The Equality Commission (EC) says inequality in education has become worse in Northern Ireland since 2007.

In a report, they highlight continuing, persistent underachievement by working-class Protestant children, and wider male underachievement in education.

They also say that “prejudice-based bullying is a persistent problem”.

They say the inequalities “have worsened over time” and have called for them to be addressed as a matter of urgency by government.

The commission’s Draft Statement on Key Inequalities in Education is their assessment of inequalities faced by those in education in Northern Ireland.

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Key findings

  • Males have persistently lower levels of attainment than females throughout primary and post-primary education;
  • Protestants have persistently lower levels of attainment than Catholics at GCSE and A-Level, and that gap has widened in recent years;
  • There are fewer male school leavers entering higher education than females and this has an impact on the make-up of the graduate workforce;
  • Minority ethnic school leavers are more than twice as likely to enter unemployment as their white peers;
  • Many schools are not effectively tackling racist bullying.
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The report also points out that while overall levels of educational attainment are increasing, “many inequalities remain persistent and hard to tackle”.

The EC published a statement on inequality in Northern Ireland in 2007, and the current report measures progress, or lack of it, since then in education.

They commissioned independent experts from Queen’s University to carry out the research.

Dr Michael Wardlow, chief commissioner of the Equality Commission, said that many children in Northern Ireland continue to experience persistent inequalities because of barriers linked to disability, gender, religion and their socio-economic background.

“We’ve known for a long time that while the education system in Northern Ireland works well for many of our young people, for too long, significant numbers of pupils have struggled to fulfil their potential as a result of that same system,” he said.

“Identifying and highlighting these inequalities is only the first step. These educational fault-lines must be followed by action.”

The report also claimed some students would not study at certain university and college campuses due to their political beliefs.

Researchers interviewed one unionist and one republican student group.

The republican group claimed they would not consider studying at Stranmillis University College and said they did not think Protestants would study at St Mary’s University College.

However, the report admits there is no data to back up that claim.

Stormont education minister John O’Dowd said: “Over the last 10 years, there have been policies introduced which are beginning to show change, but there’s a long tale of underachievement here for many reasons which we need to tackle.

“We need the community to involve themselves, and we need community activists and politicians to stand up and admit there’s something wrong.”

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