Poor Protestant education ‘due to lack of political will’

Dr John Kyle completed the report for the PUP after unionist leaders rejected its initial conclusions
Dr John Kyle completed the report for the PUP after unionist leaders rejected its initial conclusions

A report on educational underachievement prompted by the flag protests has blamed lack of political will for the persisting problem in working-class Protestant areas.

The report, Firm Foundations, by PUP deputy leader Dr John Kyle, said that “political will and action are essential and have too often been lacking” in tackling educational underachievement.

A Community Relations Council report in 2014 found Protestant boys with free school meal entitlement achieve less than any other social group.

The PUP report was begun by the Unionist Forum, which was set up in response to the loyalist flag protests in 2012.

Dr Kyle chaired the education committee, sending the final report to unionist leaders in February 2014.

However, unionist leaders did not agree with the findings and it was not formally published, so the PUP completed the report.

“There is no single cause and no single solution for educational underachievement,” Dr Kyle said. “But any solution has to follow the child from before birth to the workplace.

“There are a huge number of determinants on educational achievement which are outside the classroom, as many as 80 per cent.

“The child’s nutrition in the first few years impacts on brain development. The attitude of parents to education is also key, if they are enthusiastic this motivates the child. There needs to be more support and confidence among parents to help educate their children.

“We also need good performance management of schools. On occasion we have tolerated poor teaching and poor leadership.

“The evidence on academic selection suggests it increases differences in educational outcomes between the children that are separated.”

Instead he suggests a system of academic streaming, where academically stronger pupils can act as role models for other pupils.

The DUP firmly rejected his calls for an end to academic selection.

“But in my view they are being over sensitive and over focused on this issue,” Dr Kyle said. “The main focus of this report is on parents and communities coming together to champion and embrace educational support for their children.”

He acknowledged that he faced some queries as to why the report opened with the flag protests.

“But the flag protests were symptomatic of disaffection, anger and negativism, one cause of which was the failure to educate young men.”

The DUP affirmed much of the content from the PUP report on educational underachievement – but rejected criticism of academic selection and boards of governors.

DUP education spokesman Peter Weir said of the report that the problem amongst Protestant working-class boys in particular has been identified over many years and “anything which adds to the debate is to be welcomed”.

“The DUP has long argued early intervention is vital and this should come as early as possible,” he said.

“Similarly there are obvious benefits from greater parental involvement, especially from fathers, in education.

“The value placed on education within communities and within families is vital and we would support a partnership approach to advance this.

“Within this, however, we should not ignore any of the factors, including the influence of paramilitary groups, in creating or maintaining deprivation within communities.”

He welcomed the recommendation for greater support for school principals and governors but warned it should not come with additional bureaucracy, and he rejected the “implicit criticism of school governors”; the report said they were often too acquiescent in holding schools to account.

“It is disappointing that once again the main focus appears to have been placed on academic selection. Selection on merit has been a driver of social mobility; its removal will do little to improve educational attainment.”

That would result in a race to buy homes in the catchment areas of the best schools, he said. “We want to see the swift implementation of the controlled sector support body that can help to address many issues of inequality faced by this sector.”