition.

However, the report stopped short of recommending an end to selection – unlike, it appears, a previous draft – and actually sidesteps the issue of making general recommendations at all, saying: “Since qualitative, in-depth case study approach generates different kinds of insights from that of quantitative studies, no inferences or population-based recommendations can be made to Northern Ireland as a whole.”

Nevertheless, the paper provides plenty to think about, and looks at a much broader range of issues than academic selection.

The selection issue has long been a matter of debate in Northern Ireland, a debate which is unlikely to go away but, in a sense, selection is a very straightforward matter of policy. You can have it or you can scrap it, and even prohibit schools from differentiating between prospective pupils at age 11 based on academic achievement.

Some of the other considerations that spring forward from ILiAD are much more complicated and tackling them to any significant degree will require innovation, work across various sectors, and the determination to stare down a multitude of different social issues all at once.


Unsurprisingly, many of the factors that contribute to underattainment in areas of deprivation are not to do with what goes on in the classroom. There are a variety of social issues at play, many of them interrelated, and trying to unpick these – or to find a way to nullify their influence – is crucial.

ILiAD divides the factors into three categories: immediate (individual/home/community), school-level, and structural/policy-level. Each of these three levels has two lists of factors: positive (“drivers of attainment”) and negative (“inhibitors of attainment”).

All are worth examining, but this article wants to examine the selection listed below (which takes into account a majority of the factors, it is worth noting).

Per the report, the immediate drivers of attainment are summarised as: “The educational attainment outcomes of young people in the seven case study Wards are enhanced in the presence of: adequate levels of parental or familial support and encouragement; their own personal resilience; a sense of connectedness to their community; and effective local youth and community work.”

Immediate inhibitors: “The attainment prospects of some young people in the seven case studies were viewed to be inhibited by: adverse home conditions and inadequate levels of parental support; the inter-generational transmission of educational failure; the low self-esteem of some young people; and increasing levels of mental ill-health identified amongst young people.”

School-level drivers: “The most important school-level drivers of attainment in the case study Wards are: visionary and collaborative school leadership; effective school-community linkages and accessibility to parents; provision of diverse curricula; positive teacher-pupil relationships; inter-school and inter-agency collaboration and Extended Schools provision; effective pastoral care and support for pupils with SEN.”

School-level inhibitors: “Attainment in areas of deprivation is often inhibited by: low expectations on the part of some schools; a perception among some parents of schools as “middle class” and “detached”; the high rates of absenteeism and exclusion in some schools; and insufficient support for SEN.”

Structural drivers: “Across the seven case studies, the most significant structural/policy drivers of educational attainment were: collaborative and proactive community services; new and improved school buildings and facilities; and the high attainment performance of the Grammar sector.”

Structural inhibitors: “The most significant policy/structural inhibitors of attainment in these disadvantaged communities were: the current economic climate; legacies of the recent conflict; the spatial detachment of schools and the communities they serve; variability of availability of quality pre-school provision; insufficient SEN and EWO support; and some of the negative processes associated with academic selection.”


A number of themes emerge from the ILiAD paper, with cross-cutting areas and problems that relate to each other, including some drivers and inhibitors that are opposites, either in part or in totality.

To get better educational attainment in deprived communities, we will need to build the confidence and self-esteem of the children in these areas - as well as their resilience. These issues go hand in hand, but interlinking doesn’t stop there.

Children do better when they feel connected to their local community. Good youth and community work, another cited positive factor, can help with this, as can “collaborative and proactive community services”, another driver.

They do better when they feel their school is part of that same community. They also do better when the school works with local organisations on collaborative schemes, especially those that provide extended schools programmes.

So, if children are able to access community services that work alongside schools – or even within the school buildings, potentially removing any feelings that the school as an institution is isolated from the people it is supposed to serve, as well as being an efficient use of resources – they will feel more connected and consequently tend to have higher attainment.

Parental support is also crucial, and community initiatives – again, with local organisations perhaps working with schools, and perhaps working inside schools – that support parents can also provide vital interventions, such as building parents’ own confidence, improving their ability to provide parental support to children in school, trying to boost their belief in the importance of education so this can be reinforced better with their children, and so on.

The linkages between the different issues are obvious. Altogether it is a complicated web of interrelated matters that should be dealt with together.

Ongoing work

If you look across Northern Ireland, you can find plenty of initiatives aiming to boost these positives and/or mitigate against the negatives – with the third sector having a key role.

There are many examples:

This list is piecemeal, plenty more is being done and, over the past 10 or 15 years, there have been plenty of statutory schemes and policies that have aimed to deal with the social issues highlighted in ILiAD.

But, evidently, more needs to be done.

There is room for an entire strategy aimed at dealing with educational underattainment that doesn’t even touch directly on what happens in the classroom but which ties together many of the pluses, and minuses, found by ILiAD.

The Department of Education has had several related policies (as has the Executive Office, such as with T:BUC), but any long-term vision needs to work within an increasingly difficult financial reality.

Unfortunately, Stormont is currently in stasis, and even the last mandate got no further than its high-level Programme for Government.

Educational underattainment in deprived areas is a complex problem and the solutions are difficult but not a mystery. A focused government with correct priorities could take these issues on with a single strategy.

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