Educational underachievement in Northern Ireland has to be addressed…

“Our ones leave and don’t look back.”

These are the words of a woman from Rathcoole in North Belfast cited in Susan McKay’s incisive study ‘Northern Protestants. An unsettled people’ (Blackstaff, 2007).

It is an interesting comment and it seems to bear sociological sense. I have seen it happen myself and it is much more a Protestant preserve than something which is shared in the whole community here.

The Roman Catholic community is more cohesive and also, from a Protestant perspective at any rate, more focused on moving together. I have had the privilege to be welcomed into maintained schools in the past and it has been very obvious that there is a strong sense of pastoral care and community connection.

I watched a nature programme some time ago which showed how migrating ants in the Amazon basin managed to move downstream by forming an impressively unified body which slipped into the river and was carried on the tide.

If Catholics were ants, they would be soldier ants like that, all moving forward together and making sure their leaders remained dry on top of the structure they created.

In all honesty, if Protestants were in the same position, they would be more likely to float off in different directions, debating as they went.

It is wrong, all too easy to generalise. But the bottom line is that when Protestants move up the social ladder they tend to not look back.

The women from Rathcoole said she sometimes bumped into people who had used to live in the sprawling working-class estate. But when she spoke to them, they denied ever living there. She must, they told her, have been mistaken.

In a way this whole outlook probably has some root in the legacy of the Protestant Reformation traditions of open thought and the ability to be individualistic in our outlooks. Go to the Bible Belt of the United States and you are amazed at the number of Protestant churches which abound. At a religious level this is all probably very healthy, showing that different interpretations of the Bible are part of the fabric and psyche of the Reformation of Luther, Calvin, Knox and the other leading lights of Protestant tradition.

But there is at least one area where it is not helpful and not healthy.

Unionists once proudly boasted that Northern Ireland had the best education system in the United Kingdom. The grades were so good that we were outshining students elsewhere. However, the reality is somewhat different now.

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Educational underachievement in working class communities in Belfast and elsewhere is an issue that needs addressed

It has been recognised for several years that there is problem in the working-class Protestant community and that under-achievement, particularly among boys, is a major issue.

Of course, if you are middle-class and your children are being educated at grammar school, there is no cause (on the face of it) for alarm. Perhaps this is why the Grammar system is defended so robustly by some. But if you are working-class and your child has not got to Grammar School, then there is a different reality.

It is not unique to Northern Ireland. Sean Moncrieff in “The Irish Paradox. How and what we are such a contradictory people” (Dublin, 2015) notes the same educational disconnect in the Republic, again class-based: an Irish Times study in 2010 found that at secondary schools in Cabra, Ballymunn, Finglas and Blanchardstown between 11% and 14% of students went on to third level education. For schools on the more affluent south side of the city the figure was 100%.

This has other implications says Moncrieff; “If you’re born into a middle class home, you’re far more likely to end up doing a middle-class job”. That has implications for your life experience and that of your family.

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Students waiting for graduation; studies showed that middle-class students in Dublin were more likely to go on to third level education

This is where the Catholic community in Ulster has had an edge, a principal from the maintained sector once told me. He said that in the 1960s Catholics learned that the only way to get out of poverty was through education. The thirst to advance has served that community well.

No doubt, it was a cohesive approach and no doubt it was assisted at all levels of influence, from the home, the church and the wider community.

Ironically, this used to be the world view of Ulster Protestants too. Whenever they arrived in America in numbers and settled on the frontiers, the first buildings to be erected included a school.

The problem in Protestant communities appears to be that, for many in working-class areas, there is an unfortunate disconnect from the sense of the value of education, and that for the community generally there is a disconnect between those who are middle-class and those who are not.

It might seem not to be an issue when viewed from the leafy suburbs or the ninth green.

But a community with no prospects and no sense of value is a community which will be troubled for years to come. Choosing to ignore that will not ultimately be the option it has been up to now. A survey of the young flag protesters from North Belfast threw up an interesting comment from one: ‘they’re taken our flag and we have nothing left’ he said. He saw no prospects and the only constant seemed to have been removed from his perspective.

As a society, whatever our differences, we really should be offering more than that by way of hope for the future.

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