Robin Newton: Underachievement in education in Northern Ireland, which particularly affects Protestant boys, must be addressed

In East Belfast and across Northern Ireland, the pandemic has unquestionably affected young people and children in and out of education.

By Robin Newton
Saturday, 25th September 2021, 7:52 am
Education Minister Peter Weir last year with the Expert Panel which was established to examine the links between educational underachievement and social disadvantage. 
When considering education deprivation in East Belfast, it is important to reflect on the findings of the panel, says Robin Newton
Education Minister Peter Weir last year with the Expert Panel which was established to examine the links between educational underachievement and social disadvantage. When considering education deprivation in East Belfast, it is important to reflect on the findings of the panel, says Robin Newton

Of particular concern is the effect the pandemic will have on the pre-existing deprivation that exists within our education system.

East Belfast is home to some of the best performing schools in Northern Ireland.

For example, one school in our community obtained outstanding results with 99.4% of pupils achieving at least 5 GCSE’s A* - C (including English and Maths) in 2017-18.

Robin Newton MBE is an MLA for East Belfast and a member of Stormont’s Education Committee

However, other schools in East Belfast can face significant challenges within this area. Indeed, one school found only 30% of their pupils were able to achieve 5 GCSE’S A*- C (including English and Maths) in the same academic year.

This stark attainment gap of 69.4% is extremely concerning. Whilst East Belfast has excellent performing grammar and secondary schools, it is clear that far too many children continue to fall through the gaps within our education system.

Education disparity is quite clearly seen in pupils who qualify for Free School Meals (FSME) and those who are placed in non-grammar schools. In grammar schools, 94% of pupils achieved at least 5 GCSEs A*-C (including English and Maths) in 2018-19.

In non-grammar schools, only 52.1% of pupils achieved these qualifications.

This is a shocking 42.4% attainment gap that requires urgent attention. Furthermore, the percentage difference of FSME and non-FSME school leavers achieving at least 5 GCSES A*-C (including English and Maths) was 29% in 2018-2019.

Such disparities must be tackled to ensure all children can reach their potential regardless of background, gender or socio-economic status.

When considering education deprivation in East Belfast, it is important to reflect on the findings of A Fair Start: Expert Panel on Educational Underachievement in Northern Ireland.

This was a superb piece of work driven by my colleague and then Education Minister Peter Weir. This Expert Panel found that working-class Protestant boys face persistent underachievement within our education system. I

n 2018-2019 only 37.9% of Protestant boys who are FSME obtained at least 5 GCSEs A*-C (including English and Maths). In direct comparison, 85.3% of non-FSME Catholic girls were able to achieve these qualifications, which is an incredible result.

The effect of Covid-19 on our children’s education cannot be understated. Last year, Northern Ireland pupils lost 61 days of teaching since the beginning of the pandemic.

Consequently, the disparities that already existed within our education system will undoubtedly be widened further. Indeed, in a survey conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Researchers, 98% of teachers believed that their pupils were an average of three months behind the curriculum. They found boys were further behind than girls and the learning gap for poorer pupils had increased by 46%.

Whilst this survey was conducted in England, our education system will certainly face the same challenges.

Like the importance of ensuring waiting lists are reduced, the NI Executive and Department of Education must commit to providing appropriate support for pupils who have fallen behind during this period.

Covid-19 has brought into focus the stark deprivation issues that exist in our education system. We must ensure that these pre-existing disparities - which have widened due to Covid — are resolved.

As we move closer to starting the next academic year, we must guarantee that our children are supported and encouraged to reach their full potential.

• Robin Newton MBE is an MLA for East Belfast and a member of Stormont’s Education Committee

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