SF’s John O’Dowd rubbishes idea that Protestant boys under-perform at school as expert panel set up to tackle inequality

A former education minister has said it is an “urban myth” that working-class Protestant boys do worse than their Catholic counterparts in terms of schooling.

By Adam Kula
Tuesday, 28th July 2020, 5:39 pm
Peter Weir, left, and right, his predecessor as education minister John O’Dowd
Peter Weir, left, and right, his predecessor as education minister John O’Dowd

Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd was reacting to the news that a panel is being set up by the current education minister Peter Weir to investigate exactly that disparity.

Mr Weir, DUP MLA for Strangford, took over the post from Mr O’Dowd in 2016.

And speaking yesterday in the Assembly, Mr Weir said will set up “an expert panel to examine the links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background”.

In particular, he said, this will focus on Protestant boys who are entitled to free school meals, adding that the New Decade, New Approach deal had promised such a panel.

Mr Weir said this group has “consistently had one of the lowest percentage attainment levels of all pupils”.

DUP North Belfast colleague William Humphrey said the issue “has been a running sore in our community for some time”.

But when Mr O’Dowd (MLA for Upper Bann) rose to speak, he said: “I think that the Minister would be awarded an A* for creative writing for his speech, but I suspect his scores may fall for maths, percentages and facts.

“I have a serious concern. The urban myth that Protestant working-class boys do worse in education than their Catholic working-class equivalents is in danger of being embellished by the statement.”

This contradicts a widely-accepted general trend that Protestant boys do indeed perform worse than other groups.

Mr O’Dowd went on to say that whilst a greater percentage of working class Protestant boys leave school without proper qualifications, a greater number of Catholic working-class boys leave school without proper qualifications.

This would reflect the fact that Catholic schoolchildren now far outnumber Protestant ones (the 2011 Census showed that there were 61,225 Catholics aged four-and-under, compared with 45,240 Protestants).

In a major report of 2015, the Equality Commission looked at grades attained by Catholic and Protestant pupils. It reported that under-attainment by Protestants is “a persistent, and increasing, inequality” and that “Catholics were persistently more likely to enter higher education than other groups”.

This motif was repeated as recently as this May, when the commission voiced fears that Covid-19 may make a bad situation worse for some pupils – saying that” we are concerned about those already experiencing inequality... particularly Protestant boys”.

In terms of the expert panel, it will report by May 2021.

Its members are: Dr Noel Purdy from Stranmillis College’s Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (he will chair the panel); Mary Montgomery, the principal of Belfast Boys’ Model School; Kathleen O’Hare, retired principal of Hazelwood Integrated College in Belfast; Joyce Logue, principal of Long Tower Primary School in Londonderry; Jackie Redpath, CEO of the Greater Shankill Partnership; and Professor Feyisa Demie, honorary professor at the school of education at Durham University.

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