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 11:15 am on 28th July 2020.

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Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 11:15 am, 28th July 2020

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.

[Laughter.]

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.