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There is almost certainly some truth in Dawn Purvis’ Working Group’s assertion that kids from Protestant working class areas do less well at school than kids from other communities. However, Ms Purvis’ working group has not come up with any definitive recommendations. Rather, the report is more of a rant.
This is as close as it gets to making a recommendation:
Given the sensitivity of inter-communal competition within Northern Ireland, it is not the intention of this working group to enter into, or promote, any sort of “zero sum” competition for scarce resources. Rather, it is the “shine alight” on a developing problem, one that could – in time – cause instability for the political arrangements. More important, we suspect that tackling poor performance more prevalent in one community will lend lessons of a more general nature for all.
This direct quote (complete with grammatical errors) illustrates the problem with groups of this nature – no one member has the intellectual gravitas or courage to suggest a solution.
[Note: since writing this post this morning a more recent version of the document has been published].
Ms Purvis, herself, previously represented and led a political party that was a mouthpiece for Protestant paramilitary organisations that have – like their Republican counterparts – leeched on poverty-stricken sink estates. Drug running, racketeering, punishment beatings are their stock in trade. For three years Ms Purvis led the PUP but then resigned because of its relationship with the UVF. However, this was a relationship Ms Purvis was well aware of for years. Why did it take her so long to resign from the organisation and distance herself from it? Why did she join it in the first place? Why did she represent this political party for years at Stormont? And why, now, does she ignore the role that the UVF and other thug gangs play in stifling the chances of young, poverty stricken children of ill-educated parents to escape the ghettos into which they were born?
Ms Purvis and most of her self-appointed working group’s members, no doubt, are opposed to academic selection. On yesterday’s Politics Show she was at pains to point out that she expected “Unionist politicians” to invest an equal amount of effort in addressing the underachievement in Proddy areas problem as they invested in the issue of academic selection. She has made clear in the past that she opposes selection.
And yet, ironically, academic selection is the ticket out of the ghettos for so many young people born into sink estates (I know, because I was born into one – but was encouraged by my parents to pass my 11+).
The fact is that Grammar schools – regardless of where they are located – are open to all children regardless of the class or religion they are born into. And yet the reason so many children from deprived areas do not get the advantage of a grammar school education is precisely because so few children actually take the entrance tests. Few took the ‘official’ 11+ selection tests. I’d imagine that fewer still take the new centralised grammar school selection tests.
Therefore, to all intents and purposes, the situation that exists in poverty-stricken parts of England also applies here. For the children of most poor families, all that is on offer by way of post-primary education is the local secondary school (AKA the local comprehensive). Some secondaries, it has to be said, perform brilliantly against all odds. But, unfortunately, many don’t.
Moreover, the primary schools in the most deprived inner city areas do not prepare the children adequately for a post-primary education. If, at least, parents encouraged their young children to excel at primary school – in the hope that they may gain entry to Grammar School – the overall levels of numeracy and literacy would improve. That is the remarkable thing about a selection based system – it encourages ambition. And yet, in so many poor, inner city areas – as Ms Purvis herself acknowledges – there is no ambition on the part of parents or their offspring.
Northern Ireland sends more children from poor backgrounds to university than any other part of the UK – precisely because we are the only part of the UK that has no substantial post-primary fee paying sector. Access to some of the finest schools in the United Kingdom is open to all who can achieve the necessary standards for entry. However, I acknowledge that more could be done to remove other barriers to entry. For some poor families the cost of uniforms can be a problem – or the additional fees required from certain grammars. However, this is an obvious area where community groups could help support families in the greatest need. But I’d imagine that this type of activity is not what Ms Purvis has in mind when she talks of action from “Unionist politicians”.
As Brian Feeny pointed out yesterday on the Politics Show, part of the reason why the NI Executive has been so useless, and so incapable of making decisions, is because so many MLAs themselves are ill-educated and economically illiterate. They, themselves, only get energised on the subject of education when the middle classes tell them to. I know from personal experience (as I was involved to an extent when I was involved in the Conservative Party) that MLAs and MPs were plagued by hordes of outraged middle class parents (of all religions) when it was suggested by Sinn Fein ministers, that academic selection be scrapped.
The middle classes are well aware that cheap, wonderful education is a big deal. Unfortunately, this message hasn’t made it to Dawn Purvis’ estates. It’s about time Ms Purvis started arguing the case for the working classes playing the middle classes at their own game.