Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: We must act to give our young best start

By any measure the performance of Catholic schools in this year's A-level league tables is astonishing. The top 10 performing schools were all from that sector, underscoring the long-held opinion that the Catholic community is adept at pursuing educational achievement as a way of maximising life's opportunities.

It is ironic that these figures are revealed as news broke of a campaign being launched to assist schools in deprived Protestant communities.

There is well-established evidence that educational achievement is unevenly spread in Northern Ireland. While the top performing pupils are the equal, and often the better, of their peers in other parts of the UK, far too many pupils leave school unable to read or write, or with very limited capacity in either.

That underachievement begins in primary schools where some 31% of pupils fall well behind the level expected of them. That is most apparent in working class areas and communities which were blighted by the Troubles and its legacy.

None of this is news - underachievement by working class Protestant boys is a recurring theme in any analysis of the educational system here - but whatever attempts have been made to tackle the problem have, in many cases, though not all, failed to make an impact.

Now leading figures in brokering the Good Friday Agreement, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George Mitchell, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern are putting their clout behind the newly formed Goliath Trust which is to provide targeted funding to assist 12 schools, eight in the Greater Shankill area, two more Protestant schools in south Belfast and two Catholic schools, all of which are seen as particularly striking examples of underachievement by pupils.

The impressive political cast are coming to Northern Ireland to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, but instead of a simple self-congratulatory exercise they are continuing to attempt to improve the lot of people here.

It is somewhat shameful that it takes international figures to do something positive about educational underachievement. Ideally, that would be the work of local politicians but their impact has been minimal, even when in office, but which they vacated more than a year ago. It would be even more shameful if we continue to fail young people who need help to escape from unpromising backgrounds.

Belfast Telegraph

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