Why making an articulate, forward-looking case for the Union will be much easier through education
The latest A-level league tables reveal Catholic schools took the top 10 places. But Protestants should learn from Catholics' successes rather than resent them, argues Eilis O'Hanlon
The trend has been evident for some time. Now it's official. When it comes to A-level results, the top 10 schools in Northern Ireland, as revealed in the latest league tables compiled by the Belfast Telegraph, are all those with a majority of Catholic, rather than Protestant, pupils and teachers.
That's quite a remarkable clean sweep. Growing up, it always felt as if it was the other way round. Certain Protestant schools were looked on with envy as repositories of excellence and almost unimaginable privilege.
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And it's not that those famous landmarks in the local educational landscape are doing terribly, either. They're just not doing as well as their Catholic counterparts; and the further one goes down the socio-economic ladder, the more striking that gap in quality becomes.
These latest tables simply confirm research published by Queen's University in 2015, which found that not only are a higher proportion of Catholics reaching their targets at GCSE and A-level than Protestants, but that the divide is widening, leading to what the authors called a "persistent, and increasing, inequality".
There are two related questions here. One is why Catholic schools are doing so well. The other is why Protestant schools are not enjoying the same success.
The first of those is relatively easy to answer. Catholics in Northern Ireland were historically disadvantaged and many of the usual methods of advancement were closed to them. The only road to betterment was education. So, that's where they directed their energies.
As academic success brought measurable rewards, the incentive to do well in exams was cumulatively reinforced.
Understanding why Protestants aren't keeping pace is a much trickier knot to untangle. For a start, it's important to distinguish between boys and girls. Protestant girls aren't doing as well as their Catholic neighbours, but they're still ahead of white British girls in other parts of the UK.
It's boys who are the big worry. In the past, working-class Protestants had sources of guaranteed employment on leaving school, so they had an expectation of being comfortably off even if they left school without a qualification to their name. Those days are long gone. The economy is not so kind to the unprepared, but there's been no concerted effort to pull those boys up.
A report by the Community Relations Council (CRC) actually placed Protestant boys second last in the whole of the UK in terms of educational achievement. Only Roma and Traveller children were doing worse. By contrast, Catholic girls from Northern Ireland were only kept off the top spot nationally by British-Chinese girls.
Again, it's hard to say for certain why this has happened. It could be that the Protestant professional class shares less of a connection with working-class members of their community and, therefore, doesn't feel a corresponding responsibility to give them a hand up.
It could also be that the nature of the Protestant and Catholic middle classes has made one less adaptable to social change than the other. Catholics tended to gravitate towards the professions, such as law, education, the civil service, because those offered immediate opportunities for clever, self-motivated candidates, whereas Protestants had more of a business middle class, in which certificates mattered less than practical know-how.
The Queen's study certainly found that Catholics were far more likely to go into higher education and Protestants into job training. Young Protestants who do well at school are also much more likely to head off to university in England, or Scotland. Once gone, they rarely return. Their children may well be excelling at exams, but it's in schools over the water. Catholics, on the other hand, are staying put. Their children and grandchildren are the new high achievers.
That still doesn't explain why Protestant schools have not learned the lessons of their Catholic counterparts.
Every successful enterprise starts by learning from predecessors' triumphs and disasters. Insofar as the Catholic educational model has flourished, one would expect those Protestant schools which are falling behind to look at what their rivals are doing and copy them.
Researchers, unfortunately, have tended to concentrate on economic deprivation as an explanation for under-performance. Since most of those pupils doing badly are less well-off, as judged by their take-up of free school meals, the emphasis has been on demanding more resources, as if that alone will translate into academic improvement. That's not necessarily the case. Catholics in Northern Ireland did well despite very real deprivation.
The key is cultural rather than economic. When the CRC study showing poor outcomes for Protestant boys was published, one pupil in Belfast was quoted as saying: "Protestants are taught about flags and the jubilee, whereas I think Catholic teachers want their pupils to do better."
That's a crude over-simplification, obviously. All teachers want their pupils to succeed. But maybe they're not getting the support from parents, the community, and, crucially, the unionist political leadership.
Catholics benefited enormously, because, for most of their history, their leaders and opinion-formers came from a Nationalist Party/SDLP background and those people never stopped banging on about education.
Many of them had backgrounds as teachers and consciously inculcated a sense of collective pride in the attainment of educational targets.
It was far rarer, and still is, to hear prominent unionists ram home the importance of education. If anything, they were suspicious of "book learning" and what they saw as intellectual chicanery.
As such, they were always ready to call young Protestants out onto the streets to protest, but forgot to remind them that sitting at home over their books could be a far more powerful way of defending their identity.
That has to change. Dr Paul Nolan put it bluntly back in 2015 when he said that this vastly unequal experience of education was creating "a community which feels it has no routes out of poverty, and out of that inequality comes anger".
If it continued, he offered a stark prediction: "I'm afraid we have an unsettled political future." That's how high the stakes are.
The problem with unionists is that they keep asking the wrong question. They agonise over how to keep Northern Ireland as British as possible. What they should be asking is what will keep the Union safe.
That sounds like the same question, but it's not. One takes a short-term view, the other looks to the future. Nourishing a new generation that can make the articulate, optimistic, outward looking, confident case for unionism going forward will be much easier through education. Protestants should learn from Catholic success, rather than resenting it.
The latest league tables are a wake-up call to what really counts.