Addressing the effects of deprivation on educational achievement need not in any way threaten the current system of academic selection, it was claimed yesterday.
That was the view of the chief executive of an entrance test body – echoed by the DUP and the PUP (see sidebar and below) – who were speaking in response to a draft report on the effects of deprivation on educational achievement.
It recommended the end of the current system of academic selection as a key way to reverse educational disadvantage.
The report – called Investigating Links in Achievement and Deprivation (Iliad) – was commissioned by the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and leaked to the BBC. It has not yet been published.
The report said the current system is “high on excellence and low on equity” and that “access to the best education is too often determined by socio-economic status”.
It suggests that working class Catholic children do better than their Protestant counterparts academically due to factors in nationalist areas such as stronger relationships and engagement between schools and the local community, stronger links between schools and the families of pupils, leading to more parental support for education and better collaboration between schools.
The report also highlights “dissatisfaction with political leadership” as most pronounced in the “Protestant” wards.
Billy Young is joint Chief Executive of the Association of Quality Education (AQE) which offers independent selection tests used by many grammar schools.
He says the number of children taking free school meals who now take his entrance tests has doubled since AQE first began and now makes up 12% of his applications.
“The results over the past two years have been very pleasing,” he adds. “Fifty per cent of pupils taking free school meal gained a score 95 or above and 40% got 100 or above.”
“It does show academic selection gives chances to people from those disadvantaged areas,” he says.
He agrees there is a significant disparity in the academic performance of working class children from Protestant and Catholic areas.
And he acknowledges that there are positive factors in Catholic areas which support academic achievement there.
“But there is no connection whatsoever between these issues and academic selection.”
Northern Ireland outperforms Great Britain in exam performance “year in and year out”.
“The ‘long tail’ of underachievement in Northern Ireland is only one third of what it is in England and Wales.”
He says this has nothing to do with academic selection.
“The real question for me is what is Minister O’Dowd doing about this [underachievement]?”
The Education Minister Mr O’Dowd issued a lengthy statement last night in response.
The statement (which did not specifically mention the word ‘selection’) read in part: “Substantial resources are targeted at disadvantaged communities and aimed at improving school-community links.
“These include the Extended Schools and Full Service programmes, the Sure Start programme, Achieving Belfast and Achieving Derry Bright Futures programmes...
“I have kept a clear focus on raising outcomes through the implementation of policies designed to raise standards in schools.
“These policies and programmes are already working – standards are rising at all levels, as indicated by rising GCSE and A-level results.”
He said that the percentage of Protestant children with free school meal entitlements getting five A*-to-C GCSEs “has increased from 14.8 per cent in 2008/09 to 22.1 per cent in 203/14”.
Meanwhile, OFMDFM said it has not yet seen the Iliad report, adding: Once the research advisory group has formally signed off the research the Department will decide when to publish.”
Sinn Fein MLA Chris Hazzard has said leaked reports about the QUB-Stranmillis report should prompt everyone interested in equality, social justice and education to actively campaign against academic selection.
Noting the report was unpublished, he said: “This is the latest evidence-based report, which adds to the wealth of international and local evidence, highlighting the damage academic selection has on individual pupils, our education system and our society.”
And he added: “Those who claim there has been no alternative created are either misinformed or are deliberately being misleading. Every school now operates the same curriculum, with all schools delivering a broad-based curriculum relevant to society and the economy.”
PUP deputy leader John Kyle said the findings of the leaked QUB-Stranmillis report “should not come as a surprise to anybody”.
Five high-profile reports – one of them his – have come to similar conclusions on academic selection in Protestant areas in recent years.
“Academic selection creates problems rather than solves problems,” he said.
“It should be abolished but not in the way Martin McGuinness tried when he was education minister - by edict.”
He advocates all ability schools which contain a form of internal academic selection - academic streaming.
The Finnish model of schooling is what Northern Ireland should focus on, he said, as he provides both the best educational outcomes and all-ability schooling.
“Underachievement in working-class Protestant areas stems from 30 years of inaction by unionist parties. John O’Dowd has made some contributions but they have been inadequate to address the issues.”
However, academic selection aside, he agrees that Protestant working-class areas adopting the best elements of the Catholic system would be a major boost to outcomes.
“This would be no threat to academic selection.”
On the subject of academic streaming, Mr O’Dowd said: “As with any strategy for improving pupil outcomes, schools should monitor and evaluate its impact to ensure it is working to meet the needs of every child.”
DUP education spokesman Peter Weir said that it is time to look beyond academic selection and tackle the real issues behind educational disadvantage.
If the unpublished QUB-Stranmillis report does say that ending selection is key to reversing educational disadvantage, then “the easy option” has been taken.
“Academic selection has become such a ‘whipping boy’ for the failures of education that it seems there is no problem that cannot be solved by its removal.”
But building stronger links between schools and communities, encouraging parental collaboration and a drive to lower absenteeism have nothing to do with academic selection, he said.
“Again, the ‘corrosive impact’ of paramilitary groups has absolutely nothing to do with selection, but it suits the narrow agenda of some people to ignore those issues and pin everything on academic selection.”