Educational Underachievement & the Equality Agenda

Northern Ireland has hit a record high in A-level results across the province. For a country that is slowly but surely being released from the shackles of our troubled past, which has left many scars socially, politically and economically, this is good news.

On Thursday past, school assembly halls were filled with smiling faces of young 18 year olds who had excelled themselves; achieving grades that will enable them to receive a place in further and higher education, opening up a future which would otherwise be out of reach if it wasn’t for that bit of white paper. 

But what about those who didn’t do so well? Or those who didn’t ‘do’ at all? Those who the system, with its inflexible design and single desired outcome, has let down? Statistics show this group are more likely to be Protestant males from working-class backgrounds, the historical context of which should not be underplayed.

In 20th century Belfast, industrial jobs were readily available to the Protestant working-class male, such as the Ship Yard and Sirocco Works; jobs which were not readily available for the working class Catholic community in Belfast.  As a result the Catholic community had little choice but to place a higher value on education than their Protestant counter-parts; values which have been ingrained over time as highlighted by high university admissions rates among the Catholic community. 

However, it goes without saying that the working-class as a whole are haunted by educational underachievement. Underachievement that is often wrongly simplified to social factors such as lack of parental interest. When in fact the advantage handed to the middle and upper classes in our current system, whether through the inheritance of cultural capital or the focus on IQism rather than holistic learning, exposes the uneven playing field for what it truly is. 

You might ask, ‘what has this got to do with our current equality agenda?’

Well, when there is a collective group within a society underachieving educationally, the results are felt not only by the individuals in the group or indeed by the collective group but arguably by society as a whole. A sound education and in turn solid exam results can make all the difference to an individual and by connection, society at large. Therefore, we should all care. Yet society, educators and politicians alike, adverse to change and the energy it takes to do things differently, choose instead to hold tightly to the status quo that protects their interests so well.

Whilst this is not a new issue in Northern Ireland, it is arguably more frustrating than ever given the current political impasse which is being held at ransom by an extremely narrow equality agenda. Should an Executive be formed come September in the event of an agreement regarding the implementation of an Irish Language Act and the legalisation of Equal Marriage, then all well and good. But until high educational attainment and affluent postcodes are no longer mutually inclusive factors, the equality agenda will remain little more than a selfish political football, losing credibility with every polarising election and empty manifesto pledge.