Calls were made yesterday for education minister John O’Dowd to establish a body similar to the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) for the controlled sector, in a bid to redress underachievement in Protestant working class boys.
Chairman of the education committee Mervyn Storey tabled a motion in the Assembly asking Mr O’Dowd to outline what steps he is taking after the Community Relations Council (CRC) found that Protestant boys with free school meal entitlement achieve less than any of the other main social groups in Northern Ireland.
The measure was based on the number of pupils coming out with five good GCSEs.
Among its functions, the CCMS contributes to policy on a wide range of issues such as curriculum review, selection, pre-school education, pastoral care and leadership.
Mr Storey said: “CCMS have made an impact on the Catholic sector. Nobody has had that role in the controlled sector. This is not a perfect organisation, but it has made a contribution and it could help the controlled sector.”
He said the CRC report reinforces “the fact that there is a serious problem within sections of the Protestant working class community in regard to educational achievement”.
But he cautioned that “the problem is not solely within the Protestant community, as the recent league tables of GCSE results for Northern Ireland schools show that, of the bottom 25 schools, 12 are from the Catholic sector, 11 from the controlled sector and two from the integrated sector”.
He added the reasons are complex and include the effects of the Troubles, plus changing job patterns.
Responding to the CRC report, John O’Dowd yesterday said that “frankly, its findings should come as no surprise”.
“I am on record as saying that our education system continues to fail too many young people,” he said.
“The figures for young people from all disadvantaged sections of our community are simply unacceptable.”
He acknowledged there were inequalities, and said they are striving to tackle them, including making changes to school funding “in order to target resources at areas of disadvantage”.
Principal of Newtownabbey Community High School John Lewis, whose school’s exam results have “turned around over the past three years”, described the external pressures faced by many of his own pupils.
He said 52 per cent of his pupils qualify for free school meals: “the highest in our board area”.
“In our last exam results we maintained the Northern Ireland average for five GCSE grades A-C, including English and maths,” he said.
“That puts us above our peer schools, who have similar free school meal allocation and other deprivation issues.”
Mr Lewis, 60, said many of his 220 pupils have “complex difficulties and challenges within school and outside”.
He said a paramilitary influence has been a problem.
“I have a lot [37 per cent] of single parent families, unemployed families and families with other issues and that influences the child,” he said.
“The flag protests were a nightmare for us, where we had children who are out all hours of the night. But we were not the only school affected by that.”
He said the improved results could be attributed to “raising the children’s self-esteem”.
“You have to make them believe in themselves and show them the routes they will be successful in. The key link to achievement is attending school. Our attendance is now around 90 per cent, and it had been much lower.
“If children come to school they will do well no matter what religion they are, deprived or otherwise.”
Also responding to the CRC report was the director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Northern Ireland, Mark Langhammer.
He said “schools attended by Protestant boys tend to be more socially segregated than integrated or Catholic sector schools”.