Entrenched Social Immobility?

Education, it is said, is the great leveller: a passport of social mobility which breaks the inequalities of place, class and opportunity. With its great schools and excellent universities, NI has the infrastructure for social mobility.


*The following contains the evidence based views of the research team and is not a policy position of the University.

31 July 2020

Education, it is said, is the great leveller: a passport of social mobility which breaks the inequalities of place, class and opportunity. With its great schools and excellent universities, NI has the infrastructure for social mobility. This is so important to a society that cherishes equality of opportunity. Indeed, if participation of young people in higher education is taken as a proxy for access to social mobility, NI consistently turns in high participation rates: approaching 50%.

Great. However, with around 60% of higher education joiners being female, boys are clearly being lost along their educational journey. Most perniciously, boys originating from places of greatest social need are being left behind.  For avoidance of doubt, any suggestion that girls should make way for boys to correct equity – which would be the natural dynamic in our numbers capped higher education system – misses the point of equity of educational development by gender and by socioeconomic class. No part of system change should result in opportunity being removed.

The lost-boys pattern is not unusual in many western education systems but NI has its unique context.  There is a strong correlation with inner city deprivation which is compounded for city wards of high fatality from the Troubles. These wards are also layered on segregated communities and schooling.

As well, our schooling systems and pupil performances are distinctly stratified by social class. The statistics at all key stages of education call out the stratification with metronomic regularity. Be it at least five GCSEs (A*-C, including English and Mathematics), three or more A’ levels (A*-C), or school leavers progressing to higher education, the attainment gap between the least advantaged (measured by free school meals) and the rest is around 30 percentage points. And that is year after year. At school level, all-girl grammars top the performance ratings. When it comes to leaving boys behind, all-girls schools consistently and with very few exceptions exceed the performance of the all-boys equivalent.

When the same attainment statistics are compared between the selective and non-selective schooling sectors, the gap for the least privileged widens to around 40 percentage points. Furthermore, there is a yawning socioeconomic divide in the participating populations, with the latter schooling the vast majority of those entitled to free school meals.

On these statistics, with both systems being publicly funded we have to ask ourselves as a sector if access to good educational outcomes really is equitable? Could it be that our system is actually entrenching social immobility? It is also a matter of concern that the casting here of the social mobility die is for those of the very young and vulnerable age of 11 - even for those not electing to partake in selection.

This is not to decry the excellent outcomes of selective schools; nor to suggest that schools in disadvantaged areas have poor teaching. It concerns more, the socioeconomic stratification that our system is producing. This, of course, has been debated in NI for decades. It really is time for a systemic response, for greater fluidity: a levelling up rather than a levelling down based on social class. And a time for taking boys seriously too.

The attainment gaps apply to male and female groups but are consistently more severe for boys with backgrounds of deprivation for any category of school.

Our ‘Taking Boys Seriously’ research is exploring the entrenchment factor of compounded disadvantage in young male educational attainment. Working with three very successful schools and the informal education of three youth organisations operating in disadvantaged catchments [1], we have found boys thrive in an educational ecosystem that promotes educational dignity and boys as relational learners.

Taking Boys Seriously builds on the original work of Harland and McCready at Ulster University commissioned by the Department of Education in 2012 [2]. The five-year longitudinal study tracked 378 boys from nine post-primary schools, investigating their educational experiences and factors that impacted upon their social, physical, psychological and emotional well-being.


[1] Schools: Abbey Community College, Blessed Trinity, Boys Model; Youth Organisations: Monkstown Boxing Club, Black Mountain Action Group, Artillery Youth Club

[2] https://www.education-ni.gov.uk/publications/research-reports-2012-taking-boys-seriously


Author: Professor Brian Murphy
Director for Widening Access and Participation,
Interim Dean Academic Business Development,
Ulster University