Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

Education 'key to a better future'

A Sinn Fein Minister is devising a strategy aimed at tackling educational under-achievement in loyalist areas.

Education Minister John O'Dowd said the attainment gap has become so serious, it cannot await the dismantling of the five area boards and establishment of the new Education and Skills Authority.

The bare statistics underlying the long-developing problem are shocking.

Protestant pupils labelled as 'socially disadvantaged' in controlled schools have only half the chance of going to university as similarly-placed Catholics.

A quarter of Catholic maintained schools are rated 'higher than expected' (HTE) at Key Stage 3 English compared to 2% of controlled schools.

And one in five pupils in 'lower than expected' (LTE) controlled, mainly Protestant, schools are identified as having special educational needs.

In the last few weeks, Mr O'Dowd met with former Progressive Unionist Party leader Dawn Purvis and former councillor Mark Langhammer, who chaired the task force group which examined the issue in detail.

Their 'call to action' report earlier this year warned that failure to address the problem could cause instability for the political set-up at Stormont.

Mr O'Dowd is now preparing a formal response to the report, which he said his department intends to publish "shortly".

But within weeks of taking over the position from his party colleague Caitriona Ruane, Mr O'Dowd said the gap between Protestant and Catholic levels of achievement is an "unacceptable anomaly" in the local education system.

"The issue of under-achievement and the fundamental right of all children to be able to achieve to their full potential are at the very core of what we do," the Upper Bann MLA added.

Given the huge budgetary restraints facing his department over the next few years, however, Mr O'Dowd was also asked whether he has the resources necessary to back up his personal commitment.

"Research shows that, in tackling under-achievement, simply putting in more resources is not always the answer. What matters is ensuring we have schools with effective leadership, high quality teaching and learning, child-centred provision, and strong links with families and communities. That is what the school improvement policy sets out to achieve," he said.

Before becoming minister, Mr O'Dowd launched a stinging attack on unionist MLAs, who have dominated the five area boards over recent decades, accusing them of "doing absolutely nothing" to tackle Protestant educational under-achievement and defending a system which has let their community down.

"The need to raise standards and tackle under-achievement is so urgent and important a priority that we cannot afford to wait," he said.

The report, headed by Ms Purvis and Mr Langhammer, also stated: "There has been insufficient leadership and honesty among unionist politicians in acknowledging and addressing under-achievement, which has a profound and lasting impact."

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