Good morning Conference
It is a real pleasure to be here with you all once again and to have this opportunity to address you as Education Minister.
Since we last met together, Northern Ireland, and the world, has faced the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions imposed as a reaction to that pandemic.
This has been an incredibly difficult period for pupils, parents, staff and school leaders who have faced unparalleled challenges. Schools were shut. Home learning introduced. Guidelines changed as infection levels fluctuated. Each step putting strain on those affected and a need to readapt.
I would like to place on record my thanks for the patience, resilience and versatility of principals, teachers, support staff, mothers, fathers, carers, grannies and grandas as they supported our children and their children through these unprecedented times. And, of course, to the young people who rose to those challenges. Thank you so much.
When schools were forced to close, our party and our Ministers fought hard to ensure that support mechanisms were put in place for children and the most vulnerable. It was our Party and our Ministers who sought to get schools reopened at the earliest and safest opportunity. It was our Party and our Ministers who fought to ensure that our schools remained open.
I recall being personally lambasted again and again for resisting calls to shut schools. If this decision had been left in the hands of other parties, the impact on our children would have been devastating. We have already seen the impact of lockdowns on educational progress and mental wellbeing – especially on vulnerable pupils. How much worse would this have been if we had wavered on this position?
Conference, it is now clear for all to see that we were right and that we are the Party who place children, their wellbeing and their futures at the heart of our decision-making.
In the midst of everything, it is sometimes possible to forget about what has been done. I want to take a moment to remind you about what has been delivered by this Party:
- Announcing the largest ever capital investment scheme for schools in Northern Ireland to deliver 28 new post-primary schools at a cost of 794 million pounds. We have an ageing school estate and all our children deserve to be in modern, fit-for-purpose facilities.
- Doubling the number of Nurture Units, which support our most vulnerable pupils in mainstream education
- Providing an additional 149 million pounds in direct funding to schools during the pandemic Creating “Healthy Happy Minds”, a UK-first Primary School Counselling scheme with direct investment of over 9 million pounds
- Delivering the Engage programme to provide support to children coming back to school during Covid with investment of more than 46 million pounds
- Levering 700 million pounds on top of the Department’s baseline budget from the Executive to invest in our children
- Increasing by 77%, funding for children with Special Educational Needs
- Rolling out Northern Ireland’s first ever Holiday Hunger scheme
- Establishing the “period poverty” pilot for schools
- Developed schemes to celebrate the centenary of Northern Ireland and Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee
Those are just a few examples of delivery. Earlier this year, I developed and brought through a piece of legislation which I had been lobbying for, for many years. The School Age Act will provide real choice to the parents of children born in April, May and June each year and allow flexibility to the parents of premature children who would have been “young for year” if born at term. An important law which will mean that those children will not be disadvantaged in development terms.
As a Party we have sought to address the causes of Educational Underachievement. We not only commissioned the first report of its kind for Northern Ireland, but we have also implemented and funded the action points contained within the Fair Start Report. Other parties pay lip-service to Educational Underachievement; this Party takes action.
Since the Assembly election in May, Ministers have remained in post and I have continued to deliver on our manifesto promises. While other parties have claimed that nothing can be done while the Executive does not meet – I and other DUP Ministers have been hard at work delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.
We said that we would support working families. Conference, you have just heard from our panel. We recognise the need for teachers to be in our schools, for nurses to be in our hospitals, for workers to be in our offices, for those who want to continue their careers to be at their jobs - they need our support to do this. We recognise that early educational intervention is vital to the development of our children – we are taking steps to provide this on an equitable basis regardless of income. Last month I announced that my Department would deliver a minimum 22.5 hours each week of pre-school provision.
We said that we would help with the costs of school uniforms. I can advise Conference that an additional £1million has been allocated to help struggling families and I have asked officials to review the entire model to make it fit for purpose.
I applaud the work being undertaken by schools, community and voluntary groups across Northern Ireland in providing uniform hubs and other initiatives to help families but that should not be the case. During my limited time in the last Assembly term, I have put this high on the agenda and it will be a priority issue during this next mandate.
We said that we would restructure special educational needs services. I have allocated over 6 million pounds to transform educational provision for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities across Northern Ireland.
I also provided an additional 12.6 million pounds to allow the summer holiday food grant to continue – helping families in this time of need. A further 2 million pounds for the Healthy Happy Minds scheme and an additional 10 million pounds for the Engage programme.
However, Conference, further challenges lie ahead for education. Conor Murphy’s draft budget – a budget opposed by this Party – would see Education 100s of millions of pounds underfunded on key priorities. Coupled with that is the Integrated Education Act.
This is a piece of legislation, I, as Minister, opposed and which will disadvantage the 93% of our children who attend controlled or maintained sector schools. When schools begin to struggle with their budgets, I sincerely hope that questions are asked of the SDLP and Sinn Fein as to why they supported legislation they called “flawed” and why the UUP could not have joined with us to block it. This is legislation so bad it could not be amended into something fair and workable. To stand against it was not to stand against our children being educated together; but would have stopped a law that would have unfairly disadvantaged our schools and our pupils. There is considerable work that needs done to prevent the harm this legislation will do to the education sector in Northern Ireland.
During my tenure as Minister, I have taken the opportunity to visit hundreds of schools, nurseries and educational facilities right across Northern Ireland. I have met with principals, teachers, youth workers, staff and young people. I have seen their needs first hand, I have listened to their concerns face to face and I have been their strongest advocate. All of them share our desire to build a better and brighter future for our children. Again I would like to thank them for what they do – they are amazing.
We are committed to treating all schools equally and standing firm against a hierarchy of sectors.
We are committed to tackling educational underachievement and improving equality of opportunity and educational outcomes.
We want to give our children the best start in life and provide them with the tools to succeed. As a Party, their needs, not party ideology, is at the core of what we do.
As a former teacher, it has been an honour for me to have served Northern Ireland as Education Minister. While these times have been challenging, we have seen the best of our people. We have seen our pupils continuing to improve and flourish. We have seen a generosity of spirit and a determination to overcome. As Northern Ireland passes it centenary, our children, and how we educate, develop and equip them, will be the foundation for our next hundred years.
Thank you conference.