Viewpoint: Family life in Ulster is under threat
Never one to avoid controversy, the Dean of Belfast, Dr Houston McKelvey has blamed the lack of a proper home life rather than poor schools for low educational standards in deprived areas of Northern Ireland.
We had some of the best teachers in the world, he said, but parents were letting the children down.
His criticism comes on the back of a damning report by a Westminster watchdog committee earlier this month, which showed that one in five pupils leaves school without being able to read and write properly. GCSE results were much worse in loyalist areas, where only 4% got a C grade or better in Maths, compared with 24% of Catholics. In English, the comparison was 17% to 29%.
Speaking from 25 years of involvement in education, Dr McKelvey said the majority of Belfast schools had superb principals and excellent teachers. The problem was lack of a "substantive and wholesome home life" - not only in socially deprived areas but also where negligent parents had obtained an affluent lifestyle.
The Dean has touched on a much more profound question than educational accomplishment, even though it is accepted that, without better qualifications, children leaving school nowadays will have more and more difficulty obtaining worthwhile employment. Home life has a major contribution to make to a child's development, yet how much attention is paid, in schools, to teaching parental responsibilities? Do we expect too much of the teachers, when - partly due to the corrosive effect of the Troubles - there are too few role models for children to look up to?
In many ways, life has become too easy, for parents who were brought up in difficult times, when you saved before you bought and children didn't want the latest clothes or technology. Clearly the old Protestant work ethic, as well as parental responsibility, is under attack - and unless there is a return to something close to the old values the decline in standards, and job prospects, will continue.
Dr McKelvey has emphasised the role of the parents, providing a safe and caring home life, in the future of their children, but 2007 will also be a crucial year for schools in general. All five education boards - due to be replaced by a single one in local government reforms - are in financial difficulties, just as the politicians debate the replacement of the 11-Plus.
The test must go, but no one yet knows how the schools, with falling numbers, are to offer a wider range of subjects. The sooner locally-elected ministers take over, the sooner locally-acceptable structures, delivering better overall results, will emerge.