Northern Ireland’s stellar exam results mask underlying gap between rich and poor

Smiles all round at this school in Country Antrim. Paul Faith/PA Archive

As students across the UK and Ireland consider their next steps following publication of this year’s exam results, news outlets have been quick to produce whimsical comparisons to determine the top performing devolved region.

Students in Northern Ireland continue to outperform their counterparts across the UK, as has been the case for some years. The BBC highlighted that students from the North of Ireland have more A-level A* and A grades than those taking similar subjects in England and Wales.

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In a 2013 speech made at the Northern Ireland Investment Conference, David Cameron was quick to champion the successes of the Northern Irish education system. He stated emphatically that it had “the highest rankings for reading and numeracy of any English speaking part of the world”.

Not a bad achievement for a region which has a combined childhood population of less than 500,000, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.

Achievements of the elite

This educational achievement is something to be proud of. But this form of reporting only serves to highlight the achievements of the privileged without appreciating the links between lower socioeconomic position and education across the region. In order to level the pedagogical playing field, instead of rushing to give Northern Ireland’s education system a collective “pat on the back,” educationalists should dig deeper into the dynamics of which children are doing well.

In forthcoming research with my colleague Clare Dwyer, we found that in terms of educational attainment, children and young people in Northern Ireland generally outperform their counterparts in England, Scotland, and Wales in terms of academic achievement overall (including GCSE and A Level results).

But when we looked at the link between socioeconomic status and school results, a more worrying trend emerged. We found that those children eligible for free school meals (a commonly used poverty indicator), underperformed those who are not eligible, and by some distance. Put simply, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds consistently fail to do well at school.

Up-to date research on social exclusion in Northern Ireland conducted by the NGO Save the Children has revealed that more than one in four children and young people live in poverty, with almost a tenth in severe poverty.

Save the Children found that in areas with the highest levels of childhood depletion, such as Ballymurphy ward in Belfast, more than 80% of people have no or low qualifications.

So although students across the North of Ireland are collectively outperforming their UK counterparts in exams, there is a growing disparity between those who have the opportunity, financial security and stable family environment in which to achieve their academic potential, and those who don’t.

Catholic schools do better

Further research in the 2013 Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report reveals that this disparity is linked to both gender and community background. Almost half of all catholic girls growing up in lower socioeconomic backgrounds are likely to go on to higher education, in contrast to less than a third of protestant boys from similar backgrounds.

As the GCSE and A Level results in Northern Ireland are analysed further, statisticians will further reveal that the top-performing schools across the region are either catholic or state-sponsored (predominantly protestant).

With catholic schools already performing better than their state-sponsored counterparts, there will be the predictable clamour of support for integrated schooling between the catholic and protestant communities.

Time to reinterpret integrated education

The issue of integrated education continues to be an area that stirs up the strongest feelings of support in terms of post-conflict reconstruction among the Northern Irish population. A survey carried out in 2008 on behalf of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education found that 84% of respondents who had children or grandchildren of school age or younger thought that integrated education was “very important” or “fairly important”.

Critics of the Northern Irish education system vehemently champion educational integration between catholic and protestant children as a central issue of concern. But there really ought to be a greater emphasis on addressing the attainment gap between rich and poor.

Lost behind the tribalism of “us” and “them” politics is the alarming rate of educational underachievement in areas of the highest levels of childhood poverty.

Instead of rushing to highlight the successes of elite student performance across Northern Ireland as media outlets do ad nauseam, we need a more rigorous and dedicated focus on safeguarding the opportunity for all children and young people, regardless of their position within society. Only then can Northern Ireland properly address the blatant disparity between the privileged few and those who are left behind.

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