This is an important day and A Fair Start is an important report, which delivers on a “New Decade New Approach” commitment and one which I am personally proud to endorse.
Within the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement, there is 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”.
For a number of years, addressing educational underachievement has been something I have been personally committed to and Assembly members will be aware of this. I am thrilled today to have this report in my hands and want to commit to the Assembly that this will not be another report to simply sit on the shelf but rather action on its implementation will start today.
After nine months work, the panel launched its report today from Dundonald High School and I can think of no better location from which to do so this morning. Serving the people of East Belfast and further afield for many years, this school has almost 600 pupils, 50% of which are entitled to free school meals with a similar proportion of children with special educational needs. Dundonald High School has made considerable progress over the last number of years under the leadership of Ken Perry and has benefited from the support provided by the Department of Education and Education Authority as it continues to serve its community.
Today’s report will be of interest and value to schools like Dundonald High School whose pupils and families continue to face many challenges both educationally and economically.
The Expert Panel’s report is about investing in our children’s future and providing them with the confidence, knowledge and skills they need to progress in life. Alongside these important attributes are “aspiration” and “opportunity”. The two go hand in hand. Theodore Roosevelt once said “Believe you can and you are halfway there”. We must endeavour to instil this confidence into our children,
As a society, we must encourage our children and young people that there are opportunities for every child, from every family and from every background. We must all set a positive example to our young people to follow. Parents, families, communities all have a part to play in ensuring that our children seize every opportunity offered to them because early investment in a child’s life can reap significant rewards later in life.
The Expert Panel on educational underachievement conducted its work from September 2020 to May 2021 and during that time, heard from a wide range of stakeholders including educationalists, parents and families, children and young people, policy makers, political and business representatives and the voluntary and
community sector. A broad range of views was expressed on the significant and long lasting issues affecting many learners. The panel highlights the commitment, dedication and enthusiasm, which exists both inside and outside the education system to enable all learners to give of their best and to reach their full potential.
During the oral evidence sessions, the Expert Panel met an astounding total of 344 individuals across 24 days from September 2020 to February 2021. Their engagement sessions included six regional sessions in the areas of Ballymena, Belfast, Cookstown, Derry/Londonderry, Enniskillen and Newry. These were conducted virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
There was almost unanimous agreement that addressing educational underachievement brought about as a consequence of social-economic disadvantage is wider than education alone and if (as a society) we are serious about wanting to see fundamental change for the benefit of our most disadvantaged, everyone in Northern Ireland must prioritise education and learning as a route out of poverty. This means placing equality of opportunity at the centre of everything we do. In doing so not only will all learners benefit, society as a whole will benefit.
The report entitled “A Fair Start” has identified eight key areas within which it has identified 47 actions for change. The Key Areas are:
- 1) RedirectingthefocustoEarlyYears.
- 2) Championing Emotional Health and Wellbeing.
- 3) Ensuring the relevance and appropriateness of Curriculum and Assessment.
- 4) Promoting a whole community approach to education.
- 5) Maximisingboys’potential.
- 6) DrivingforwardTeachersProfessionalLearning.
- 7) Supporting the professional learning and wellbeing of school leadership.
- 8) EnsuringInterdepartmentalcollaborationanddelivery.
The Action Plan proposes a range of actions to support children from birth and throughout their Early Years up to and including the time they start school. It
intentionally spans the next five years and beyond because these are strategic issues which require long-term political commitment and financial support. I have already signaled my clear support and willingness to do all I can at the Executive table to see this action plan fully realised.
The Action Plan prioritises Early Years and I believe that the thirteen actions outlined are essential in enabling children to be ready to start school. There is significant research to support the need to refocus on early years because if we do not address children’s needs early, many young children will start formal schooling at a major disadvantage, both educationally and socially to their peers.
The actions outlined will mean that parents and families will be more knowledgeable about their child’s development and how to support it and there will be a clear and seamless pathway available to all children from birth to four years of age. This will provide the vital basis for the Foundation Stage of the Curriculum. The investment is significant, ranging from £6 million initially to almost £50 million per annum within 5 years.
The report also gives prominence to emotional health and well-being - an issue which
has affected so many people over the last 18 months, exacerbated of course by the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is welcome to see that the panel has referenced the significant investment which the Minister for Health and I have made in emotional health and well-being support of £6.5 million pounds per annum as well as the proposal to build on my investment in Nurture Units as a result of their continued success.
The panel makes reference to the Northern Ireland Curriculum which has been in place since 2007. It acknowledges that its design is broadly sound, but suggests that teachers need on-going support and training to understand the important principles of the curriculum and the assessment which underpins it. This is in keeping with previous Education and Training Inspectorate reports.
The panel has proposed a number of important actions to address this including rationalising assessment from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 3 and looking afresh at how English, maths and digital skills are assessed at Key Stage 4.
The panel calls for my Department to take forward its planned “System Evaluation Framework” and I am happy to commit to this. As the panel acknowledges, this will illustrate at system level, the range of ways in which schools support learners as they progress through their education, providing additional information such as the context of the school, the challenges which learners attending face and the value-added which
has been provided. This will tell a much broader story of success than attainment alone, which too often has focused solely on narrow measures of success.
I concur also with the panel’s view of the central role of parents and families in supporting their child’s learning before, during and after the fourteen years of formal education. You may remember that in my statement in July last year, I said that a child will spend approximately 13% of their waking hours at school up to age 18 which means 87% of their time will be spent out of school at home.
Parents and families need help to do this. Particularly those whose confidence has been impacted by their own educational experience and whose ability to support their children’s learning is hindered by their own adverse circumstances.
The panel has therefore recommended that my Department should build on the highly effective Extended Schools Programme in order to incentivise schools to work more collaboratively with the communities they serve. In what is being termed a new “Reducing Educational Disadvantage” or “RED” programme, the emphasis will be on a new place-based approach to learning, where communities and schools work together as partners in education to enable our children and young people to excel in their educational journey. I am content to direct my officials to take this important work forward at pace.
As required by their Terms of Reference, the panel has proposed specific interventions to help support boys in their learning. As the report outlines, “It is clear from the statistics both in school, Further Education and Higher Education that boys, especially those entitled to Free School Meals from both sides of the community divide, are underachieving”.
If we consider the recent unrest over the “NI Protocol” together with the impact which twelve months of lockdown can have on our young people, we can see how important positive role models are. This, together with the provision of appropriate support and opportunities for young men in particular, if they feel that their voice is not being heard,
is so important and the actions in the Action Plan reflect this. The panel has therefore proposed specific interventions to help support boys in their learning and to maximize their potential.
Teachers and other education professionals also need significant and on-going support throughout their career, with clear pathways for them to follow, allowing them to excel at teaching and learning and also to develop appropriate leadership skills if they aspire to become middle and senior managers capable of leading multi-faceted teams.
If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us one thing, it is how challenging the skill of teaching can be, how valuable our teachers are and how much we need to cherish them for all that they do. This is why greater investment in the professional development of our school teachers and school leaders also forms part of the panel’s report.
The panel’s report also highlights the importance of effective collaboration across the public sector, breaking down departmental silos and co-designing policies with a child- centred focus and from the perspective of the family as a whole. Covid-19 has presented the public sector with many significant challenges, particularly the education sector. But it has also shown what can be done when decisions have to be
made quickly when there is a justified need. I genuinely believe that the public sector has risen to that challenge in a way which many of us could not have expected and it is important to maintain that momentum.
This rapid approach to problem solving and delivery of services through flexible working for staff to meet unprecedented challenges forms a template for how things should be done in future.
I concur with the panel that the actions set out in the Action Plan are capable of making a significant, long-lasting impact on children’s learning now and for the foreseeable future. Whilst the scale of the challenges – both in policy and financial terms are very
significant, investment in education from early years onwards is vital to Northern Ireland’s economic recovery in the long term.
I would like to formally thank the panel chair and members (Noel Purdy, Joyce Logue, Mary Montgomery, Kathleen O’Hare and Jackie Redpath) for this significant and detailed report which reflects the many hours of interviews, oral evidence sessions and submissions which they received as part of their engagement process. All of this carried out during a global pandemic. I think the combination of their teaching and research experience, community and family partnerships together with their skills and knowledge makes this report unique by ensuring that these actions are challenging, cross-cutting and pragmatic.
It is my belief that every child in Northern Ireland, regardless of their community background will benefit from the delivery of this action plan. A chance to realise their hopes and dreams for the future and one that they will be encouraged, nurtured and developed towards. As I said last year, this is not an area that divides us; rather one which unites us, regardless of our political affiliation or constitutional preference.
Educational underachievement is an area of policy which many have endeavoured over recent years to change, but despite numerous policy interventions and significant financial investment, it has remained stubbornly entrenched. This is due, at least in part, to its link with disadvantage which in turn links to poverty. For that reason there is clear significance to Minister Hargey’s publication in March of the Anti-Poverty Expert Panel Report and the outworking of that report.
No child should suffer the burden of circumstance in determining his or her outcomes. The NI Executive has considered and endorsed “A Fair Start” Final Report and Action Plan with the expectation that budget will be considered at the appropriate time. This will not be an easy task and there will be many competing priorities. But as Winston Churchill once said, "I never worry about action...only inaction."
I hope members will join me in endorsing this report and giving every child and young person in Northern Ireland “A Fair Start”.