A Kestrel for a Knave – lessons on educational disadvantage

After re-reading Barry Hines’ 1968 novel ‘Kestrel for a Knave‘ with his son, in this new blog post, CREU Director Dr Noel Purdy reflects on some of the lessons from this gritty classic for understanding educational disadvantage.

Recently I have been re-reading Barry Hines’ 1968 novel Kestrel for a Knave with my twelve-year-old son.  For those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s the story of Billy Casper, a young working-class boy from Barnsley who finds and trains a kestrel (Kes). Adapted into the film Kes directed by Ken Loach the following year, both the novel and the film have developed an international fan base that extends far beyond its setting in Yorkshire, with the novel featuring on many GCSE English literature specifications over the years, and clips from the film now appearing regularly on social media channels. The enduring appeal of the story can be seen in a heart-warming 2019 BBC documentary by comedian (and former English teacher) Greg Davies and by the recent unveiling of a statue of ‘Billy’ in Barnsley by Dai Bradley (who played him in the 1969 film) in memory of Barry Hines who died in 2016.

The story itself is dark, gritty, unforgiving in its portrayal of a troubled family in a working-class mining community where prospects are limited, aspirations low and discipline harsh by today’s standards.  It is a world of cold, curtainless houses, fish and chip shops, betting shops, coal mines and violence.  The portrayal of school is also overwhelmingly negative.  We see an uncompromising disciplinary regime enforced by corporal punishment and exercised without conscience by the soulless headmaster Mr Gryce (an innocent messenger boy is caned by Gryce and is physically sick as a result); where teachers are portrayed as largely humourless (after calling out the name ‘Fisher’ as part of the class roll call, Mr Crossley fails to appreciate Billy shouting out ‘German Bight’ which caused him to make a mistake on the roll book); and where physical and verbal bullying are rife, meted out by both pupils and teachers.  Billy is bullied by his older brother Jud as well as other boys in school and there is little that Billy’s struggling mother at home or teachers at school are able or willing to do to stop it.  In a flashback near the end of the novel, we learn that Billy’s father had left home, having discovered his wife having an affair with ‘Uncle Mick’, meaning that Billy is also teased by other boys for coming from a single parent household and for his mother subsequently having other partners.  Even the humour of the football match scene where Mr Sugden, resplendent in his Bobby Charlton Manchester United strip, plays and cheats his way to victory, is bookended with cruelty as Billy is humiliated by being forced at the outset to wear oversized shorts that pull up to his neck, and is afterwards forced into freezing cold showers by Sugden who positions other boys to block his escape.  And of course, the story concludes with Jud killing Kes, Billy’s pride and joy, as a thoughtless act of revenge for Billy failing to place a winning bet.  The book is a tough, disturbing read.

And yet, I couldn’t help but search for some glimmers of hope in an otherwise joyless world of economic deprivation and low aspiration.  Aside from the new passion for life that Billy discovers through training the kestrel hawk, the only other glimmer of light I found is in the character of Mr Farthing, the sole teacher who seems to take any genuine personal interest in Billy, who gives him the opportunity to speak in front of his peers about training his hawk, and who goes to watch Billy fly Kes one lunchtime.  What we see here is the essence of pastoral care in education through the importance of relationship, the giving of opportunity to talk about his love of falconry, and the resulting sense of pride and mutual respect that emerge.  When Billy speaks in front of his classmates, he captivates them with his knowledge and passion, and he is able to spell out specific vocabulary without fault (“jesses”, “swivel”, “leash”) that he has learned from devouring the book on falconry he stole from the local bookshop.  For me at least, this is my favourite scene of the whole novel and talks to themes of pupil engagement, curricular relevance and opportunities to achieve against the odds and even flourish.  Mr Farthing represents probably the only positive adult role model in Billy’s life.

In terms of future prospects, Billy has few options.  His elder brother Jud has already gone down the local mine, but at his interview with the Youth Employment Officer Billy makes it clear that “I wouldn’t be seen dead down t’pit”.  In response he is told that “I’ve interviewed some lads in my time, but I’ve never met one like you.  Half the time you’re like a cat on hot bricks, the other half you’re not even listening.” On the way out Billy is handed a pamphlet entitled ‘Leaving School’ whose cover page shows “a man in square glasses shaking hands across a desk with a strapping youth in blazer and flannels”, representing a typically middle-class home counties stereotype, a million miles from Billy’s world in Barnsley.

So what can we learn of any relevance to today from a 1960s novel set in a small Yorkshire mining community?  More than half a century later, it is clear that the current cost of living crisis, coming on the back of a global pandemic, threatens to plunge a new generation of children (including many children from working families) into severe economic hardship in the months ahead, exacerbating existing stark social inequalities and forcing many families to make difficult choices between heating and eating.  Hunger, cold and economic hardship are just as real today as they were in 1968, and are closely correlated to educational underachievement.

Second, there are clear moral warnings against the cruelty, brutality and injustice of this portrayal of 1960s schooling where lack of aspiration pervades both the classroom and the staffroom.  The headmaster, Gryce, dismisses the current generation of young people as having “no guts…no backbone…you’ve nothing to commend you whatsoever”.  But there is also a chink of light through the example of Mr Farthing whose interest in Billy as an individual affirms the importance of relationship in education, and the possibilities afforded by engaging learners in curricular activities that have relevance to them.  Mr Farthing reminds us of the power of teachers to harness aspiration and instill self-confidence, even in times of economic hardship.

Finally, pastorally too, the story is significant.  As Dai Bradley said recently at the unveiling of the statue of Billy and Kes in Barnsley in November 2021, this short novel about a boy and his kestrel is known right across the world, and, importantly, “a lot of young people look towards Billy for support when they’re having problems in their early life through bullying or problems at school”.  For many, Billy represents hope and resilience, despite everything.

Others will know much more than me about gritty Yorkshire mining towns, and perhaps more about falconry too, but perhaps I could encourage you to re-read and rediscover (as I have done) the educational and social challenges of a much-loved story.



Education Workshop goes ‘Beyond the Stereotype’

A lively discussion involving around 50 representatives from churches, schools and a range of other key organisations with a role in education took place in Portadown, on Friday (25th March) with a view to helping our children and young people to reach their full potential.

The workshop at Seagoe Parish Centre was hosted by the Transferor Representatives’ Council (TRC) – representing the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church and Methodist Church in relation to education in Northern Ireland – and focused on a new research report from Stranmillis University College, Beyond the Stereotype: Approaches to Educational Under(Achievement) in the Controlled Sector in Northern Ireland.

The study, which was commissioned and funded by the TRC, aims to go ‘beyond the stereotype’ of the well-documented challenge of underachievement among Protestant working-class boys from disadvantaged inner-city communities, and to ‘cast the net wider’ to provide a broader and more representative picture.  Particular challenges in rural communities, which have not been reported extensively to date in previous studies, are identified with some school leaders speaking of the difficulty in motivating boys to work hard towards GCSEs.

Significantly, Beyond the Stereotype also finds that while pupils view educational achievement as largely related to success in external exams (such as GCSEs and A-levels), many school and community leaders (including employers) place greater value on a wider range of skills and abilities, and pupils’ mental and physical health, self-confidence, happiness and willingness to learn.

Dr Noel Purdy, who led the research through Stranmillis’ Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement, said: “We’ve certainly identified lots of challenges – there are big challenges facing controlled schools and indeed every school in Northern Ireland – but what we did see was a diverse, committed, community-orientated and innovative sector which is committed to maximising achievement for all children.  In other words, allowing all the children in schools to stand tall and achieve to their full potential.”

The TRC represents its member churches in all matters of education in the region, and oversees the appointment of over 1,500 governors to controlled schools.  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.

You can find out more about the TRC through its website at www.trc-churcheducation.org.  More information on the work of the Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU) can be found at www.stran.ac.uk/research/creu


CREU’s Dr Noel Purdy appointed as Chair of Irish Government’s Anti-Bullying Action Plan Steering Committee

Dr Noel Purdy (right) appointed as Chair of Irish Government anti-bullying action plan steering committee.

Dr Noel Purdy, the Director of Stranmillis University College’s Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU), has been appointed as Chair of the Irish Government’s Steering Committee to review its 2013 Action Plan on Bullying.

The Steering Committee met for the first time today at the Department of Education in Dublin, where the review was launched by the Irish Minister for Education, Norma Foley TD. It is intended that the review will take account of developments and relevant research since the 2013 Action Plan, considering areas such as cyber-bullying, gender-based bullying and sexual harassment.  The Steering Committee will comprise senior Department of Education officials, external experts and representatives of advocacy organisations.

Speaking of his appointment, Dr Noel Purdy said “I am very honoured that Minister Foley has invited me to chair this important review of the 2013 Action Plan on Bullying.  I look forward to working with colleagues in the south over the coming months to ensure that the revised Action Plan serves as a research-informed blue print to protect all children and young people from all forms of bullying.”

Dr Purdy is a longstanding member and former chair of the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum and has led a number of significant research projects on bullying, including cross-border studies on bullying and special educational needs, and a recent five-nation European project on cyberbullying among young people, the Blurred Lives Project.  He recently chaired the Expert Panel for Educational Underachievement in Northern Ireland whose final report and action plan A Fair Start was published on 1 June 2021.

To find out more about the Steering Committee, read the Department of Education’s press release here.

Beyond the Stereotype – New Research Explores Views of Educational Success and Underachievement in Controlled Schools

A significant new research report into educational underachievement in controlled schools – commissioned and funded by the Transferor Representatives’ Council – has been launched by Stranmillis University College.

Beyond the Stereotype is based on group interviews with principals, teachers and pupils in eight primary and post-primary schools in suburban, town and rural areas, and also with school governors and other leaders in those communities.  The study aims to go ‘beyond the stereotype’ of the well-documented challenge of underachievement among Protestant working class boys in inner-city areas, and to ‘cast the net wider’ to provide a broader and more representative picture.  It raises important questions about the purpose of education and how we measure success.

The study finds that while pupils view educational achievement as largely related to success in external exams (such as GCSEs and A-levels), many school and community leaders (including employers) place greater value on a wider range of skills and abilities, and pupils’ mental and physical health, self-confidence, happiness and willingness to learn.

Particular challenges in rural communities, which have not been reported extensively to date in previous studies, are identified with some school leaders speaking of the difficulty in motivating boys to work hard towards GCSEs.  Disadvantage across generations and a lack of educational aspiration, often associated with inner-city working-class contexts, are also reportedly strong features of many rural communities.

Beyond the Stereotype also finds that schools lack support in terms of sourcing standardised tests for pupils, which are bought in from private companies in the absence of government-funded tests.  A resulting variety of approaches in testing at primary level mean that post-primary schools often test pupils within their first few days at their new school; this, in turn, adds to an impression among pupils that post-primary education is about tests and scores.

School leaders are doing “sterling work” in keeping education going throughout the pandemic with one positive consequence of this crisis being that “schools and families are often now better connected than ever before” due to the increased use of remote technology.

Many community leaders speak of their passion for supporting schools and helping local children to succeed.  A range of perspectives – supportive and critical – on the role of Protestant Churches in education is heard; the study affirms that where school leaders are open to church involvement (which cannot be assumed) and where a local church engages meaningfully, tangibly and unconditionally in its local school, “there is enormous potential to improve educational outcomes.”

Download the report here. 

Taoiseach announces research funding for Stranmillis-led ‘BUDDIES project’

An all-Ireland team led by Stranmillis University College’s Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU) have been successful in being awarded a significant funding award for research through the Irish government’s Shared Island initiative and SCoTENS. The development was announced today in a keynote address to the Shared Island Forum by Taoiseach Micheál Martin.

The BUDDIES Project will examine the role and potential of the Home-School Community Liaison (HSCL) coordinator in terms of addressing educational disadvantage across the island of Ireland.

The research will be a collaborative project with University College Dublin (UCD) and Marino Institute of Education (MIE).

Led by Dr Glenda Walsh, Assistant Director of CREU and Head of Early Years Education, the Stranmillis research team includes Dr Jill Dunn, Dr Ken Gibson and Dr Karen Orr, working in conjunction with southern partners Dr Seaneen Sloan at UCD, and Dr Cliodhna Martin at MIE.

Professor Colleen McLaughlin, Emeritus Professor of Education, University of Cambridge, will play a role as an expert advisor.

The HSCL works at the intersection between home and school, supporting children and families in the process, particularly in areas of high deprivation and those at risk of educational underachievement. It is all about enhancing partnerships with families so that they value and support their children’s education more fully.

The research aims to provide a fuller understanding of the role of HSCL coordinators across the full educational spectrum and to guide policy-makers and practitioners in their knowledge and appreciation of the value of HSCL coordinators, particularly for those facing disadvantage.

Welcoming the news, Dr Glenda Walsh said “We are delighted to have been given the opportunity to work with University College Dublin and Marino Institute of Education on such a timely and significant project.  Positive home-school partnerships are hugely beneficial in terms of tackling educational underachievement so learning more about best practice in this field will no doubt prove beneficial across the educational spectrum.”

Director of CREU, Dr Noel Purdy, said “There is so much to be learnt from the sharing of experiences and expertise with our closest neighbours and so we are very grateful to SCoTENS and the Shared Island initiative for funding this north-south research.  I know that the findings will be keenly anticipated by school leaders, researchers and policy makers on both sides of the border.”

‘A Fair Start’: just another report on educational underachievement?

Six months have now passed since the publication on 1 June 2021 of A Fair Start, the final report and action plan of the Expert Panel on Educational Underachievement in Northern Ireland.  The panel members were Dr Noel Purdy, Director of the Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement, Stranmillis University College; Joyce Logue, Principal of Longtower Primary School, Derry/Londonderry; Mary Montgomery, Principal of Belfast Boys’ Model School; Kathleen O’Hare, former Principal of St Cecilia’s College, Derry/Londonderry and Hazelwood Integrated College, Belfast; Jackie Redpath, Chief Executive, Greater Shankill Partnership; and Professor Feyisa Demie who supported the panel in a research capacity.  A Fair Start presented 47 actions across 8 Key Areas.  In this blog, CREU Director, and chair of the Expert Panel, Dr Noel Purdy, considers the opportunities and challenges ahead.

On 28th July 2020 when Education Minister Peter Weir MLA announced the establishment of the Expert Panel on Educational Underachievement in Northern Ireland, there was a broad welcome in principle that the Executive was seeking to address the issue and honour its New Decade New Approach commitment, but also a fair degree of frustration and scepticism on all sides at the prospect of yet another report on educational underachievement in Northern Ireland.  In the Assembly debate following the ministerial statement SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly commended the Minister on his choice of the expert panel, but added that “it strikes me that he already knows a lot of the answers and findings that it is going to publish”.  Later Sinn Fein MLA Karen Mullan spoke for many when she said it was “crucial that this panel goes beyond words, and outlines real and palpable actions that can be taken by the Minister to effectively address this issue.” PUP councillor Dr John Kyle noted that “Action plans to date have been piecemeal and short-term. A more comprehensive and sustained plan is necessary but this takes continued political commitment” while Prof Tony Gallagher of Queen’s University remarked that “rhetoric and promises are meaningless unless they are followed up by action and a new approach.”  Simon Doyle, education correspondent of the Irish News, concluded that “rather than undertaking another costly, time-consuming review, the minister could easily act on the abundance of already-published information and recommendations”.

As chair of the Expert Panel, I understood this ‘report fatigue’ and was already familiar with the previous ‘un-actioned’ reports (e.g. Dawn Purvis’ Educational Disadvantage and the Protestant Working Class, 2011; John Kyle’s Firm Foundations, 2015; the Equality Commission’s Key Inequalities in Education, 2015; and Prof Ruth Leitch’s Investigating Links in Achievement and Deprivation (ILIAD), 2017) published over a decade and highlighting a wide range of issues including low levels of aspiration, low school attendance, academic selection, funding, early years investment, careers guidance, vocational education, economic investment, school leadership and the importance of forging stronger links with families and communities.  However, while the body of evidence was substantial I believe that A Fair Start is different from previous reports in three key aspects and represents a once in a generation opportunity to address educational underachievement and inequality in Northern Ireland.

First, it is unique because of its inception as a cross-party commitment made by all 5 major political parties who signed up to the New Decade, New Approach political settlement of January 2020.  Part 1 of the agreement set out the priorities of the restored Executive including the following commitment as an immediate priority:

The Executive will establish an expert group to examine and propose an action plan to address links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background, including the long-standing issues facing working-class, Protestant boys

In Appendix 1 of the agreement, the education priorities for year 1 included the following:

Establish an expert group to examine the links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background and draw up an action plan for change that will ensure all children and young people, regardless of background, are given the best start in life.

This may seem insignificant to some, but this raised the status of the Expert Panel’s work from the very start as an agreed cross-party educational priority, and also confirmed that this was not the work of one party or one community alone.

Second, A Fair Start is unique because, under the Terms of Reference, we were tasked with producing a costed action plan and, crucially, one which “must be deliverable in the current economic and political context” (p.2).  Creating a costed action plan is a much more complex, challenging and time-intensive task than simply drawing general conclusions or writing a series of broad recommendations.  To compound matters, the timeframe was demanding: 9 months from beginning to end.  During this time the Expert Panel engaged in an extensive period of consultation through a call for written evidence (which attracted 400 responses), face-to-face or virtual engagement with 344 stakeholders (including school leaders, voluntary and community sector representatives, parents, government officials, MLAs, teaching unions, FE Colleges, children’s charities), two commissioned pieces of research/consultation with children and young people (facilitated by the National Children’s Bureau and Barnardo’s), and a detailed analysis of the most up-to-date statistics by Prof Demie.  The panel also heard evidence from government departments from England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland and read countless reports and policy documents.

Following this process of consultation, analysis of the existing evidence, consideration of the newly commissioned research and extensive deliberation, the Expert Panel published its final report and action plan A Fair Start on 1 June 2021.  A Fair Start includes a total of 47 SMART actions across 8 Key Areas costed over the short term (1-2 years), medium term (3-4 years) and long term (5+ years).  The level of projected annual funding builds up year on year as the various programme strands are developed and/or co-designed, reaching a total estimated annual expenditure of £73.1m by year 5 (2025/26).  In the current economic climate, it is important to be able to justify such expenditure and so A Fair Start also includes explanatory notes to accompany each Key Area, setting out a rationale and providing referenced evidence from research.

A key message throughout is that we need to see the delivery of these actions as an investment in the future rather than an expenditure for today, hence the major Early Years focus (Key Area 1) through which we seek to create a seamless journey from pregnancy to pre-school, school and beyond, where every child is provided with the appropriate level of support needed in a timely and appropriate manner in order to realise their potential.  The other Key Areas focus on championing emotional health and wellbeing, ensuring the relevance and appropriateness of curriculum and assessment, promoting a whole community approach to education, maximising boys’ potential, driving forward professional development of teachers and school leaders, and ensuring interdepartmental collaboration and delivery.

While it was considerably more difficult to produce a costed action plan than a series of broad recommendations, the result, I believe, is indeed a plan which is “deliverable”.  As one senior official remarked, we have “made it easy” for officials to implement.

Third, I believe that A Fair Start is unique because it was endorsed by all 5 Executive parties on 27 May 2021, thus fulfilling the stipulation in the Terms of Reference that the Expert Panel should “focus on the wide range of issues on which consensus can be found” (p.2).  Seeking consensus was another major challenge and we were very aware from the outset that although as a panel we were apolitical and sought to meet our stated objective to “ensure all children and young people, regardless of background are given the best start in life”, the outcomes would be read closely by all sides of the community, understandably keen to ensure that we showed no favour or bias.  As a panel there was a determination from the outset to honour that objective, and I believe that we achieved it.  That’s why, I believe, all 5 Executive parties have endorsed A Fair Start and it is also why it is crucial that all parties now follow through on this commitment in principle with a manifesto pledge to support the full implementation of the 47 actions.

The final two actions (in Key Area 8) set out a framework through which delivery of the Action Plan should be subject to oversight by an Implementation Committee chaired by the First Minister/Deputy First Minister and meeting biannually, and recommend that the Action Plan should be explicitly referenced within the next Programme for Government.  These two final actions remain crucial to the implementation of the entire Action Plan and were very deliberately written in as 2 of the 47 actions.  Six months to the day from its publication, there are encouraging signs that, rather than gathering dust like so many previous reports, the process of implementation of A Fair Start has already begun.

However, it is now imperative that all our local politicians work together, despite significant budgetary pressures, to seize this unprecedented opportunity to fully implement A Fair Start, resisting the temptation to settle for “cherry picking” or merely reaching for the “low hanging fruit” in the days to come.  Following more than a decade of unrealised recommendations from numerous previous reports, and as we continue to deal with the many challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic (which has exacerbated existing social and educational inequalities), I am more convinced than ever that the impact of this Action Plan will be significant, promoting equity, fostering greater collaboration between schools, families and communities, closing the achievement gap, investing in the future and giving all of our children and young people ‘A Fair Start’.

To read A Fair Start and its Annexes, please follow this link.