Mary Diskin outlines the case for wider state intervention in order to break a cycle of educational underachievement that has entrapped some working class communities.
The recent publication of ‘Educational disadvantage and the Protestant working class: A Call to Action’ is a much broader assessment of how poverty and inequality impact on educational achievement than its title may infer.
Its principle finding, based on local, UK and international research, is that differences in educational performance lie, to a very large extent, outside the school system. The research includes a London School of Economics study, which analysed nearly half a million individual pupil attainment paths. It found that prior attainment, gender, free school meal entitlement and English as an additional language accounted for 92% of the variance in later attainment in secondary schools. Such findings, the ‘A Call to Action’ working group state, demonstrate that ‘systemic educational improvement will require comprehensive, long-term responses to inequality’ including increased health spending, better housing, innovative childcare strategies, and moves towards a living wage.
Early years and childcare strategies are key to improving educational performance according to the group. The most significant period for a child’s development, learning capacity and wellbeing is during pregnancy and the first three years of life. Risk factors which affect brain development before birth are strongly associated with, or exacerbated by, poverty. Yet the state funded Sure Start programme aimed at reducing child poverty is underdeveloped and underfunded in Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK. Children who need this support but have been denied it will often show limited concentration skills, inability to cope with challenge or failure, and challenging behaviour during their primary school years. They will often leave primary school with limited literacy and numeracy skills.
The OECD in its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA 2009) has also indicated that participation in pre-primary education is particularly strongly associated with reading performance at age 15. The PISA 2009 study found that in the republic students with a family background in the top third social and economic class had an average reading score that was significantly higher than students in the bottom third. Students whose parents have a lower level of education had a significantly lower average reading score than students whose parents have third level education. In Ireland, students in lone-parent families (one of the high-poverty risk groups) had a significantly lower average reading score than students in other family types. PISA 2009 indicates that the gap in the lone-family group’s reading attainments in Ireland is higher than average across OECD countries.
It is within this context that the A Call to Action’ Working Group examined the comparative underachievement of disadvantaged Protestants and in particular Protestant males in Northern Ireland. De-industrialisation and the loss of traditional labour markets and skills has had a huge negative impact on this group. Generations of working class Protestants were heavily involved in manufacturing industry and viewed getting a trade as the main form of educational requirement.
There was a perceived lack of need to gain educational qualifications through the college/university route with the result that many are unable to compete for jobs requiring educational qualifications and skills linked to computerisation. They are now reliant on low wage and casual employment or dependent on benefit.
Cultural factors are likely also exacerbating educational disadvantage in other working class communities and deserve their own studies. However what existing research is clear on is a large number of children from less well off backgrounds, in both jurisdictions, leave primary school very poorly equipped in the areas of basic numeracy, literacy, language and communication skills with the result that they remain poor and marginalized as adults.