Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

It's results that count when it comes to finding work

Seeking results: Dawn Purvis has shown that underachievement is more evident in Protestant working class areas

Employers make a strong case that young people entering the world of work need to be adequately equipped to be useful employees.

Yet 71% of boys from secondary (non-grammar) schools leave school without gaining five GCSEs (or equivalent), including maths and English.

Northern Ireland is frequently given credit for a well-regarded education system.

In terms of high attainments, Northern Ireland compares favourably with other neighbouring areas.

There is, however, a more critical assessment. Too many young people leave their years of full-time education with modest results and, as a result, will face limitations on their work ambitions.

One frequently quoted indication of educational achievement is the proportion of school leavers who achieve five GCSE subject passes, including English and maths. Last year 59% of school leavers reached this standard. Reciprocally 41% did not. Two factors offer some reassurance. First, the 59% last year compares with only 53% four years ago. The trend, if there has been no 'grade inflation', is for better outcomes. Second, that 59% compares with 53% in England.

A feature of every analysis of the examination results for GCSE and A levels are the differences when they are examined by gender and religion.

A further dimension is the evidence that the results are least acceptable in deprived urban areas, but not only in Belfast.

For the GCSE results, with five passes including English and maths, a striking and continuing feature is the difference between girls and boys. Last year 65% of the girls achieved these results; for boys the success rate was 53%.

That is a difference, more precisely calculated, of 11.3%. Four years ago the difference was 11.4%.

The different pattern of results crosses the line when they are presented distinguishing between school leavers who are classified as Protestant or Roman Catholic. By a small fraction (less than 1%) Protestant girls edged ahead of Catholic girls, both groups close to 65%. However, for boys, there was a difference of nearly 2% with Catholic boys just over 54% and Protestant boys just over 52%

While the proportion of all boys gaining this modest standard of GCSE results was 53%, when the figures are examined separately for grammar and non-grammar schools, the achievement rate, as might be anticipated, was lower for pupils in non-grammar schools. There the achievement rate for boys fell to 29%.

There is little comfort in noting that this is a better result than the 23% recorded four years ago.

The Department of Education takes some comfort from the small proportion of GCSE pupils who leave full-time education with no GCSEs or no formal qualifications. The numbers are less than 4% of all leavers.

However, to assess the degree to which the next generation are equipped with the basic three Rs, the 41% (or 71% of boys from non-grammar schools) who do not reach the five GCSEs (with English and maths) are more critical yardsticks.

The performance gap between boys and girls is too wide to be passively accepted. Does it point to a motivational weakness? What needs to happen, what needs to change in the curriculum, and what changes in teaching methods would reduce the problem of underachievement?

Presumably there is no support for an explanation that rests on inherited nature and nurture differences.

Dawn Purvis demonstrated that the underachievement of boys occurs in both Catholic and Protestant groups of pupils but is more evident in Protestant working class areas.

The problem is well documented.

However, that stops short of a clear prescription for change.

If tomorrow's generation are to enjoy an improving quality of lifestyle, the continuing inadequate performance of the education system must be tackled.

Alternatively, are teenage boys who leave full-time education with poor qualifications left to compete in a labour market that offers limited rewards?

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