The Speaker has received notice from the Minister of Education that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in the light of social distancing being observed, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members still have to make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. They can also do this by rising in their place, notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table. I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions to the Minister and the Minister to be concise in his answers. This is not an opportunity for debate and long introductions.
I am glad that, given your ruling, there will be Members, not in the Chamber, who will be hanging on every word of the statement.
I would like to make a statement to the Assembly on the establishment of an expert panel to examine the links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background.
I have been aware of and involved in the issue of educational underachievement, particularly the demographic of free-school-meal Protestant boys, since 2012 and have been passionate about addressing this persistent problem ever since. From birth, some children will face significantly greater obstacles, which need to be met and overcome, before they are in a position to realise their full potential. Currently, some manage to overcome these barriers and others do not.
As you are no doubt aware, there is a view in wider society that although valuable work has been done in this area, politically, the can is continually kicked down the road, and the issue is never given the time, effort or resources needed to make fundamental change.
There are also some who consider that, in the past, Government did not fully grasp the urgency of the issue. I believe that that is a misconception and that that misconception is deeply damaging to all in the education sector, not least to the work of the Department and to mine as Minister. Since taking office at the start of the year, I have been committed to getting an expert panel established and working as soon as possible. It is my considered opinion that the issue is simply too important either to ignore or to pay lip service to.
“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”.
That is not just a commitment in the New Decade, New Approach agreement but a priority action area for 2019-2020, and I am aware that we are now over halfway through 2020. Although some progress has been made in the Department on the issue, the necessary reprioritisation of work and staff to deal with the public health emergency surrounding COVID-19 has affected our ability to progress it as quickly as I would have liked. I am therefore delighted to make this announcement today.
Effectively, because of the COVID-19 emergency, we have lost four months in our goal to get the expert panel established and working. Without swift action, we will lose an opportunity to complete work on the project by the end of the 2020-21 school year and an opportunity to progress the implementation of the recommendations in this Northern Ireland Assembly term.
It is my clear belief that every child in Northern Ireland, regardless of their community background, deserves a real chance in life. They deserve a chance to realise their hopes and dreams for the future, and whether that career is as a plumber, doctor, journalist, florist, or even, if they are particularly unfortunate, a politician, they should be encouraged, nurtured and developed towards it.
A child will spend approximately 13% of their waking hours at school up to the age of 18, which means that 87% of their time will be spent out of school at home. Schools are largely responsible for children’s academic learning, but, alongside the vital support of the community, children learn some of their most important lessons at home — lessons that families teach best. What they learn at home provides an essential foundation for schools to build upon. The panel will no doubt consider the support mechanisms that can be put in place to help families that are struggling with life in general and whose children's education is suffering as a consequence.
Educational underachievement and the impact of COVID-19 have, rightly, been consistently raised with me by MLAs and the Education Committee. They have also been highlighted consistently by wider society as we emerge from the health crisis. Now, more than ever, there is an overriding impetus to get the expert panel established and to allow it to commence its work with all haste.
It is worth remembering that, in 2005-06, only 26·4% of free school meal (FSME) school-leavers achieved the benchmark of five or more GCSEs, A* to C, including equivalents, including English and maths. By 2017-18, it was 48·6% of FSME school-leavers. That represents a 22·2% increase in 12 years. By contrast, the equivalent for non-FSME school-leavers was an increase from 58·5% to 78·1%, representing a 19·6% increase over the same period.
So, although progress has been positive, the gap in attainment between those with FSME and those without remained broadly consistent at around 33% each year, rising to around 35% in 2013-14 and falling to 29·5% in 2017-18. It is also widely accepted that Protestant boys with free school meals entitlement have consistently had one of the lowest percentage attainment levels of all pupils.
We also know that many Catholic boys and girls are struggling with attainment. In 2017-18, 1,586 pupils from that community background did not achieve five or more GCSEs, A* to C, including equivalents, including English and maths.
I am committed to doing all that I can to improve those results for everyone. This is not an area that should divide us in any sense but, rather, one that unites us, regardless of our political affiliation or constitutional preference.
There is a general recognition that the interruption to school-based learned caused by COVID-19 could disproportionately impact on the most disadvantaged pupils. For that reason, I have instigated a number of initiatives to help alleviate the impact of COVID-19 on children’s learning. There is a supported summer scheme in July and August in all primary schools that volunteered to deliver it; support for virtual learning over the next 12 months that all year 6 pupils going into year 7 will be able to access; and a new Engage programme that will help all pupils but particularly those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, who would most benefit from additional support, to engage with learning following the COVID-19 lockdown period. That programme will broadly focus on supporting engagement with learning through the development of knowledge, understanding and skills in literacy and numeracy, which are at the core of our curriculum. With the agreement of the Northern Ireland Executive, the total budget made available for those three initiatives for the remainder of this financial year is £12 million.
We need to go further, strive harder, work faster and build a more certain future for all our children and young people. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, I have remained committed to establishing the review panel and enabling it to start its work. Now I have set an ambitious timetable of nine months for the work. The panel that I am announcing today will commence work in September, and I have asked it to produce a final report by the end of May 2021. Consistent with my desire to see this crucial project established as soon as is practicable, I have appointed panel members who are:
"Considered to be experts in their field and have demonstrated an understanding of both educational underachievement and its links to socio-economic background."
I have also ensured that the panel is balanced in its practical experience and research. In going down the route of ministerial appointments, my intention is to ensure that we do not lose significantly more time going through a public appointment process. I have considered the potential members with a view to satisfying myself that each of them is suitably qualified in the field and that the community background of our society is clearly reflected, alongside an appropriate gender balance. I am content with the diversity and breadth of experience represented by the panel members, and I am confident they will do their utmost to produce a regional strategy that will turn around young lives.
Dr Noel Purdy will chair the panel. He is currently director of research and scholarship at Stranmillis University College, where he is also director of the Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU). Serving alongside Noel will be Mary Montgomery, who is the principal of Belfast Boys' Model School, which has one of the highest levels of attainment for Protestant FSM boys coming from an area of economic deprivation. She has established a culture of aspiration and success with the boys at her school. Kathleen O’Hare is the recently retired principal of Hazelwood Integrated College and was formerly principal of St Cecilia's College. She is very well aware of the concurrent issues of educational underachievement and socio-economic background. Joyce Logue is the principal of Long Tower Primary School in Londonderry, which predominantly serves a pupil population in areas of significant economic and social deprivation such as the Brandywell and the Bogside. The school, under her leadership, has established a track record in tackling underachievement particularly among children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Jackie Redpath is the chief executive of the Greater Shankill Partnership. He has significant and long-standing experience addressing the issue of educational underachievement particularly among FSM Protestant boys in a community setting. Finally, Professor Feyisa Demie, who is an honorary professor at the school of education at Durham University and head of research for school self-evaluation at Lambeth Council in London. He has worked extensively in government Departments for over 25 years in the use of data and research to raise educational achievement.
In making the appointments, I have satisfied myself that each panel member has an established and verifiable track record on the issue of educational underachievement; recognisable knowledge and understanding of the challenges that socio-economic factors present when dealing with the issue; the ability to work with others in a professional, honest and open manner; transparent methodology; and the ability to listen to and take into account a wide range of views and opinions. Further, each panel member has the capacity to think strategically and creatively and has made a significant contribution to addressing educational underachievement in a local or regional context. They are also capable of developing and maintaining cooperative working relationships to establish successful results. Furthermore, those from academia are considered experts in their field through their research into educational underachievement. They have published significantly and widely on the issue. Those from the education and community sectors have a proven track record not only of addressing educational underachievement but of doing so in the specific context of the challenging socio-economic backgrounds of their pupils.
Given the wide range of issues that impact on educational underachievement, the expert panel will seek the views of schools, parents, children and young people, thereby giving voices to those stakeholders and highlighting the important role played by families, parents and communities. The expert panel will also invite submissions from all interested parties who have experience of the issues associated with educational underachievement linked to socio-economic disadvantage. That will include all education sectors, government Departments, local government, the voluntary and community sector, business representative organisations, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) and the Equality Commission NI.
Educational underachievement is an area of policy that many have endeavoured over recent years to change, yet, despite numerous policy interventions and significant financial investment, it has remained stubbornly entrenched. That is due, at least in part, to its link with disadvantage, which, in turn, links to poverty, and that is a much wider societal issue than education alone. Addressing poverty should be everyone's priority. In doing so, we all stand to benefit. Whether public sector, private sector, third sector, communities, families or parents, we all have a role to play in addressing that critical issue.
This focused and time-bound review has the capacity to change thousands of children's lives for the better. We cannot and should not delay any further in expediting this incredibly important work. Put frankly, no child should suffer the burden of circumstance in determining his or her outcomes. When the expert panel's work has been completed and an action plan produced, it will include an estimate of costs for taking forward the recommendations, which will require funding. I will update Executive colleagues accordingly with the expectation that a bespoke budget will be considered and agreed by the Executive.
The panel has the potential to significantly improve the outcomes for thousands of children and young people in Northern Ireland. As the late President Ronald Reagan once said:
"There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right."
I hope Members will join me in supporting this important work as it unfolds.
As this is a ministerial statement, there will be an hour for questions. Members will be allowed to ask one question only of the Minister. However, if the full hour has not been used up, I will use — I will keep him here — I will use discretion and try to allow Members to ask further questions if they wish.
Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Like you, I come from a working-class Protestant background, so I commend the Minister for his announcement today. This issue has been a running sore in our community for some time and is one that my party has wanted to deal with effectively. I commend the Minister, having spoken to him in January on his appointment, for this process. I also welcome the panel, some of whom I know. Mary Montgomery is the principal of the Boys' Model School. She is very committed to the community in North Belfast. Kathleen was an excellent leader and principal in Hazelwood Integrated College, and Jackie Redpath is an institution in these issues. I commend those three people in particular for their work.
Minister, the work will start in September, and, if I heard you correctly, you said that it would complete in May 2021. This is obviously hugely important work, and I commend the panel and wish them well with it. We have had reports before, so can you assure the House and, more importantly, the young people in the community that the proposals that will come from the panel will be implemented and will make a difference on the ground?
It is important that we do not have another report that is simply left sitting on the shelf. No research goes wasted, and a number of studies have been done on educational underachievement. To be fair, previous Ministers have done a good lot of work on the matter.
One of the key advantages is that we are not starting from a blank page, not simply because of the depth of experience on the panel but because the panel, in the oral submissions and any meetings that take place, will particularly want to have a level of focus on the body of research that has been done on the subject and will want to draw from that.
The critical point in this is not simply to produce a report with nice-sounding aspirations but to produce an action plan and have practical measures. The focus will be on what needs to be done and how that can be implemented, which is why it is particularly important that, as part of that, the panel looks realistically at issues around cost. I have already indicated in my statement and have put down a marker for the future with the Executive that no change will come in a cost-free environment. While some of the changes may be things that can be done without the need for particular levels of expenditure, there will be a level of cost, so I anticipate and hope that, in line with the NDNA commitments, the Executive, once the report is produced, will give careful consideration and support to the financial support that we need to improve the situation regarding educational underachievement.
Minister, I welcome the fact that you and your Department have worked speedily to deliver on the commitments made in 'New Decade, New Approach' regarding tackling underachievement. I remind you of the other commitment in the document, which includes all children and young people, regardless of their background, as educational underachievement does not recognise any religious divide. Like the Member who spoke before me, I look forward to meeting the panel and wish them well in their work. I know some of them well, particularly Joyce Logue, principal of a school in my area, who is well aware of the issues facing children coming from disadvantage.
Minister, in the document, you focus on GCSE as an indicator for measuring attainment. Why, then, do the intervention programmes listed in the document seem to be targeted mostly at primary-school children and primary 7 pupils?
I will bring further information once we have scoped out all of the details, for instance, on the principal engagement, which is the Engage programme. The Engage programme is likely to cover all ages throughout schools and have some role in all schools, whether primary, post-primary or whatever. Without prejudging any views that emerge on interventions, it is probably the case that the best interventions are done at an early stage in education and, indeed, potentially before the child even goes through the front door of a school.
On the measurements that I used, there is obviously very robust data on GCSE, and that has tended to be used as a benchmark, particularly that of five or more GCSEs at A* to C, including English and mathematics. To that extent, I suppose, it is a shorthand to have in a concrete way a measurement of the overall and overarching academic achievement that has been made. Also, that can be directly differentiated into free school meals and non-free school meals that can then be used as a marker, if you like, for what impact on those who have come from more socially deprived backgrounds can be put in place. The fact that, in one sense, it is the most usable statistic should not blind us to the fact there is a need for interventions across the full spectrum. That was to illustrate that, despite a lot of the good work that has gone on for many years, there is still considerable work to be done.
I thank the Minister for his statement. Educational underachievement has been a huge issue here for a long number of years and one of great concern. The issue will clearly have been compounded by the huge interruption to education during COVID-19, and that will add to considerable concern for schools. There is concern, and the Southern Government and the Minister for Education there have taken action to make €370 million available to fund 1,000 teachers, 125 new additional educational psychologists, new buildings, enhanced cleaning regimes, hand-sanitising and personal protective equipment (PPE). Has the Minister considered a similar scheme for here or funding for schools here to ensure minimal disruption to schools, to ensure that we minimise the risk to our children and our staff and to ensure that schools will not have to close again if these actions are taken?
I am just glad that the Member did not work West Tyrone into the question.
I am very aware of that, and that is why there have been some initial degrees or steps in terms of catch-up that I referred to in the statement, just to bring it back to that. That is why there has been, for instance, principal support for the Engage programme, which is particularly focused on learning recovery. That is why, as part of this Budget, which predated COVID, there has been additional support for mental health, for instance, that will go into schools.
The Member makes a valid point. The news that the devolved institutions will receive additional money is welcome, and I am sure that the Member will agree with me that that is an added bonus of being part of the United Kingdom. An additional £600 million has been allocated. Obviously, as part of that, there is a process that is ongoing, and, within that, the Finance Minister has started to seek Departments' views on where, they believe, there are additional pressures as a result of COVID. Undoubtedly, the restart of education will be one of those, and we will supply the Department of Finance with estimated figures. In that sense, our approach may be slightly different from that of the Republic of Ireland. However, it is undoubtedly the case, as with the Republic's announcement, that, if additional money is to be put in, it needs to be supplied centrally by the Executive. Certainly, if there is anything in the ballpark of what has happened in other jurisdictions, that will need to be done. I am committed to arguing that case, albeit that there will be many competing demands, I suspect, on whatever budgets are available to the Executive.
I thank the Minister for the statement. I think that he referred to the fact that this has been an issue for many years, but young people today are at a disadvantage that we were not faced with. Like the Member for North Belfast, I am from a socially disadvantaged background. I did not get my GCSEs and did not do well in the transfer test, but I was able to succeed. However, children today do not have that opportunity, because it is more competitive to get jobs in the Fire and Rescue Service or the Prison Service, where I spent time. That puts extra emphasis on this welcome piece of work. However, for a really transformative project, it is important that we recognise the correlation between social deprivation and mental health and well-being. Can the Minister tell us of any import that he has given or will give to the panel with regard to looking at that issue and that correlation?
Broadly speaking, I think, terms of reference will be issued to the panel. There are no artificial boundaries. Obviously, this will feed into the wider review of education. There are certain aspects that will be more applicable to that side of it. It is a panel made up of considerable expertise, particularly of direct involvement with young people. It will be able to use those experiences. Let me put it this way: it is undoubtedly the case that there is a growing awareness of the impact of mental health issues on our young people and has been for a number of years. While at times that reveals a very difficult picture, it is an important picture to reveal. This week, for instance, I had the opportunity to meet via Zoom representatives of the Youth Forum, and it was noticeable that the issues that they raised, particularly during lockdown, while concern over how their education was impacted directly was important, were around boredom, stress, mental anxiety and the damage that was done by lockdown to social interaction with other young people. All of those issues are inextricably linked, and the panel will want to consider that seriously as it moves forward with whatever recommendations it ultimately issues.
In my capacity as an MLA, I say that it is slightly disappointing that the matter has not been brought to the Education Committee, which established an inquiry into educational underachievement and post-primary transfer in 2016 that, regrettably, was stopped by the collapse of the Executive in 2017. I recognise that this is an important New Decade, New Approach commitment, but the fundamental independent review of education is also an important New Decade, New Approach commitment. Why has the Minister not yet brought forward terms of reference for an independent review of education, and why do 50 children remain without a special school place for September 2020?
It is perhaps a little disappointing that the Chair of the Education Committee has chosen to ask a question as an MLA and not in his capacity as Chair of the Committee. I would have thought that on such an important subject that that would be the case. I am more than happy to follow up on the details if there is a meeting of the Education Committee, but the first duty when making a policy statement is to make it directly to the Assembly and then to follow up the normal processes in connection with that.
With regard to the important issue of special educational needs (SEN) children, considerable work has gone on. I appreciate that it is outside the direct remit of the statement, so I speak with the indulgence of the Chair. We have moved from a situation in which there were nearly 300 unplaced children. That has now been got down to 50, but we must ensure that that is brought down to zero in terms of placements. There has been ongoing work, and, even in the last week, the number has nearly halved. I think that there will be further progress by the end of this week, and that is important.
This is part of the overall jigsaw of actions that can be taken. I hope to move fairly swiftly in September on the independent wider review. We are coming out of a focus purely on COVID into wider issues, be it in this Department or others. That has clearly delayed things. This is the first of many pieces of the jigsaw that will be put in place, and, because it was established on the basis of NDNA as an expert panel, that allowed a particular route of direct appointments that would not necessarily be available to the wider educational group on it. I take all these things seriously, and we are trying to move ahead with them in as constructive and timely a manner as is possible.
Members, this is not Question Time to the Minister of Education. The Minister has made a ministerial statement, and the questions must relate to that statement. There are probably another 15 Members who want to ask questions, and it is a very limited time, so it is not fair that the Minister should be using his time to answer questions that do not relate directly to the statement that he has given to the House.
As I mentioned in relation to that, there is a range of ongoing support, some of which has been there for many years. For example, schools that have levels of social deprivation will get additional funding through extended schools. That remains in place, and there is flexibility in that spend, for example if they want to go beyond the support provided and provide additional support to their pupils for catch-up.
As I indicated, we have moved with some interventions this summer, and, consequently, 50 schools, on a voluntary basis, are doing summer learning schemes, to which we have been able to provide some funding. We felt that it was important that, where schemes were volunteering to do that, they were given support. That is one intervention. Principally, the Engage programme, which is due to start this autumn and run throughout the next academic year, will give support and will have a particular focus on areas with social deprivation, but there will be help across the board to schools so that their pupils can catch up.
Minister, whatever one's religion or none, the reality is that children are being let down by an education system designed to brand them as failures at the age of 10 or 11. What assurances can you give us that all P6 and P7 children's education will be supported in September, not just those sitting a transfer test?
That question perhaps veers a little beyond the subject matter. All children will be supported, and the curriculum will be the same for all of them. The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) will look to see whether adjustments to the curriculum are required. In any class in any school, whether or not individuals are doing the transfer test or are in P7, they will all receive that support. The principal intervention is through the Department of Education, which is being supported by the Executive, with the Engage programme. There will be flexibility in that to provide such support, which will be applied to primary and post-primary schools, so that they can work out where, they feel, it can be best used, whether for materials, finance or additional human resource, because I think that additional teachers will be required. That support will be available across the age spectrum and will apply throughout all communities. It will enable schools to have the flexibility to apply those resources where they see the biggest problems.
Remote learning and the level of disruption mean that it has not been as good as it would have been, had schools simply been able to carry on. None of us can say with absolute certainty what the impact has been on pupils; we will establish that only when we see a fuller return to schools in the autumn. However, it is important that that rovision and support be given to all pupils. It is targeted through the Engage programme, and that support will be there for all schools.
I thank the Minister for his statement, which I welcome. It is very important, and people have been pushing for it for a long time.
The Minister indicated that the aim was for the report to be completed by May 2021. Is it the intention to implement any relevant recommendations by September 2021? Is the Minister confident that funding can be secured to implement those changes?
The panel will produce an action plan and areas for implementation that will need to be supported by the Executive. Without in any way prejudging what is likely to emerge from the panel, I anticipate that the recommendations will cover a range of areas. I suspect that some actions could be brought about very quickly and others will be longer-term. Some changes may require funding, some may simply be done at an administrative level, and some recommendations may require legislative change. It will be a mixed bag. Implementation will ultimately depend on the support that the Executive as a whole can produce. Even with recommendations in May 2021, it is unlikely that we would see many of them in place by September 2021. However, it will give a clear direction of travel to this Executive and, indeed, to future Executives, which hopefully should honour the recommendations. It will at least allow implementation work to begin in this Assembly term, with further action in the following term.
I think that the Minister would be awarded an A* for creative writing for his speech, but I suspect his scores may fall for maths, percentages and facts. I have a serious concern. The urban myth that Protestant working-class boys do worse in education than their Catholic working-class equivalents is in danger of being embellished by the statement. The reality is this: a greater number of Catholic working-class boys leave school without proper qualifications. Yes, a greater percentage of Protestant working-class boys leave school without proper qualifications, but, if the statement results in the wrong direction of support, we are in trouble.
Will the Minister, as has been the case in every other report on educational underachievement, allow the panel to examine the implications of academic selection for educational underachievement?
It is good to see that the Member still rides the same hobby horse throughout. I am reminded of the words of Churchill that, after all the devastation of the First World War:
"the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone" emerged once again. He meant that nothing in this part of the world had changed. To be fair, it would not be an education statement without the Member asking something about academic selection.
The Member makes a right point. He reinforces what is in the statement. In his own words, he indicates that a higher percentage of working-class Protestant boys leave without qualifications than do boys on the other side of the community, but this should not be something on which we take a tit-for-tat attitude. Educational underachievement, as indicated in the statement, affects all of us. The issue of Protestant FSME boys is directly referenced in NDNA, and we will have to fulfil that. Actions will need to be looked at for the educational underachievement panel and for the wider review of education. Issues of transfer probably more neatly fit into that wider review.
Let us be honest about this. The obsession with transfer as the critical point for underachievement massively misses the point. It creates a distraction and focuses, largely speaking, on the wrong issue. Whereas we need that effort and support for all our children at all ages, if we have not made the right interventions at primary level or even before, we have largely missed the boat. That is why the focus needs to be on ensuring that we have all the measures that can be put in place to help tackle underachievement for all pupils, irrespective of their community background.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I agree with him that we need to tackle educational underachievement in young people, no matter what their background. I welcome the appointment of an expert panel.
Does the Minister agree that the impact of COVID-19 in education will hit hardest the young people from disadvantaged backgrounds? You mentioned catch-up in relation to those young people. What specific measures will be adopted? What resources will be apportioned to ensure that no children or young people are left too far behind as an outcome of the pandemic?
There are two aspects to this. There is an ambitious time frame, and the panel will report in May 2021. It will look at the medium- and long-term actions that can be taken. However, the Member is right in certain regards: we cannot wait until May 2021 before we make interventions. That is why we will come back when all the meat has been put on the bones of the Engage programme. The principal intervention, in terms of catch-up in the 2020-21 period, will be the Engage programme. That will enable some intervention throughout all schools, but there will be particular support and emphasis on schools that serve areas where, the indicators suggest, there are higher than average levels of social deprivation. That will be the greatest level of intervention.
It is undoubtedly the case, it seems to me, that there will have been some disruption and impact. We will not know the absolute scale of that until we see children back in classrooms and in front of desks. That will allow an assessment to take place. It also seems logical that it is more likely to make a disproportionate impact on those who come from socially deprived backgrounds. That is why there will be greater emphasis in the Engage programme on those coming from socially deprived areas. There will be the greatest support for schools that look after pupils from those backgrounds.
Minister, I welcome your statement on the formation of the panel. Representing the west of Northern Ireland, I note that, on your panel, there is a distinct lack of expertise from the west of the Province. Often, children in rural areas also have issues of underachievement.
Many of the issues in relation to underachievement in rural areas are very different from those in urban areas. Will the Minister consider making an additional appointment to his panel, perhaps someone from a rural area or someone who was previously a principal of a rural school?
I thank the Member for her question and comments. People are drawn to this on the basis of their individual background and expertise. As such, I want to ensure that we have a panel that is of an appropriate size, and I think that the six-member panel is appropriate. The panel members have wide experience from throughout Northern Ireland. Take, for instance, the chair, who is the director of the Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement, which will have involved working with pupils throughout Northern Ireland. If we are looking for something that covers all aspects, I think that we have a reasonable spread.
It is also the case that, from the point of the view of the west of the Province — I do not have the detailed biography of all six members — one is the principal of a primary school in Londonderry, which is very much in the west of the Province. I appreciate that it is not quite as far as the extreme ends of Fermanagh. Additionally, one of the other members was involved for many years with St Cecilia's College, which is also in the west of the Province and will be familiar to a number of Members here. There is, I think, a direct level of balance. Can we do something that covers every conceivable aspect? Ultimately, we would end up with a very large panel. The panel will be cognisant of urban and rural issues of underachievement, which is why it will also use this as an exercise to gather evidence from a wide range of sources.
I am sure that the Member may well want to make a submission that is based on her experience. She has many years of educational experience, particularly in rural backgrounds. I am sure that any contribution that she made would be invaluable. I do not know whether, if she were to resign as an MLA, we could arrange something. I suggest that we could do a deal: if she were to take a place on the panel for educational underachievement, we could appoint Lord Morrow in her place. We could probably come to some form of arrangement.
I agree that that is what we need to do. The terms of reference and, indeed, the NDNA talk about particular links between a socio-economic background of poverty and educational underachievement. There is an inextricable linkage. The panel, in addressing some of the issues, will be able to take things only so far. If we are to tackle the broader issues of social deprivation and poverty in communities, it will require a much wider response. Clearly, there are implications for the Department of Education, but it is wider challenge to the Executive as a whole, and we need to ensure that that is tackled. I do not disagree with the Member's remarks.
Thank you, Minister. I am delighted to see the appointment of the panel, which was an important part of the New Decade, New Approach negotiation. The Minister mentioned the money that he will bid for to support its report. Why did he prioritise this panel as opposed to the panel for the independent review of education? Will he bid for money to support a report by that panel as well?
We need to ensure that we do not conflate two or three different issues. There is the separate overall bid, which, in terms of the COVID situation, will be for the broader element of restarting schools. Mr McCrossan raised that in an earlier question. I indicated that financial implications will arise from the panel. We are talking about seeking commitments. Probably, it will be the middle of next year before those arise. We will not know what bids will need to be made for the actions that arise from this. With regard to the bid for the panel itself and, similarly, for the independent review panel, money was allocated in the budget in-year to finance both those panels, albeit that there was a realisation that, because of COVID, the time frame for the establishment of those panels was likely to be a little bit later. Consequently, that had a knock-on effect. As I indicated, I hope to move early in the autumn on the wider independent review panel.
I suppose that you were asking what the differences are. One difference is that the panel is referred to as an "expert group" in NDNA. That enabled us, by a particular route, which was then supported by DOF through Central Procurement Directorate, to move quicker to make direct appointments. The independent review panel is not referenced in that way. Therefore, its appointment process will probably be different and will take a little bit longer. That is why the panel was able to be established at a quicker pace. Both will be established very soon. I would hope to be able to come back to the Chamber, probably in September, to make an announcement on the route for establishment of the independent review panel. Both panels are important.
To be fair, both panels would have been progressed at an earlier stage had it not been for the fact that all of us have had to direct all our attention, and, indeed, largely focused all the internal resources of Departments, to COVID. We are starting to emerge out of that and are able now to consider a range of other critical issues. Clearly, COVID, rightly, had our focus at the very start. It cannot simply cripple everything into the future. That is why we have to move on those issues.
Fadhb ar bith. Like others, I come from a social-security class, Catholic background in west Tyrone. We never realised that we had nothing until, as someone said before, we had something. Many of the people who lived in my community were of the same background. Whilst we would have rung all the bells with regard to socio-economic deprivation, our spirit did not match that in the slightest. Having attended grammar school in Omagh, I then, in later years, had the opportunity to deal with people who had gone through the education system and were branded as failures in every respect. I am only too well aware of many of the difficulties and problems that they faced. In later years, I also dealt with adult numeracy and literacy. Whilst the Minister has described it as a "hobby horse", I know from all the feedback that I got as a member of the Western Education and Library Board —.
Even Protestant schools would tell me that, rather than being a hobby horse, the transfer test was the elephant in the room. I would hope that when the report comes back, the Minister says to himself that the answer is easy: it is about having the courage to actually grasp that easy answer. In fact, if it happens to reflect, too, that the transfer test has contributed, in many respects, to disadvantage for many of those people —.
I was not quite sure whether you were going to ask Mr McHugh to move away from the microphone because you could still hear him.
I take on board the Member's point. I should say that, when I talk about a hobby horse, it is a point on which I clash with the Member for Upper Bann. Quite often, we have exchanged opinions on the broader issue of post-primary transfer. I certainly take on board what the Member has said.
His own experience, as he has indicated, shows part of the complexity of the problem, which is that people can come from more or less exactly the same background, be born in the same street and go to the same school, but, sometimes, react differently to the system. Some may overcome difficulties, but others be held back by them. It is about trying to reach those people. I am making the general point that, clearly, the wider issue of post-primary transfer will be, principally, for the wider independent review.
One concern of mine is that I and others have, at times, been interviewed after a particular report has come out about issues such as deprivation and education, and there is a tendency for the media to have a nice, half-hour debate and get a few phone-ins on the issue of transfer because they know that there are very strong opinions in the community. My concern in relation to that is that, in many ways, it misses an opportunity. Any education expert will tell you that the principal intervention, the critical intervention, that will change young people's lives has to be early intervention. It is a fact that we are seeing many children who, when they first walk through the primary-school gates, are already behind many of their peers. It is about how we tackle that, particularly by having early intervention.
To take an example that, despite our differences, I and the former Minister would agree on, we have seen the success of the nurture programme, which is targeted at young children in primary schools. My point in relation to that, without prejudging the outcome of any panel, is that the best interventions are those that are made at the earliest stages in children's education. That is why I am conscious that we should not get sidetracked. It would be very easy, across the Chamber or in a TV studio, to have a lengthy debate on the issue of post-primary transfer. To some extent that would also have the negative impact that some of the most critical issues tend to get ignored.
I commend the Minister on his choice of the expert panel, but it strikes me that he already knows a lot of the answers and findings that it is going to publish. He, quite rightly and more than once, pointed out the link between underachievement and poverty and socio-economic background. Therefore, as regards the terms of reference for the expert panel, the cooperation and collaboration of other Departments — this will run across Health and Justice because of young offenders and looked-after children in particular — and the boarder links with the anti-poverty strategy, what comfort can he give the House about flexibility and cooperation across ministerial portfolios?
Certainly, we can make the terms of reference available to Members. Broadly speaking, I think that there will be buy-in across Departments on this. Probably the principal role will be for the evidence that is submitted, and there is certainly no bar on that. The panel, to some extent, will have free reign to decide who it wants to hear from. I suspect everybody will submit evidence, but the panel will choose who it invites to its hearings. It is not really my role to interfere with that. I think that, across the board, there is a realisation that a level of cross-cutting is required to make an impact on educational achievement in the same way as education, itself, drives a range of other issues. What happens in education will have an impact on the justice system and health further down the line, and Education has a very strong relationship with the Economy Department. There are linkages, and I think that they have been recognised throughout the system. One area that I presume we will look at, as part of this, is where we might have a more joined-up approach between Departments.
I, too, welcome the Minister's statement and the appointment of the expert panel, because the importance of education in creating opportunities has to be recognised. Minister, in answer to a question that I asked in February, you highlighted absenteeism as a major contributory factor to education issues, in particular, in Ballyloran ward, where 43% of post-primary school pupils had less than 85% attendance. In Antiville, that figure was 25%, and, in Craigy Hill, it was 27%. Can you assure me that the panel will have full access to all your departmental officials and the support and cooperation of other relevant Departments so that we can get to the bottom of the wide range of issues that contribute to educational under-attainment — weak community infrastructure and the need for long-term community support; limited numbers of educational welfare officers and their limited powers; and limited early years provision — and thereby address educational underachievement in communities?
I thank the Member for his question. The Member raises a very useful wider point, which is one of the reasons why, for balance, those from a community background are included. It is not simply about what happens in the classroom and at home. It is about creating a wider culture of a desire for education and support for education. That is critical.
The panel will have complete access to anything within Education. Within my remit, there will be no closed doors, and, indeed, there will be support from the secretariat side, which will not require a large amount of people. I think that three members of departmental staff will be working directly on it to provide any administrative backup. If there are any questions that they want to ask, they will be free to look in any door in the Department. I cannot give the assurance for any government agencies beyond the Department of Education, but I cannot see any reason why there would be any obfuscation or blocking from any other government body, Department or agency to the work of the panel.
I thank the Minister for his statement and for his engagement with the youth representatives from the Northern Ireland Youth Forum yesterday. The Minister will know that without enough food or the right food, children's educational underachievement will continue. Hunger and malnutrition affect a child's ability to concentrate, to take in and retain new information and make progress in their learning, and we know that that is happening across Northern Ireland. Will the terms of reference and scope of the panel include food insecurity, food poverty and the impact of austerity, as well as the continuation and expansion of free school meal payments to ensure that children have at least one good meal per day?
A wider piece will need to be done on that. From memory, I do not think that there is a direct reference to food in the terms of reference, but the wider context around socio-economic status and poverty is well made. The panel is completely free to make its own recommendations. As the Member will know, there has been support from the Executive for the continuation of payments over the summer. The Education Authority's Youth Service Eat Well, Live Well programme is critical and has directly supported some of the most vulnerable children.
Obviously, free school meals will continue. A wider issue has to be looked at on a cross-departmental basis. We provided a quick, one-off fix, if you like, for summer 2020. The lead Department, which is the Department for Communities, has the principal responsibility for vulnerable families. One of the areas that will need to be looked at on a cross-departmental basis is what level of support we can give, particularly to families, as we move ahead to summer 2021 and beyond. We produced short-term fixes for COVID. We need to look now at longer-term fixes. Although my Department does not have principal responsibility for that, we will be very happy to cooperate and work with the relevant Department on that.
I thank the Minister for his statement. The truth is that working-class pupils have been failed for far too long: Protestants, Catholics and neither. What correlation does the Minister believe exists between poverty, deprivation and educational underachievement? What measures does he support to tackle that? How does the Minister believe that those underachievers will be safe when returning to school if he does not believe that they should be wearing a mask in school in the middle of a health pandemic?
I commend the Member. At least, he did not suggest the elimination of the Kulak class as one of the potential solutions to underachievement. There is undoubtedly a link between socio-economic issues, which is highlighted front and centre in the terms of reference and in NDNA. That is one of the areas that will be tackled.
On the specifics of what the exact arrangements for the return to school will be, none of this is particularly new. In any guidance that was issued, particularly around health issues, the position of the Chief Medical Officer, the Department of Health and the Public Health Agency was taken into account. That was directly reflected. Indeed, the advice on what children need to do and do not need to do and what preparations they need to make follow absolutely consistently the position of the Public Health Agency and, indeed, are supported by the Public Health Agency.
I am not a doctor, and I suspect that the honourable Member is not one either, so I would l tend to bow —.
I appreciate that it goes a bit beyond the statement, but, from a sedentary position, the Member raised the difference between a classroom and a bus. It is noticeable, for example, that, in the arrangements for public transport that have been put in place by the Executive, in line with, again, the health considerations, anybody under the age of 13 is exempt from wearing a mask. It is also the case that school transport is not included in the requirement to wear a mask. Neither I nor the Member have a direct public health background, particularly not to the same expertise of the Public Health Agency. The guidance is, in part, driven by the fact the vulnerability of children, particularly younger children, is much lower than adults. There is also an expectation that it is not realistic to expect young children, particularly primary-school children, to sit with a mask on all day. That it is not particularly controllable. Any advice that we have given has been entirely compatible with the advice of the Public Health Agency, and we have worked alongside it. If the Public Health Agency of the Department of Health said, "There is emerging evidence, and we insist that a particular measure is taken", there would be no problem from our point of view in taking that measure. What we cannot do is to go off and make judgements on health issues through solo runs. We will be guided by the science and the medicine. That is why there is a distinction in that.
As I said, we have worked closely with the Public Health Agency to develop and put out the guidance that has been issued to date. The safety of our pupils and staff is paramount.
The Minister's statement refers to "greater obstacles" and barriers that some children must overcome to achieve their potential. I daresay that not having a school place four weeks prior to the start of term is a fairly significant obstacle and barrier. Will the Minister tell us how the expert panel will look particularly into the systemic failings for pupils with special educational needs?
This is about taking a wider strategic view rather than simply reacting to the issues of the day. It is important that a report has been done in the Education Authority on the systemic failures. Some of the implementation of the measures in that report was, in many ways, delayed by COVID, but it is being acted on. Indeed, the Member will know, because it has been said, that there will be an oversight committee in which the permanent secretary of the Department will work directly with the Education Authority.
While the operational responsibility for placements lies with the Education Authority, we have been working with it. From a starting position of roughly a month ago, when there were nearly 300 unplaced children, those numbers have been brought down to 50. That is 50 too many, but we continue to work on that, and I hope that those figures will be better and, indeed, will have further improved by the end of this week.
Minister, given that only half the number of young people on free school meals went to university compared to those who are not entitled to free school meals, will you commit to prioritising that issue in the ongoing review of the 14- to 19-year-old strategy, in partnership with the Minister for the Economy?
Certainly, I think that we need to see where social deprivation is impacting on university places. There is a need to ensure that we have a 14- to 19-year-old strategy that is fit for purpose. With university places and the commitments that the Executive will be looking at about restarting the economy after COVID, one of the things that should worry us all is not just the general employment situation but, particularly, the impact on youth unemployment and, indeed, the job opportunities that are likely to be there for young people in the very near future. Consequently, that will be a driver in what support is given to universities and apprenticeships, and that has to be born in mind. We should not kid ourselves that this problem is unique to Northern Ireland. We can see distinctions in different jurisdictions. A key focus of the panel is to try to tackle that underachievement and improve things.
When will principals, teachers, classroom assistants, school staff, parents and pupils get clear guidance on the numbers that can attend school and the specifics of the restart programme?
Clear guidance has already been given, and irrespective of how things move on from here, the vast bulk of that guidance will remain relevant in any circumstance. Arrangements for meals, hygiene and movement around schools will all apply. I have referred to the trajectory of travel. It is undoubtedly the case that we are on a trajectory to achieve a position in which we can have a full resumption, five days a week. That will be subject to the views of the Executive and will require their approval, and I hope to move on that fairly soon. It is important that we get movement on that before the resumption of the school term.
My grandfather was orphaned, aged nine, due to a flu pandemic. His kids grew up in poverty. At 15, he began work in the local bleach green, and he worked there until he was 70. He valued education. Minister, in appointing the panel, do you recognise the importance of education to address poverty, create opportunities for our people and improve our economy?
Very much so. Education can be a great life changer and life enabler. It is the case that we need education structures that enable the progression for those opportunities to be realised. The Member referred to his grandfather. My grandparents' generation, and even my parents' generation, despite their background, their ability and their intelligence, did not have the same opportunities as my generation. The Member and I are of a similar vintage, and the opportunities that were available for our generation were greater than those offered to preceding generations. Opportunities that are available now are probably greater than they were for our generation.
We have to make sure that that constant opportunity for improvement is there. Education can be a great life changer. There are many things that can intervene in people's lives but education is the one thing that can make a big difference to and change the direction of somebody’s life. I am very cognisant of that.
Thank you, Principal Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to ask a further question. I am disappointed by some of the questioning from some of the parties. It indicates to me that there is either no understanding, a lack of understanding or they simply do not take the issue as being important. The issue is hugely important to the wider working-class and hard-to-reach communities, and we should remember that. As the Minister set out, educational attainment is a key issue that is hugely important for our young people.
Given that not every child wants to or has the ability to continue on to third-level education and university, we need to consider effective training that leads to meaningful employment. Will this piece of work lead to a joined-up strategy with the Department for the Economy and the local centres for training and employment to ensure that those young people get meaningful and long-lasting employment?
I thank the Member for his comments and the remarks that he made. I cannot pre-judge the panel's recommendations. There has to be a cognisance that this has to be looked at in a wider spectrum than simply the statistics of academic achievement.
The Member makes a good point on the opportunities that are there, both in and outside universities. That is why it is critical — I think that I referred to it in an earlier point — that, as we see a recovery of the economy, there is a level of focus on the practical support being given to young people, particularly, for example, around issues around apprenticeships. There has got to be an investment in our young people. If we are being slightly cynical with regard to what I mentioned around career pathways, often the best and most lucrative career pathways do not have a university or academic-based view. To some extent, there has got to be a level of cultural shift with regard to that.
With regard to trying to scope things, because it probably crosses the two Departments' positions, I will be very keen and will work with my colleague at Economy. That is particularly as we focus on 14 to 19 and as we focus in on issues such as digital skills and how we can ensure that young people, with regard to the careers advice they receive and their readiness for work, are taken into account, particularly in the preparation that they do through their schooling.
Minister, you mentioned the work with the Children's Commissioner in the report, but there is no doubt that it will work only if we have the buy-in from parents and support at home that has been referenced here. There are good organisations, like Parenting NI, that are involved. Have you any thoughts on who would provide the voice of parents for this?
There has been good work done, and I have tried to make things available. I did, for instance, a Zoom call as Parentkind NI had organised some representatives to speak to me, so I think that there will be a level of openness. There are established parent groups that need, probably, to have a level of direct input. However, what can be the best submission will not necessarily come from an organisation but could come from an individual. With regard to the approach that would be made, I would hope that the panel would be open to looking at any evidence that they receive from whatever source. However, it is critical that, as I mentioned, I think, in the statement, while a child is in school, on average, 13% of the time, the rest of the time is outside the school and most of that is in the home. Therefore, we are trying to get holistic solutions that involve the direct school education, home and the support of the wider community. It is critical that we get a symbiosis between those.
It is timely that I come in at this time, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. The Minister has mentioned that time out of school can be difficult, so can the Minister confirm if it was him or his office that sent an email to a teacher that confirmed that you plan to restart school full-time from September?
What has been said is that I believe that we are on a trajectory to do that. I responded that my hope would be that there could be proposals put to the Executive that would enable that to happen. That would still be my aim with regard to that. In response to, I think, Mr McNulty's question, I indicated that this will be about some of the conditions that will apply. Also, where there is a cross-cutting issue, as there will be on the issue of school transport, I will speak to ministerial colleagues and will bring forward, potentially, proposals with regard to all of those aspects. That will be done in a manner that will be able to be actioned before the start of the new term. That is certainly my aim.
One of the levels of hesitancy that was there for all of us was in not knowing close to the term what the prevailing conditions would be, for instance, with regard to community transmission. I think that we have seen, because of the measures that have been taken across all Departments, that Northern Ireland, while we can never be complacent, is in a very good place. We have now gone quite a number of days without deaths from COVID-19. That enables us to move forward, but, in doing so, I will speak to the Executive as a whole and get their approval but will also speak to individual Ministers and seek that direct medical advice to enable that to happen. The full-time return of education has to be the aim for all of us, because that is in the best interests of everyone.
Mr O'Dowd, that was a valiant effort at one hour and 25 seconds in
That concludes questions on the statement. I apologise to Miss Woods and Mr Carroll, but, unfortunately, this is not a meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee and it is set in stone that it is one hour and that is your lot.
If Members could take their ease for a few moments for a change at the top Table, the next item will be a statement from the Minister of Health. Thank you.
(The Temporary Speaker [Mr G Kelly] in the Chair)