Appointment of an Expert Panel to Examine Links between Persistent Educational Underachievement and Socio-economic Background

Part of Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 28th July 2020.

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Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 10:30 am, 28th July 2020

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 New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement includes a requirement that:

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.