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The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
I beg to move
That this Assembly recognises the value of partnership working between schools and community services, including the role that this can play in increasing educational achievement for pupils; and calls on the Minister of Education to ensure that adequate resources are invested in developing and expanding such services.
It almost feels as though we have been here before. We had an Adjournment debate recently on a similar topic, but this is a wider debate that, hopefully, other Members will get the chance to come in on. It is a very important area of work. There were a lot of good contributions from other Members in the Adjournment debate about education services in West Belfast several weeks ago. I hope that it will be the same tonight.
There is nothing more precious than our children and young people. Their health and education are probably two of the most important services that we, as parents and wider society, want the best from for them. Whatever life choices our children make or whatever career paths they choose to follow, it is essential that we give them access to the best educational opportunities that we can and provide them with the skills to equip them for whatever they face during their lifetime. Education and our experience of it, from nursery school right through to higher education, can present us with positive experiences and, unfortunately, some very negative ones. It offers us opportunities that we might not ordinarily have access to. Those very formative years are crucial to unlocking the potential in every child. We as policymakers, along with parents, teachers and all other stakeholders, have to ensure that all our children have equal access to educational opportunities and that they are all treated the same.
In the Adjournment debate that I mentioned earlier, I talked about a recent piece of research titled 'School Inspection in a Polycentric Context', which was launched in the Long Gallery. I apologise to the Members who were there for that debate, but I am going to make some points that I feel are very important to make. It was commissioned by the West Belfast Partnership Board and carried out by a group of academics from Dublin City University (DCU). The main message in the report was that schools on their own can reach only a certain level of attainment but that results can increase substantially when they work in partnership with other schools, teachers, local community-based services and parents. It had a particular focus on members of the area learning community of West Belfast, but there were four case studies, some of which happened in Europe, including in Bulgaria. I will repeat those achievements, because, as I say, they are very important. There was an increase of 11·4% in pupils in West Belfast achieving five GCSE grades from A* to C from 2011 to 2015. There was a 12·3% increase in pupils achieving five GCSEs, including maths and English, from 2013 to 2015. That differential was even greater for those pupils achieving seven GCSE grades from A* to C, including maths and English, with an increase of 12·7% over the past four years.
When we look at pupils eligible for free school meals, increases in GCSE attainment levels were even better. In 2015, there was a 15% increase in students eligible for free school meals achieving seven or more GCSEs, including maths and English, at grades A* to C in 2015 compared with 2013. I am sure that Members will agree that those are really outstanding achievements for the young people of an area of social and economic deprivation. It is the worst constituency across the North. When we look at those results and the better outcomes for children and young people, we see that intervention and support programmes delivered in a partnership approach work.
It is also worth remembering that schools are only part of a child's education. We need to educate our children for life. It is not just about what they learn in school, it is also the influences of family and the wider community that are very important.
I want to emphasise the importance of involving parents in children's education. For early years development in particular, the importance of family and parental engagement that looks at developing increased aspirations for the child is also very important. As parents, it is very important that we instil that type of aspiration in our children and young people.
We need to recognise the importance of community-based services such as extended-schools programmes and Sure Start. I do not want to leave anyone out, but I want to mention homework clubs, breakfast clubs and those types of full-service community schools, where support can be accessed either in the school setting or outside, in wider community-based provision. That is also very important. You have heard me speak about community-based education before in other debates, and I have also heard other Members support it. It is very important that we give the choice to people to have that community-based education. <BR/>There are also huge benefits when a school partners up with a local community in the sharing of provision. Again, we see that working with sporting facilities in schools when school halls are made available to local community providers, including many of the youth organisations. Unfortunately, I still believe that we see far too many schools closed in the evenings and at weekends. I want to commend St Mary's University College, in my constituency, which opens its doors for all sorts of events for community organisations and, in particular, the West Belfast Partnership Board's programmes. They have an Easter school and a summer school, where young people can have extra tuition for their GCSEs. I think that is another part of why we are seeing the attainment levels going up.
The rise in educational achievement of our children and young people is, of course, only one part of the story. The entitlement framework was introduced to give a better choice of subjects to young people, especially those who want to go down the vocational route. All Members will be aware that all children are different and all children want to take different career paths. Some might want to choose an academic path, some might want to choose a different path. It is important that, no matter what journey they travel on or road they take, we have that opportunity open to them and they have the choice to take whatever path they choose.
That brings me to alternative education projects; they are very important. Not all our children and young people are suited to education in schools. We need to look at how we develop and grow alternative education projects. From my own experience of knowing young people who have gone through some of those projects, in some cases, it has taken those young people away from alcohol abuse, drug abuse and even suicidal thoughts. I want to commend the people who run some of those alternative education projects that are based in the community.
Earlier today, we heard the Health Minister give a very positive statement to the Assembly on what she wants to see as the direction of travel for health and social care. I welcome her statement. In particular, I welcome her and her Department's commitment to programmes such as the early intervention transformation programme, which sees the Department of Health, the Department of Education and the Department for Communities all working together to find ways of intervening early in the lives of children to improve their educational outcomes. This is key to making the difference and giving all our children and young people the best start in life, not just for their educational outcomes but their health outcomes and all those other best outcomes that we want for our children.
Tackling health inequalities, poverty and deprivation are key areas that we need to focus on if we are to remove the barriers to equality of opportunity in education that our children face. Supporting families outside of school and providing support inside the school, through the nurture units provision that are there, and hopefully will be developed, is crucial.
To conclude, I hope that Members will support the motion and that the Minister will ensure that adequate resources are put into developing the services. We have had some very positive engagement already, and the Minister has seen at first hand some of the working in partnership with the community-based services in schools with teachers and parents. I hope that we all come together and support this motion tonight.
I do not think there is anyone in the House today who will oppose the motion, although we will wait and see. It seems to be a day of unity, with us all singing and dancing from the same hymn sheet. I think this follows on in that mode. I do not think anyone would oppose any steps or procedures that help our children and young people achieve their full potential, so we will certainly not divide the House on the motion.
I have no doubt that the Minister is committed to developing and expanding services. He said that in a previous debate, and it is on record, so I think we come to that position today with the Minister's blessing. I look forward to him responding to this when it is his turn to speak. It should, of course, be noted that he is on record as stating that his priority in education is to ensure that all children and young people, whatever their circumstances or background, achieve their full potential. However, I sometimes feel that not enough emphasis is placed on the parental role. That role cannot be overemphasised, and young people and children could, in some cases, even get more support from parents. After all, children are only under the influence of educators and schools for part of the day. Parents and guardians perhaps could and should be encouraged in every way possible to do even more for their offspring.
A mainstream school, of course, is the best place for the vast majority of children and young people to achieve, but I recognise that some pupils and young people arrive with unusual circumstances and complex needs. There are many reasons why that may be the case — family circumstances, often; emotional and mental well-being; and trauma, to name but a few. It is cases such as these that require professional expertise from education authorities and other support, as stated in the motion. However, closer attention should be paid to continuing the ethos of learning in the family home or unit. I am a strong believer in that. It cannot be a matter for education services alone. Children and young people need the support, guidance and encouragement of their parents and guardians. It is essential to the overall development of the child or young person.
Many of us in the House are parents and are fully aware of the pressures, requirements, demands and commitments that that brings. Others will have known additional pressures with children and young people who have particular issues and challenges, requiring even more devotion and determined nurturing to ensure that the very best potential was achieved. That was our role, and we did it because we wanted to ensure the best outcomes for our children and young people.
The Minister is investing significant sums in partnership with other agencies — he is on record as saying that — including Sure Start, nurture provision and the Delivering Social Change early intervention programme, as well as the childcare and support programme. That is the right thing to do, as many of us are aware of the work that many of those groups do. When I was in Social Development early this year, I had the opportunity of directing £800,000 to women's centres across the Province that provide valuable childcare provision. I acknowledged that there was a gap in funding and was determined to address it, and I did.
Prior to this year, the per pupil funding rate for external alternative education provision (AEP) in Belfast has been static at £9,000 per pupil for some time. Again, I am looking at Hansard and quoting from the Minister in the past:
"The EA has advised that the AEPs have never questioned this amount or requested higher levels of funding, since they were historically very successful in accessing funding from other sources. However, in the current financial climate, of course, this is no longer the case, as the Education Authority is aware that several previously reliable funding sources for the sector will not be able to assist them in this financial year."
All our children and young people deserve an education system that is tailored to their needs, abilities and potential. Our teachers and other education providers work very hard within the parameters and boundaries they are given to provide the best education they can for the children in their classroom, their school and the local area. However, 18 years after responsibility for education was devolved to Stormont, report after report has highlighted the problem of educational underachievement in Northern Ireland. Put simply, far too many of our young people enter the world of work without the basic skills in reading and writing needed to succeed in life. In addition, the data available on educational underachievement point, year after year, to the same socio-economic groups suffering the most, yet Minister after Minister has failed to come up with the goods to deal with that situation effectively. The Minister might say, "Until now", but we will hear what he has to say.
Catholic girls continue to outperform Protestant boys consistently and significantly, and there is wide variation in the performance of students by school type, with just over 5% of grammar school leavers failing to achieve at least five GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths; that compares with almost 60% of their non-grammar counterparts. That means that four out of every 10 pupils attending our secondary schools leave education without what are seen as key employability qualifications. Most worrying of all is the gap in attainment for those entitled to free school meals — a proxy for poverty — with a significantly higher proportion of students with entitlement to free school meals leaving school without achieving any GCSEs at all. It is for those reasons, along with countless others, that partnership between schools and community services is fundamental to ensuring that the needs of all our young people are met.
One of the first visits I made after I was elected to this place was to a school in Belfast — it may have been in west Belfast — that had families graduating from a Families and Schools Together (FAST) programme, a programme initiated by Save the Children that brought parents into schools to help them to engage in their children's education, value its true worth and overcome any fears or problems they might have experienced in education. That, in turn, helped each child to work better at school and dedicate themselves to their education. I was totally impressed by that programme, and I know that it is duplicated by others in areas across Northern Ireland. It is certainly something that the Minister should support.
Given the parameters within which our schools are forced to operate, community services are often best placed to provide help and support to schools aimed at raising educational achievement; targeted health and support services for children, young people and families; family and parenting support; and community access to school facilities. The list goes on.
I support the motion, which calls on the Minister to:
"ensure adequate resources are invested in developing and expanding such services."
However, it is also extremely important that schools can commit to working more in partnership with each other to share best practice, reduce the duplication of services and ensure that the needs of the entire community are met. That can often be extremely difficult for schools to achieve. In Northern Ireland, much like the rest of the UK, schools are encouraged to be in competition, in the sense that they are measured against each other for the purposes of assessing quality and setting standards. Schools are forced to compete with each other to put children into seats, as that is how funding is allocated. In that context, there is a difficulty in asking schools to move from competition to cooperation.
We often hear the terms "competitive collaboration" and "collaborative competition" being thrown around, but, ultimately, it is very difficult for schools truly to collaborate when they operate in that way. Perhaps we could look at having a wider conversation in the future, and I am interested in hearing the Minister's thoughts on that.
I begin by unashamedly suggesting that partnership working between schools and community services is invaluable in our children's education. Such links create immeasurable benefits for schoolchildren right across Northern Ireland, and I applaud the work of teachers and youth workers in creating and growing these links. The benefits to children that automatically flow from such endeavours are twofold: there is the obvious educational benefit, with services and programmes offered by community services that enhance learning in the classroom; and there are the social benefits to children who are involved in youth services from socialising with other children, often in a cross-community environment, and from learning key life skills through those services.
Jennifer McCann mentioned the wonderful work being carried out by the West Belfast Partnership Board, so I will not say anything further on that. It would, however, be very remiss of me not to mention a multimillion pound project currently in the pipeline in my East Derry constituency. I am sure that the Minister is aware of it. Limavady High School and St Mary's High School have taken the very brave step of joining together becoming connected by means of a unity bridge. I have no doubt that it will prove to be one of the finest examples of shared education in this country.
There can and will be progress and improvement in these networks of educational organisations and institutions across a whole range of areas, which it is impossible even to imagine any single organisation achieving on its own. The link between extracurricular involvement and academic success is heavily apparent. I encourage putting any resources that we can into growing and improving these links, particularly those that ensure that all of our children have equal opportunity and equal access to these services. It is vital that youth services across the North are expanded to increase the opportunity for children in all our schools. <BR/>Research shows that there can be many barriers to pupils realising their full potential and achieving what they deserve educationally: their gender; community background; whether they are in care; whether they are a member of the Travelling community; or even changing school mid-year can have a detrimental effect on education and put children a step behind their peers before they even enter the classroom. The opportunities afforded to these children through community-based partnerships can be literally life-changing. They can mean the difference in students achieving GCSEs and whether or not a pupil reaches university, if they so desire. We have a duty and responsibility to ensure that all our children can avail themselves of these opportunities, so it is incredibly important that the Minister adequately resources and funds these programmes.
With such vital resources, it is imperative that proper measures and transparent protocols are in place to ensure that all bids for resources and investment opportunities are open and available to all community services in order to ensure that adequate and appropriate funding is awarded fairly and equally across Northern Ireland.
I welcome the motion and look forward to the delivery and enhancement of community services. It is important that we diversify the educational experience of our children. We must realise that learning is about more than the lessons learned in the classroom; it includes the social interactions, life skills and practical learnings that our community services can offer. With the increased integration of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) into mainstream schools, large proportions of children receiving free school meals and a substantial regional imbalance in educational outcomes and percentage of school-leavers achieving GCSEs, investment in community partnerships and educational programmes could transform our educational sector. We owe it to the current pupils in schools, and future generations, to protect and enhance the educational opportunities available to them.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion, to join colleagues in recognising the value of partnership working between schools and the community sector and the role that this plays in increasing educational achievement, and to support the calls that are being made on the Education Minister to adequately resource and develop expansion for these services.
I pay tribute to our schools and the community sector involved in education across Northern Ireland. They are playing a vital role in the development of our children and young people, at times within extremely constrained resources. I am sure they will welcome the additional £13 million that has been allocated today for minor works and the provision of equipment in their settings.
Nelson Mandela said that education is the most powerful weapon to change the world and that it is an engine room of personal development. I wholeheartedly agree with those sentiments and, indeed, with the well-known sentiment that it takes a village to raise a child. That goes to the heart of what is in the motion, and Alliance would have a vision of a fully integrated, world-class education system that supports equal opportunity for every person to fulfil their full potential.
We believe that it is fundamentally flawed to separate our education system on the basis of religion and, indeed, to have two unregulated tests to transfer young people in year 7 from a common curriculum to a common curriculum in years 8, 9 and 10. I welcome the inquiry that the Education Committee will undertake into educational achievement and post-primary transfer.
We believe that early years investment is vital to improve our education system. It is vital to have high-quality, accessible childcare and family support services that will be provided by our community and voluntary sector, at times in cooperation with local schools. We also believe that children with disabilities deserve equal opportunity in the provision of education.
It is vital that the curriculum is provided in partnership between schools and the community sector to ensure that our children and young people have as wide a range of academic and vocational options as possible and that there is linkage into further and higher education to ensure wide-ranging career pathways. Indeed, former Minister for Employment and Learning Stephen Farry set as a priority that there is parity of esteem for vocational pathways such as apprenticeships. I welcome the recent development of the engineering apprenticeship that sees young people, as early as 16, being able to enter into that engineering pathway as a result of good work done by the Institution of Civil Engineers. It is also vital that there are partnership approaches to ensure entrepreneurship and business skills education in our schools and, indeed, that computer programming skills are developed.
There is sound evidence for positive outcomes being achieved by the partnerships approach, and I welcome the comments that have been made about the West Belfast Partnership Board and the increase in attainment that it has achieved as a result of the partnership work in that area. That has indeed been recognised by DCU and the Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection.
There is increasing agreement that strong links between schools and communities will serve to improve educational outcomes in their area. Therefore, I am delighted to be involved in work with the EastSide Partnership, established to provide a strategic direction for cooperation between schools, the community and the business sector in east Belfast.
We have produced the EastSide Learning framework to run from 2015 to 2025, with five priority areas, which are raising aspiration; encouraging working in partnership, looking at whole-school and full-service models; early years development; valuing all —
I support the motion. Schools very much remain a focal point in our community, and there is no doubt that they continue to be the heartbeat of our towns and villages. Traditionally, schools and educational establishments have been about one thing, and that has been educational achievement. Obviously, that is an important part of their overall objective. However, I believe that there is much more to schools and the role that they can play in the communities that they service. Community use of schools and community services connectivity is an area that I feel very passionate about, and there is no doubt that there is a further need to weave that type of connectivity into our overall educational policies and improve our linkages with the Department for Communities, as Lord Morrow said earlier.
We all know that there is a need to move away from duplication of services. I am therefore very supportive of partnership working with councils, sports clubs, health services, youth initiatives and one of the fundamental link-ups that we have heard about in the Chamber, which is the business community. For too long, government has had silo working, and I am very much of the belief that the reshaping of our government gives us a real opportunity to rethink how we do things and how we get the best out of our schools. The quotation that jumps out at me is:
"If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got".
I feel that in this mandate there is a real desire to deliver. I therefore welcome the spirit of the motion today.
There is no doubt that we need real-world learning. The way in which to deliver that is to further integrate our schools into the community services that exist around them. That means making schools very much hubs not just for learning but for social interaction and lifelong learning. For example, in my constituency of Upper Bann, I speak to local businesses. I had a meeting with Moy Park recently at which I was told, "We cannot get the skills". There needs to be greater connectivity, and I know that the Education Minister, along with the Economy Minister, is very sympathetic to having a greater link-up between educational establishments, careers advisers and the business community, because, ultimately, we need to shape young people to suit the needs of our business community in the coming years.
There also needs to be better link-up around sports activities and sports clubs using our school facilities so as to avoid duplication. Again in my constituency, a great initiative has started where Glenavon Football Club is using the local Lurgan Junior High School as part of the training ground for its academy. That is a really practical way of opening up our schools to the community.
I have no doubt that school links in the community will improve educational achievement. I spoke to an educationalist recently, and he said that 30% of children's education is academic, while the rest is learning from their parents and from the community and businesses around them. I am therefore very supportive of that need for greater links.
Community service will allow for real-life application of learning. It will increase self-esteem, self-awareness and civic awareness for the children involved. The children and young people involved in community work can often obtain skills such as problem-solving. It can also better equip students for the world of work and make them more attractive to employers. It provides great networking options, and I have no doubt that it will bring learning beyond the classroom.
In summary, I am very supportive of schools entering into their community. I look at my own area, and I think that it is absolutely vital that the connectivity and the link up between schools and the community happens so that educational achievement can be enhanced through learning in the real world.
Principal Deputy Speaker, I know that this debate has been on a subject close to your heart as a former Education Minister who initiated many community school partnership-type programmes under your stewardship. In my role as Committee Chair, I want to say at the outset that the Committee does not yet have a formal position on the issues covered by the motion, but the debate has rightly focused, to some degree, on the achievements of existing partnership arrangements in a number of constituencies.
It is very positive to hear Members speak in such positive terms about initiatives and programmes in their constituencies. Jennifer McCann tabled the motion and spoke first, and I commend Jennifer for her commitment and her passion as a constituency MLA for West Belfast. Evidently, she is very proud of the achievements in her constituency, understandably and justifiably so, because, in an area of social deprivation, attainment levels are being raised in a very organised fashion and in a fashion that is very well supported by the local community. These achievements have attracted international attention. I know that Catherine Seeley intends to make that point.
Some weeks ago, the transferor representatives were present at the Education Committee. I thought that it was very positive that Chris Lyttle made reference to the EastSide Learning partnership and that there was a great appetite on the part of the transferors to look at the best-practice model coming out of west Belfast and support its application. In fairness to the Minister, in his time as a member of the Committee and as its Chair, he also showed a strong interest in the positive messages coming out of the West Belfast Partnership model.
Projects like extended schools and full-service schools have focused on key issues such as improving attendance. Attendance is a significant problem for non-selective schools, and all post-primaries with 90% or worse attendance are non-selective schools, often serving deprived areas. I think that that is why partnership working is absolutely essential. If it is achieving results in one area, it is right and proper for other areas to borrow and learn from this type of best practice.
A key Department of Education message in the last mandate and in the current mandate was and is the importance of family engagement in learning and education. The Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Maurice Morrow made reference to the key role of parents, and he always emphasises that.
The Achieving Derry programme is a long-term sustained intervention to improve standards in schools by improved partnership between schools and voluntary and statutory bodies, including, for example, health bodies. Last week, I visited Sacred Heart College in Omagh informally, and I was very pleased to learn of the excellent work that is taking place there by staff who are domiciled or resident inside Sacred Heart College and who go out and about, interacting with the Sure Start programme and also working in neighbourhood renewal areas where the Sure Start programme does not reach. I think that really good work is taking place in Sacred Heart College in Omagh, and people like Mrs Marion Bradley and Mr Paddy McMahon, the youth tutors and mentors, are doing great work in a partnership way, out and about in the community. I want to emphasise that the Strule shared education campus in my constituency offers a unique and iconic opportunity to test out some of these projects. I will leave it at that.
The purpose of developing partnerships between schools and any organisation or service is always to improve outcomes for our young people through the synergic planning of our education services. The motion is one that I support wholeheartedly. I ask that the Minister pays particular attention to partnerships between schools and allied professionals in the health and social care sector. No longer can our education and health services work in silos. Young people must be given the joint support and opportunities that they need to achieve their educational goals and reach their full potential. Without good health and well-being, it is impossible for anyone, including our children and young people, to achieve their potential educationally. Whether it is eyesight tests being carried out by community nurses, dental services being made available in schools or the assessment of a child's psychological or social needs, the earlier that issues can be identified and worked on, the better it is for the child. Addressing health and social care needs equips children to make the most of their opportunities.
It is vital that educational psychologists, whether associated with education services or health services, are allowed to facilitate support for a child at as early an age as possible. In many cases, pupils are not referred for this kind of help until the end of Key Stage 1, even though they have presented earlier, whether for behavioural reasons or for other special educational needs. At that stage, it is often too late to minimise the impact on their education. I know that parents and teachers would welcome assessment earlier because, the earlier that support mechanisms can be put in place, the more pupils will enjoy and engage in their education. Teachers are dedicated, trained and committed professionals. However, they are not healthcare experts, particularly in mental health issues. While teachers can sometimes identify concerns in relation to a pupil's mental welfare, they must be supported in finding help for the pupils under their care to ensure that every child's needs are met. Working in partnership with an organisation such as the NSPCC would provide support in relation to teachers' concerns and could be available through a school counselling service one or more days per week.
It is our duty to make sure that, through partnership, we do everything to help our children achieve optimum results. Working in partnerships brings to bear the expertise of all kinds of professions in ensuring that our children have the best possible start in life. A school environment is a great one in which to compare a child's health and development, neither of which can be taken in isolation. Developing and expanding those partnerships will help contribute to the delivery of top-quality services. It would also give great comfort to parents and guardians who will know that their children have the support and guidance of people in a system who can look after their education and health needs from a number of perspectives.
In addition to partnerships with health and social care services that directly affect the health and well-being of our young people, there are partnerships that can have similar benefits such as sports and recreational and other extracurricular activities. By partnering with community services that specialise in those areas, schools and communities can ensure that all our young people, from preschool to sixth form, have a well-rounded educational experience and an opportunity to excel. While it is essential that adequate resources are put in place to develop and expand partnerships and services, adequate resources must also be in place.
I thank the Members who tabled the motion and all those who spoke in the debate. In case there is any doubt, I am happy to support the motion.
There has been a broad level of consensus. It has been a fairly wide-ranging debate, as is sometimes the case in education. The broad tone is to be welcomed, and we have had consensus around the Chamber. To take Mr Mullan's point, we almost have a bridge between the parties and maybe even between Government and Opposition. The only brief nightmare moment was when the Chair of the Committee indicated that he had "informally" got into school. I have nightmare visions of Barry McElduff disappearing into Sacred Heart College in a school uniform. He is maybe about the right size if not the right age for the post. That is about as acrimonious as it got.
The last contributor, Rosemary Barton, made a valid point on partnerships when she talked about outcomes. There is a wide range of partnerships, and I will try to touch on some of them. However, we all need to focus on the end point, which is the outcomes that are produced for children. In many ways, therefore, partnerships are very valuable, but, in and of themselves, they are a means to an end. As the proposer of the motion said, it is about ensuring that all our young children, regardless of where they come from or what their background is, unlock their full potential. That is important.
For the vast majority of young people, the essential involvement is in a mainstream school learning with their peers because there is a need for socialisation, where they have access to the full curriculum and personal development opportunities that all our schools can provide. As with other things, schools do not and cannot act in isolation. At times, pupils come with a range of needs because of their backgrounds. Some of those needs will be physical, and some will be emotional and mental health problems due to issues that they face. Community support can be extremely useful in all circumstances, but, for young people who have challenges in their life, it can be of particular importance.
Many schools have recognised the benefits of collaboration, whether that is between schools, within a sector, between sectors, between the community and business or between other groups. That is vital. When you get that cooperation, it can contribute to pupils leading happier, healthier and more productive lives.
Education other than at school (EOTAS) services, which support students with more complex needs, was not touched on. Older children can be involved in EOTAS placements. That can be a valuable bridge because it can also involve community-based EOTAS, which providers can use to increase capacity and the overall flexibility of the services provided.
Crucially, a range of interventions can be made, and there is a key role for the community in that. Mention was made, particularly by the proposer, of nurture groups. The pilot programme was evaluated recently by Queen's University. I am committed to continuing to fund the 32 nurture groups, and, hopefully, that can be widened. Those groups have played a vital role, but it is not just about the impact that they have on individuals; they can have a strong impact on the whole school. Again, with nurture groups, it is not simply about what happens in a school; it is about wider community involvement.
Indeed, a number of Members who spoke, including the Chair and Lord Morrow, mentioned that there is also a key role for parents in nurture groups, insofar as they can help with some of the strategies. Nurture groups have also been able to build better links between families and community and voluntary groups. We also know that, when a community becomes involved with and supports local preschool, school and youth organisations, that can have a huge impact on the outcomes of the children in that community. Therefore, I encourage all communities to support their education and youth providers, and I encourage parents to become involved in their children's education. As the proposer, Lord Morrow and others said, that degree of parental involvement creates a culture of learning and a culture that values education, which is critical to have in the facilities and extends into lifelong learning.
The Department will foster collaboration between schools through area learning communities, and it will encourage parental involvement. A wide range of support is given, be it through preschool education, the entitlement framework, extended-schools money, the full-service partner programmes that were mentioned, youth programmes, or guidance. When looking at underachievement, a lot of the focus is also on early intervention: Sure Start, nurture provision, the early intervention programme through Delivering Social Change; childcare; and other targeted support. This year, for example, about £10 million has been made available through the extended-schools programme to service some of our most disadvantaged communities, and two full-service programmes are being piloted in north and west Belfast. The evaluation of those programmes has highlighted a wide range of benefits.
This follows on from our debate on the community contribution and, indeed, the wider contribution in west Belfast. Two of the organisations mentioned in that debate, the West Belfast Partnership Board and the Greater Shankill Partnership Board, provide wraparound services that have had considerable success. Such interventions are wide-ranging. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit St Paul's Primary School, which is off the Falls Road. I saw a number of aspects, but one of the key things was seeing where there had been work between local business and the school to provide additional facilities. The school has an interactive wall, which takes interactive whiteboards to the next level. As somebody who is a little bit of a technophobe, I had to get the pupils to show me how it worked, but it was a very good example of the level of cooperation that is happening in our schools.
Mrs Overend referred to the collaboration between schools. In my experience, schools will, to a certain extent, compete for children, and some schools are more aggressive than others. However, it is very heartening to find that there is some shared responsibility. We have seen good sharing between schools, and that is developing and moving to a further level. That needs to continue not simply between schools in a particular area or schools in a particular sector but between schools in different sectors. That will be critical.
I want to turn to a few other points. Rosemary Barton made a very valuable point about allied health professionals. The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act that went through in the latter stages of the last mandate will be backed up by regulations, and there is also the Children's Services Co-operation Act. It is vital, and I think that this is accepted, that all statutory assessments are done as quickly as possible and that there is more collaboration. Work between the Department of Education and the Department of Health is ongoing. That has been happening for some time, but it has been a little bit piecemeal until now, and it is an important driver.
I will touch on a few other aspects that came up in the debate. The proposer and Ms Lockhart mentioned sporting facilities. It struck me, and I think that this is very important, that, if you embed a school in a community, the opportunity for the school's sporting facilities to be used in the evenings is vital.
Another thing struck me during my travels around schools. Look at the school enhancement programmes (SEPs), particularly those that focus on sports facilities or have led to new developments within schools. If you go back a number of years, there was a mindset that schools — it was apparent even in their design — were like some sort of castles with their drawbridges up. That mentality has changed, and when I see new builds or school enhancement programmes, it is very noticeable that thought is given — it runs as a constant — to how facilities can be developed so that they are not used solely by the school but can have a wider community usage. It might be a case of having different gates, different access points or whatever, but a wide range of things are being done. When it comes to delivery, I would praise the work of the women's centres; Lord Morrow mentioned that. They have delivered on a range of activities, and I welcome the decision that he took in relation to that.
Carla Lockhart and Chris Lyttle mentioned the critical importance of vocational routes as we move ahead in tackling underachievement, and that is undoubtedly the case. There will be an opportunity during this Assembly mandate to look at the curriculum. It is vital that, while protecting people's academic chances, we focus on how we can increase vocational pathways.
Mrs Overend referred to the FAST programme, and I highlight again that that is something that is made available through extended-schools funding. It operates in Twinbrook in Holy Evangelists' Primary School, and it is a good example of that funding.
I see that time is marching on. Carla Lockhart highlighted very clearly that there is also a need to ensure that there are strong linkages between schools and the business community. I know that there is an appetite in the business community for that.
As partners, much has been done, but there is much more to be done. The motion mentions support for expanding services, and I am very happy to give as much support as I can. When it comes to the Budget for 2017-18, I hope that the Members opposite can have some influence on the Finance Minister. I know that he is always very keen to be as accommodating as possible. The Budget is yet to be agreed, and I anticipate that we are still going to have a challenging Budget. I will always be arguing for additional funds for education, but this is where there are opportunities as well as challenges. At times when we are facing a level of austerity, it is important that with whatever investment is there, whether it is in education or any other area, we get the maximum return for our investment and help turn the curve, as the saying goes, for so many children, families and communities.
While the constraints of budget, particularly in terms of extension, can be a major challenge and there will be a certain level of restraint, partnership working affords us with an opportunity to have new ways of looking at things. Sometimes, that is not simply about better delivery but about more efficient delivery.
Obviously, safeguarding is a sine qua non in that regard, and it permeates everything. In community development, particularly if we are looking to tackle educational underachievement, there are schemes that are brought from the grass roots up, such as those in west Belfast and on the Shankill. At times, there were attempts at government intervention years ago, which, because they were imposed down, did not take root in the community. However, where there is community buy-in, that is particularly important.
I am particularly committed to ensuring that we get that investment in early intervention, and a number of schemes have been put in place. The evidence that is being drawn from that will be critical as we move ahead. If we are looking to turn the curve and trying to make that particular intervention for many families, the status quo is not an option. Going forward, we need to look at things differently and use the data and evidence more effectively to prioritise investment.
I am committed to doing as much as I can, and I will also take on board all that has been said in this debate. All of us have a role to play in enhancing educational achievement, whether it is those of us in the Chamber or those of us in schools or community partnerships.
There can be positive links and this can be a win-win for everyone, so I am very happy to support the motion.
I welcome the positive comments from right across the Chamber and the cross-party support that the motion has received. I thank my party colleague for tabling it. I thank the Minister for being here with us this evening. I have to concur with his remarks about the height of my party colleague Barry McElduff.
On a more serious note, it is great to hear not only his support but a number of positive comments that inspire confidence, in particular those about the ongoing work on assessments, and the cross-departmental work with the Department of Health on that.
I commend the efforts of the West Belfast Partnership Board, which is one of the reasons why we are debating this motion. My colleague Jennifer McCann is immensely proud of what has been achieved, and rightly so, when she was quoting figures such as 11·4% and 12·7% in GCSE A* to C attainment, including English and maths. She noted, and I concur, that schools are only part of a child's education. We need to educate our children for life, and I do not think that we can do that within the confines of the formal school setting.
I, too, have been impressed by what has been achieved in West Belfast, so much so that I recently tabled a question to the Education Minister to ask that he consider funding a similar project in my constituency of Upper Bann. I look forward to his response. I am sure that it will very positive, as all his responses have been.
The face of education has transformed in recent years. I commend my party colleague John O'Dowd for responding to societal changes and how that has impacted on how we deliver education. Differentiation, the entitlement framework, increased access to vocational subjects, and the extended-schools programme are all a testament to that. I am confident that the current Education Minister will continue in that vein.
In spite of all of that and the sterling efforts of our dedicated and committed teachers, increased class sizes in an era of Tory austerity, red tape and admin demands have undoubtedly impacted most on those children from socially deprived backgrounds. They are the very children who need education the most in order to break out of the cycle of poverty and deprivation, particularly children on free school meals, as the Member from Mid Ulster mentioned.
Active learning has played a pivotal role in transforming the classroom environment. However, a classroom environment is not conducive to all. Children have different learning styles. Although many of those can be catered for within the school day, some children require additional and targeted support to reach their potential. We owe it to those children to explore opportunities for them outside the formal classroom setting.
To further that, as was stated by my party colleague, the 'School Inspection in a Polycentric Context' report in our packs — I thank the Research and Information Service for those packs — notes that some educationalists have concluded that, alone, our education system can do only so much to tackle underachievement. That has influenced the notion that schools may not be able to improve further when working in isolation. As such, the idea of linking schools with other stakeholders and networks has become more prevalent, further signalling that we need to move towards having a more joined-up approach if we are to support and motivate children and young people to achieve their full potential.
It is therefore vital that we come together to ensure that those children requiring extra support and encouragement to achieve receive it and that students at risk of low attainment or underachievement secure intervention in a timely and appropriate manner. An example of that working is in the report published by the Minister of Health today: partnership in education and health helping to raise attainment for looked-after children by achieving in Key Stage 1 at level 2 or above a 7·5% increase in English and a 7% increase in maths.
Intervention, as mentioned by Rosemary Barton, a past teacher who has first-hand experience of the classroom, works best when it is done early and when a multi-agency approach takes place outside the formal classroom setting. I, too, have witnessed this as a teacher.
The West Belfast Partnership has demonstrated what can be achieved when there is a coming together of minds. Any failure to replicate such a high level of success would be unforgivable. However, I am aware that the Minister has targeted resource and investment to advance this, though, at this stage, only in the Belfast area. I will do all in my power to persuade the Minister to deliver programmes similar to this across the North, particularly to my constituency of Upper Bann, where I believe they would be hugely impactful.
Many local authorities and schools are already exploring partnerships. Often, school principals and their staff are well ahead of the game, but we need to create the framework for strong and secure partnerships with a range of organisations in order to deliver a personalised learning experience for every child and young person. This must include, as has been stated, further education colleges, youth and social workers, health professionals, voluntary sector providers and training providers, including employers, as my Upper Bann colleague noted. Indeed, the Member from Fermanagh and South Tyrone mentioned parents. I have noted the positive impact that parental engagement can have on a young person. In fact, if a parent has engaged, the child's experience of education can be totally transformed.
I am glad that the Minister specifically mentioned education other than at school (EOTAS) and the sterling work that is going on there for our children with additional needs, including behavioural problems. This kind of joined-up approach will offer children the opportunity to grow, learn and develop into fully rounded individuals, moving focus beyond academia to incorporate spiritual, physical and mental development.
As Chris Lyttle said, it takes a village to educate a child, and I am also impressed that he was the Member today who quoted Nelson Mandela. Schools should open their doors to communities and parents. Schools alone should not have to shoulder the huge responsibility for tackling underachievement. The resource in our communities is too significant to ignore, but any embracement of this notion must receive endorsement from our Education Minister. It seems that we have achieved that endorsement today, and I encourage him therefore to replicate best practice in west Belfast and mirror it in schools across the North.
In addition, it is vital that our schools move from an era of competition to one of cooperation. Efforts around the achievement of the entitlement framework have demonstrated what can be achieved when we open our school doors to others. Sadly, this is not consistent across the North. Schools should not simply choose whether or not to open their doors to others; they should be obliged to do so.
I attended an event last week in which the Bulgarian inspectorate visited west Belfast as a result of a study commissioned by Dublin City University. They were here to learn from us. It made me feel an immense sense of pride to have educational professionals from other countries visiting the North to learn from us, though I have to say that I was not surprised. Our education system is to be envied. It has evolved over time and adapted to the modern world, and we must continue in this vein. We have huge resource in our local communities, and it would be foolish to ignore that.
I want to mention my constituency of Upper Bann. Local community organisations, businesses and activists have played a valuable role. In our primary sector, the healthy kids initiative is developing young people physically, addressing obesity and improving mental well-being in partnership with local schools right across the borough. In the secondary sector, Spark Youth Club, which received a council award in its first year and is based in Lismore Comprehensive School, offers an opportunity for children and young people aged between 11 and 18 with additional educational needs to socialise and engage in an array of extracurricular activities. Their parents are also invited to the youth club, and that gives them an opportunity to engage with other parents in similar circumstances.
In many instances, it is already happening, but it must happen in all schools and all educational providers. So that they are fully developed and impactful, we must invest in and resource these partnerships.
I thank Members for remaining this evening for the debate. I thank Members from all parties for their support. I thank the Minister for his support. I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly recognises the value of partnership working between schools and community services, including the role that this can play in increasing educational achievement for pupils; and calls on the Minister of Education to ensure that adequate resources are invested in developing and expanding such services.
Motion made: That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Madam Principal Deputy Speaker.]