Belfast Telegraph

DUP: new body needed for Protestant school 'failures'

By Noel McAdam

Education Minister John O'Dowd has come under pressure to set up a new body to help tackle educational under-achievement among Protestant boys.

The DUP urged the Sinn Fein minister to consider setting up a new group to look after the interests of State schools – which most Protestants attend – in the same way that there are bodies already working for the integrated and Catholic-maintained sectors.

But Sinn Fein countered by claiming that plans for such a body were contained within the proposals for a new Education and Skills Authority (ESA) to replace the five area boards – proposals which have now collapsed.

Recent studies have shown that Protestant boys taking free school meals are among the lowest achieving groups in the UK.

Opening an Assembly debate, education committee chairman Mervyn Storey said that when the integrated and Irish-medium sectors were developing, they were given legal protections that meant the department was obliged to promote and facilitate them.

"When I met representatives of the integrated sector, for example, they openly talked about their vision for their brand of schools, and they promoted those schools," the DUP MLA said.

"The same is true of the Catholic and Irish-medium sectors (but) that is not the case when it comes to the way in which the education and library boards protect, promote and facilitate the controlled sector."

He went on: "The plea to the minister today is this: for the controlled sector, let us have the establishment of a meaningful body – not a paper exercise, a diversion or something seen as being on the outside – with teeth to make sure that it has the confidence of its community to provide for working-class Protestant boys."

Sinn Fein's Maeve McLaughlin said it was interesting the DUP was beginning to talk about the needs of the controlled sector because through all the years of negotiations over ESA "the DUP was interested only in representing the role of the grammar sector".

An angry Mr Storey interjected: "That it is neither true nor warranted. It is a slant on the truth, which is nothing new from the party opposite."

But Ms McLaughlin added: "The ESA Bill provided for a sectoral body for the controlled sector. If the DUP wants to know why there is no sectoral body, the answer is simple: the DUP has failed to deliver on the ESA.

"Nevertheless, I am glad that the DUP is finally beginning to accept the link between social disadvantage and poor educational attainment and that it must be broken in whatever community it exists." Ulster Unionist education spokesman Danny Kinahan told MLAs: "We have got to get to a system that is even for everybody here so that everybody can thrive.

"We need a new approach. We need to stop blaming the grammar schools, the voluntary schools and selection (at 11). We need to sit down and work together and find a joint way forward. We have to move away from an insular approach."

The SDLP's Fearghal McKinney said his party wanted to know "whether the minister is serious about tackling this issue". He questioned whether the minister was working with other departments, such as health, to deal with issues such as mental health.

"Is he liaising with other departments around any of the issues that are affecting the better outcomes? Those are issues around low aspiration and legacy, for example," he said.

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