Why are Catholic schools doing better than Protestant ones?

Opinion: Poverty and community key issues in educational performance

‘It is this combination of economic advantage and community background that offers the most obvious explanation of the sharply different educational outcomes.’

‘It is this combination of economic advantage and community background that offers the most obvious explanation of the sharply different educational outcomes.’


On my first day at St Columb’s in Derry many years ago, the president, Fr Anthony McFeely, later bishop of Raphoe, gathered the first years together in the senior study and delivered an inaugural address. He began by explaining that St Columb’s was seen by the church, and this was how we were to understand it, as “a junior seminary.” Its primary function was to produce priests to guarantee the future of the church.

Its secondary function to train the future leaders of the Catholic community, a middle class (although I don’t think he used the term) to speak for “ordinary” (he did use that term) Catholics in public affairs. Much was expected of us. The interests of the students, the church and the community were bound up together. All had an interest in our doing well.

Earlier this week, the Belfast Telegraph published its annual “league tables”, measuring the success of post-primary schools across the North according to examination results. St Columb’s didn’t figure in the top 10 overall, but came fifth among boys’ schools. Not bad.

But the big news plastered across the front page was that five Catholic grammar schools dead-heated for top spot. St Joseph’s, Donaghmore, Rathmore Grammar in Finaghy, St Mary’s, Magherafelt, Our Lady’s, Newry, and Lumen Christi, Derry, each recorded 100 per cent of pupils achieving the “expected standard” – five GCSEs including English and maths, at grades A* to C last year.

(For reasons too tangled to go into, co-ed Lumen Christie, installed in St Columb’s old buildings on Bishop Street, has bypassed my old school, now shifted to the outskirts of town.)

There were only two non-Catholic schools in the top 10 – Sullivan Upper, Holywood, in sixth place and Collegiate Grammar, Enniskillen, in 10th.

Analysed solely in terms of the usual Northern Ireland variable, the results would seem to suggest that, exam-wise, Catholics are just smarter than Protestants and/or Catholic schools are better than Protestant schools.

But put the Telegraph ’s figures alongside research measuring the effects of poverty on school performance and new light falls on what’s really happening within the North’s second-level schools.

In 2010, only 31 per cent of pupils receiving free school meals – the accepted criterion for relative deprivation – made the expected standard in GCSEs, compared with 64 per cent – more than double – of those not eligible for free school meals.

Protestant boys from poorer backgrounds did particularly badly, with only 20 per cent on free school meals reaching the threshold. The figure for Protestant girls was 27 per cent. The figure for Catholic boys was 28 per cent, for Catholic girls 42 per cent.

Economic advantage
Where the figure reached 100 per cent, in the five chart-topping Catholic grammars, the proportion of students on free school meals hovered around five per cent – only a tiny number from poorer backgrounds as measured by free school meals. It is this combination of economic advantage and community background that offers the most obvious explanation of the sharply different educational outcomes.

Jackie Redpath of the Greater Shankill Partnership said last year: “In past generations people had aspirations for their children in relation to the shipyards, a skilled or non-skilled trade or Mackie’s engineering plant for boys, obviously linen mills for girls. You didn’t need exams . . .We are having to learn to place more value . . . on education.”

The main difficulty for Redpath and others campaigning to improve the prospects of young Protestants through radical change in the school system – ending selection and merging high- and low-achieving schools, for example – is that, in this as in so many other areas of policy, mainstream unionism is dead set against radical change.

This reflects, again, the fact that those who have traditionally presumed to speak in politics for the Protestant community have not felt their interests bound up with the prospects of their “ordinary” co-religionists.

Not as important
Youngsters doing well at school has not been seen as important for everyone – or at least not as important as in the Catholic community. The prospects are not bright for any section of the coming generation in the North. Joblessness is growing in every area, especially in the west.

But it remains true that the Catholic system is continuing to turn out an articulate, well-placed cohort every year, better-equipped than their Protestant peers to handle whatever comes along.

Fr McFeeley would be appalled at many of the changes of the past half-century. Replenishing the ranks of the priesthood isn’t high priority at Lumen Christie. But that apart, I think he would be content enough that the Catholic schools are still doing the business. The Catholic middle class out in front, Protestant workers bringing up the rear. A paradigm.

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