Pupils in North divided by income more than religion, says study

There is no point in ‘Séamus and William sitting together’ if they can’t read or write, seminar told

Prof Vani Borooah, of Ulster University, said there was no performance gap between pupils receiving free school meals and their peers in London because they were generally drawn from the new immigrant community who “may be poor in income but they are rich in aspiration”.  Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

Prof Vani Borooah, of Ulster University, said there was no performance gap between pupils receiving free school meals and their peers in London because they were generally drawn from the new immigrant community who “may be poor in income but they are rich in aspiration”. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

 

A focus on religious segregation in schools in Northern Ireland has masked a deeper division based on pupils’ income, according to new research presented in Dublin yesterday.

A study of exam performance among the North’s 22,764 school-leavers in 2012-2013 showed 65 per cent had achieved five GCSEs of grade C or above, including English and Maths. But just 39 per cent of pupils receiving free school meals, a marker of low-income backgrounds, attained this level.

At the other end of the scale, 95 per cent of pupils at grammar schools, which use academic admission tests, achieved the benchmark.

The same pattern of underachievement among pupils receiving free school meals was identified in A levels. Lower-income pupils were also much less likely to gain admission to grammar schools.

Prof Vani Borooah, of Ulster University, said there was no performance gap between pupils receiving free school meals and their peers in London because they were generally drawn from the new immigrant community who “may be poor in income but they are rich in aspiration”.

Gap

In Northern Ireland, there was “very mechanistic” approach to schooling and a belief that students gain entry to grammar schools because they are clever.

“First there has to be a recognition this is a problem, and then there has to be a will to do something about it, ” said Prof Borooah. Speaking at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), he said the usual analysis of the North’s schooling problem was that “Séamus and William don’t sit together”, but the real problem was “neither Séamus nor William can read or write”.

“Integration is not as important as achievement,” he said. “Being isolated from somebody is not necessarily the worst thing that can happen to you. The worst thing that can happen to you is if you come out of school ignorant.”

Findings

Colin Knox

The figures show girls do better than boys in all schools, but Catholic schools do better than Protestant ones.

The research is being used to support a new model of “shared education” to address inequality and segregation, whereby Catholic and Protestant schools of contrasting performance levels engage in cross-curricular activities.