Dr Peter Hamill, the Church of Ireland’s Education Officer for Northern Ireland, and Dr Noel Purdy from Stranmillis University College, discuss the findings of ‘Beyond the Stereotype’, new research commissioned by the Transferor Representatives’ Council.
What is the main role and purpose of the TRC?
PH: The Transferor Representatives’ Council represents the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church in Ireland and Methodist Church in Ireland in all matters of education in Northern Ireland.
Controlled schools are ‘church–related schools’ because in the mid–20th Century, the three Churches transferred (hence the origin of transferors) their school buildings, pupils and staff into state control on the understanding that the Christian ethos of these schools would be maintained.
What was the purpose of the research undertaken for Beyond the Stereotype?
NP: The project, which was sponsored by the TRC and undertaken by a research team from Stranmillis University College’s Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU), aimed to explore the experiences and approaches of controlled schools and their communities to educational achievement and underachievement in order to make recommendations to key policy–makers and stakeholders.
In order to achieve this, the project team undertook a series of case studies with eight participant schools across Northern Ireland, using group interviews with a sample of pupils, community leaders and school leadership to obtain a cross–sectional sample of qualitative data.
What, in your opinion, were the most important questions raised by the findings of the research?
NP: The study raised a number of important issues that have hitherto attracted little attention in Northern Ireland, including the disparity between the broad skills–focused objectives of the Northern Ireland Curriculum and the assessment–driven reality in many schools; and the challenge of addressing inter–generational educational disadvantage and lack of educational aspiration in some rural communities.
More positively, the research also highlighted the tremendous commitment and dedication of school communities in working together to maximise the potential of their pupils, and to mitigate against the socially–mediated impact of the current pandemic.
PH: Important questions were raised about the role of the Churches in promoting educational aspiration and attainment in disadvantaged communities. The Church of Ireland Board of Education (NI) encourages all churches to support their local school and we want them to find new and innovative ways of providing that support.
What have you found to be the main challenges facing education during the pandemic, and what can be applied as we emerge from it?
NP: This wasn’t an explicit aim of the research, but inevitably emerged as a very strong theme among school leaders, community representatives and pupils themselves. Some teachers spoke of the learning deficit of pupils as a result of disengagement during the extended periods of home–schooling, while others mentioned the heightened anxiety of some pupils on their return to school.
While there were undoubted challenges experienced by many families (including digital poverty), school and community leaders also spoke of the potential benefits from increased online home–school engagement and communication, as well as the greater sense of community spirit that emerged out of the crisis. The impact of the pandemic is, of course, still keenly felt in schools with record pupil and staff absences over recent weeks.
How do difficulties, in terms of educational outcomes, differ between urban and rural settings?
NP: This was undoubtedly one of the most interesting themes to emerge from the research where the project aimed precisely to move ‘beyond the stereotype’ of previous research studies which had often focused predominately on densely populated, inner–city communities. The scope in this research was much broader, exploring the experiences of controlled schools outside Belfast and Derry/Londonderry in smaller towns where many pupils came from rural communities.
For the first time, this research presented the challenges faced by schools in motivating and engaging some children from farming backgrounds who struggled to see the purpose of education. Some school leaders, for instance, spoke of the difficulty in motivating young boys to work hard towards GCSEs – for example, one teacher relayed that a boy in his class remarked: “I don’t need English, I don’t need maths, I drive a tractor, sir.” While there were some positive accounts of pupils being motivated to achieve the entry requirements for agricultural college, often it appeared that a ready–made path to “take over the family farm” discouraged academic engagement in an academic curriculum which bore little relevance to their chosen career.
Your research found that there is enormous potential for churches to help to improve educational outcomes. How can this be applied across the island?
PH: The Board has been actively supporting parishes to engage more meaningfully with their local schools through grant funding a small number of projects. In the Southern context, there are over 200 Church of Ireland schools already fully integrated with their local parish. We would encourage all other parishes to engage with their local school and see how they can provide practical help for the school.
Do you see a move towards less focus on standardised testing? And what are the benefits of a wider focus, for the education of young people?
NP: There was an acceptance that standardised testing has a place in education (not least as a diagnostic tool), but there was also significant frustration that schools were currently left with no option but to buy in their own tests from private companies in the absence of government–sponsored tests. This resulted in additional pressure on already over–stretched school budgets.
One of the most interesting disparities was between the lofty aims and objectives of the Northern Ireland Curriculum (in terms of preparing pupils for life and work) and the reality experienced by post–primary pupils which was heavily dominated by pressure to succeed in high–stakes external tests (GCSE and A–level). This study therefore raises fundamental questions about what we see as the purpose of education and how we measure success.
‘Beyond the Stereotype’ is available to read and download at this link. This article was first published in the March 2022 edition of the Church of Ireland Gazette.