Change coming among Protestant pupils says ex-minister as Catholic schools dominate league table

Education minister Peter Weir
Education minister Peter Weir

Catholic schools are overwhelmingly dominant at the very top of the Province’s A-level league table – but a former education minister has said a cultural shift under way in unionist communities may see this change.

Peter Weir, DUP MLA for Strangford, was speaking after figures were published revealing that the entire top 10 best-performing schools when it comes to A-level results are Catholic.

The league table covers the years 2016/17, and was compiled with data provided by the Department for Education. It was first published in the Belfast Telegraph on Wednesday.

Looking at the percentage of pupils who achieved three or more A-levels in the grades A*-to-C, St Louis, a Catholic grammar school in Ballymena came out top, with 96.5%.

At the bottom of the table was Carrickfergus College, a school from the Protestant-dominated controlled sector, where the same category yielded a figure of 15.2%.

Further analysis shows the pattern is not new – similar figures released for 2015/16 show just two non-Catholic schools were in the top 10.

The year before that, the top 10 slots were once again occupied only by Catholic schools.

Mr Weir, the only non-Sinn Fein education minister at Stormont since 1998 (having served in the post from May 2016 to March last year), said moves are under way to tackle the educational gap between Catholics and Protestants, but it will not change “overnight”.

“I think it shows perhaps the amount of work that still needs to be done within the broader Protestant-unionist community,” he said of the league table.

“There’s perhaps been a feeling from a number of years ago that the broader sort of Catholic-nationalist community was ahead of the curve in relation to this.

“I’m very much struck in a lot of areas now by a determination to embrace a culture of education within unionist areas.

“Something of that nature will take a degree of time ... that will take a few years to flow through.

“I think there are positive moves happening but by nature I think people need to [have] a certain degree of patience with those because educational attainment is not something which then changes overnight.”

He suggested it may be possible that, following the Sinn Fein-led attempt to end academic selection, there may be fewer Catholic schools with a grammar ethos, meaning that the very high-end results for Catholic pupils are concentrated in a lower number of particularly high-achieving schools.

Paul Girvan, DUP MP for South Antrim and the party’s Westminster education spokesman, echoed Mr Weir in saying there “seems to be more of an emphasis upon education and educational attainment within the Roman Catholic community” – with a similar focus on education “sadly lacking” among Protestant communities.

He called for a “sharing” of the best teaching practice across the controlled and Catholic sectors.

Barry Mulholland, CEO of the Controlled Schools’ Support Council (which represents the interests of controlled schools) said: “When it comes to reported league tables it is difficult to compare like with like, and great care must be taken to not undermine the quality teaching that is taking place in all schools.”

He said that “closer analysis of the A-level results reveals that a number of controlled schools are celebrating their most successful year ever for A-level results”.

THE TOP TEN:

Pupils who achieved three or more A-Levels in the grades A*-to-C during the year 2016/17:

• St Louis Grammar School, Ballymena: 96.5%

• Lumen Christi College, Londonderry: 95.4%

• St Dominic’s High School, Belfast: 92.4%

• Loreto College, Coleraine: 92.3%

• Rathmore Grammar School, Belfast : 91.5%

• Our Lady and St Patrick’s College, Belfast: 89.3%

• St Colm’s High School, Draperstown: 88%

• Assumption Grammar School, Ballynahinch: 87.6%

• Sacred Heart Grammar School, Newry: 87.6%

• Dominican College, Belfast: 87.5%