BY ANTHONY QUINN
COOKSTOWN pupils will be given every opportunity to reach their full potential: That’s the promise from the principals of a local high school after it was revealed there is a wide disparity in exam performance according to religion in the town’s schools.
Detailed data on school leavers’ exam results released by the Department of Education show that 87 percent of Cookstown’s Catholic pupils achieved at least 5 GCSEs in the 2010/11 academic year, while 81% of Protestant pupils managed the same.
The religious divide was even more marked in Magherafelt district, where 91% of Catholic pupils and 82% of Protestant achieved at least 5 GCSEs.
The educational religious divides in the Cookstown and Magherafelt areas are some of the most significant in Northern Ireland. By contrast, in the Dungannon district, Protestant pupils fared better than their Catholic neighbours, with 87% of them achieving at least 5 GCSEs compared to 84% in Catholic schools.
Richard Marsh and Graham Montgomery, Acting Principals of Cookstown High School said that exam success depended on a range of factors.
“As a non denominational combined grammar and secondary school, we in Cookstown High School, provide a high quality education irrespective of the pupils’ religion”, they said.
“Success in education depends on a range of factors and central to that is aspiration by pupils and their families and a home environment which values learning and is conducive to study.
“At GCSE we offer a broad curriculum which accommodates all our learners and affords them the opportunity to fulfil their potential. As a school we are never complacent and are constantly seeking to encourage our pupils to aspire and to improve their engagement and attainment.”
Across Northern Ireland, Protestant pupils tended to have slightly better exam performances than Catholics, according to the figures.
The overall figures show that 88.4% of Protestant school leavers and 88.3% of Catholic school leavers achieved at least five GCSEs including English and Maths. This leaves 2,411 pupils who failed to achieve even this very low exam result standard.
The figures show the biggest religious divides for pupils leaving school in June 2011 were in the Moyle and Larne council areas.
Over 95% of Protestant school leavers living in Moyle Council area achieved at least five GCSEs A*-G including English and Maths – compared to just 70% of Catholic pupils.
The gap was even wider in Larne Council area where almost 87% of Protestant pupils achieved these grades – compared to 53% of Catholic school leavers.
Last October, the Mid-Ulster Mail revealed how pupils from parts of Cookstown District came top in the league tables - for persistent absenteeism.
Last year, the Oldtown ward had one of the worst rates of persistent absenteeism in Northern Ireland.
Other areas of Mid-Ulster with poor attendances include Lissan, Pomeroy and The Loup in Cookstown as well as Ballymaguigan and Bellaghy in Magherafelt.
Commenting on the perceived inequality experienced by local Protestant pupils, MLA Sandra Overend
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UUP spokesperson for children and young people, called on the Assembly to bring forward targeted interventions to improve attendances.
“Inequality of educational underachievement is widening and basic standards of numeracy and literacy are still a major problem. Something as simple as increasing attendance rates in the most affected areas would have such a positive effect”, she said.
“However, I would reiterate again that the areas mostly affected across the board are predominantly Protestant areas. These high rates of absenteeism cannot be allowed to continue.”