Unionist failure on Protestant working class education

Posted By: June 29, 2015

Fionnuala O’Connor. Irish News.( Belfast). June 23 2015

The latest quote of that finding that Protestant boys from ‘disadvantaged areas’ come near the bottom of UK GCSE results, just above Traveller and Roma children, turned up in a report last week that looks to Catholic education as an inspiration. And unionists repressed their instinct to have a go at the coordinator of the report, the PUP’s Dr John Kyle.

Slim praise, but this is a glum saga. The rest of the unionist response effectively said we’ll get back to you. Kyle’s group published last week because the unionist parties have been sitting on their recommendations for more than four months.

Dire schooling in the old working- class Protestant districts is not news. The Kyle study group started in the wake of the flag protests that convulsed loyalist districts and processed scores through arrests and courts. In describing the roots of the violence, their report is predictably light on its own origins as spin-off from the unionist forum, already extinct, and on paramilitary involvement. But it also avoids standard unionist insistence that blame for the flag protests lies first with those who voted against flying it daily.

Instead, the scene-setter is that GCSE overview from last year’s ‘Peace Monitoring Report’ by Dr Paul Nolan, which should have demolished complacency about Northern Ireland’s ‘outstanding’ education system. Then the PUP study makes recommendations for taking the system apart, including ending selection and in the meantime, capping the numbers grammar schools are allowed to admit.

“The solutions are known,” Kyle’s report concludes. Given that under-educated Protestant youth makes paramilitary fodder and feeds social misery, why have those who represent Protestants in politics neglected them? Unionism chooses instead, with the support of significant Catholic middle-class opinion, to muster admiringly round the grammar school sector, which by now taking up to 44 per cent of the children transferring to second level further weakens the already demoralised secondaries.

A system originally justified as designed for the most academic, around 25 per cent of transferring pupils, has expanded to fill its desks. In the process, at least a few grammars have become middle-class comprehensives. That remains one of the unspoken truths about what Kyle’s report satirically dubs ‘our world class educational system,’ as the loudest in the pro-selection lobby laud it.

Until now the anti-selection crusade has been led by nationalists, Sinn Féin foremost among them. The official Catholic education sector in recent years has been close behind – driven by need to rationalise as well as by the unfairness and injustice of selection, practicality for once chiming with justice. Sinn Féin may have helped force Catholic sector movement. It could be argued that there have also been unintended consequences.

Until the arrival of loudly anti-selection education minister Martin McGuinness and subsequent moves, teachers across both state and maintained primary schools drilled children for transfer tests: to the dismay of some parents, but in tune with many more.

The most independent primaries still coach for the post-11plus tests, though discreetly. State primaries enjoy less leeway. An immigrant parent of a child at one such primary recently told the woman she cleans for that her child’s teacher advises that her child could do well in tests. With private tutoring, which the mother cannot afford.

The bigger irony is that study after study shows Catholic grammar and secondary schools significantly out-performing Protestant equivalents, with obvious consequences for employment. Yet parents whose children make up that ‘long tail of underachievement’ Kyle’s report laments, are slow to complain. Why? Poor Catholic districts also made little outcry for years about schools that failed many children. Kyle’s report nevertheless notes the difference in attitudes between parents in unionist and nationalist disadvantaged districts, with some in the former appearing ‘to lack the confidence to engage with teachers.’

Other veteran reporters must recall the late David Ervine saying emphasis on education lifted the Catholic working-class. Protestants were mistaken to rely on the shipyard and engineering, Ervine added. Billy Hutchinson, standing beside Ervine, couldn’t go that far.

The limpest defence of selection as a barrier to social mobility is that some from poor backgrounds breach it. A fiercely anti-selection, first-generation Protestant graduate scoffs that this is like saying the Titanic sinking was ‘by and large a good thing because some survived.’

East Belfast GP and Belfast councillor Kyle sounds as though he tries to avoid feeding sectarianism. But neither he nor his study group can bring themselves to say that directing anger at an unfair education system makes more sense than raging over a piece of coloured cloth.