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Education Minister Peter Weir has today announced the appointment of an Expert Panel to examine the links between educational underachievement and social disadvantage.

The panel has been established under the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement which set out the requirement for an expert group to examine and address links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background, including the long-standing issues facing working-class, Protestant boys.

The chair and five panel members are: Dr Noel Purdy, Stranmillis University College; Mary Montgomery; Principal, Belfast Boys Model School; Kathleen O’Hare, retired Principal, Hazelwood Integrated College and former Principal of St Cecilia’s College; Joyce Logue, Principal of Longtower Primary in Derry/Londonderry; Jackie Redpath, Chief Executive, Greater Shankill Partnership and Professor Feyisa Demie, Honorary Professor, Durham University.

Speaking in the Assembly the Minister said: “I have been involved in the issue of educational underachievement, in particular for Protestant boys in receipt of free schools meals, since 2012. I have been passionate about addressing this persistent problem ever since.

“Every child in Northern Ireland, regardless of their community background, deserves a real chance in life. From birth, some children will face significantly greater obstacles which need to be overcome before they are in a position to realise their full potential. Currently some manage to overcome these barriers and others do not.

Since taking office at the start of this year I have been committed to establishing an Expert Panel as soon as possible. I believe this issue is simply too important to ignore.”

In 2017/18, only 48.6% of Free School Meal entitled (FSME) school leavers achieved the benchmark of five or more GCSEs (A*-C), including English and Maths. While this figure has increased by over 22% in the last 12 years, the equivalent for non-FSME school leavers was 78.1% with a 19.6% increase over the same period.

The Panel will engage with organisations which have experience of the issues associated with educational underachievement. This includes parents and children as well as the wider education sector, government, the voluntary and community sector, business representative organisations and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People.

Concluding, the Minister said:Despite, the Covid-19 pandemic, I have remained committed to establishing this review panel and enabling them to start their work and now I have also set an ambitious timescale of nine months for the work. They will start work in September and I have tasked them to produce a final report by the end of May 2021.

“I believe the Panel has the potential to significantly improve the outcomes for thousands of children and young people in Northern Ireland.”