Purdy, N. (2022) Beyond The Stereotype

Beyond the Stereotype: Approaches to Educational (Under)achievement in the Controlled Sector in Northern Ireland

Research Report


Numerous academic and policy reports over many years have highlighted the underachievement of some pupils within the Northern Ireland education system as a major, persistent problem (Gallagher and Smith, 2000; Sutherland and Purdy, 2006; Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, 2017; ETI, 2018; Harris, Purdy, et al., 2021). Most recently, the New Decade, New Approach agreement (Smith and Coveney, 2020) and the Terms of Reference of the subsequently established Expert Panel on Educational Underachievement in Northern Ireland placed a specific emphasis on educational underachievement amongst Protestant working-class boys as a policy priority.

Beyond this narrow focus on Protestant working-class boys, we contend that there is a more complex reality to educational underachievement in Northern Ireland. Both the Children and Young People’s Strategy and the Expert Panel Action Plan (A Fair Start) identify pupils with Free School Meal Entitlement (FSME), children and young people with special educational needs (SEN), care experienced children and young people, newcomer, traveller and Roma children and young people, and children and young people in custody as pupil groups requiring support and interventions. The Expert Panel also raised the issue of rural isolation representing an often-overlooked locus of disadvantage. The complex reality behind the high-level data available must therefore be better understood in order for communities, teaching professionals, and policy makers to more effectively respond to the issue.

This project sought to undertake focused research with Controlled school and community leaders, to better understand the complex challenges of educational achievement that go beyond the stereotyped image of failing working-class Protestant boys in uniquely inner-city contexts. To that end, the project did not target areas or schools of particularly acute deprivation (as many previous studies have done, e.g. the ILiAD study, Leitch et al., 2017), but rather sought a dialogue with a broad range of Controlled schools and the communities they serve, about the nature of educational (under)achievement and their approaches to improving it.  In particular the objectives of the study were to: to explore understandings and experiences of educational achievement and underachievement in their broadest sense, including but not limited to attainment through testing/examinations; to nuance culturally stereotyped understandings of the links between educational underachievement and some Protestant communities; to determine the main barriers to educational achievement in the communities served by Controlled schools, and; to consider the challenges faced by school leaders in effectively addressing educational underachievement.



Output Information

Purdy, N., Harris, J., and Winter, F. (2022) Beyond the Stereotype: Approaches to Educational (Under)achievement in the Controlled Sector in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Stranmillis University College & Transferor Representatives' Council