Amid two years of disrupted learning, agendaNi provides a broad overview of the state of play in education.
Appointed June 2021, Michelle McIlveen MLA was chosen by short-lived DUP leader Edwin Poots MLA to replace Peter Weir MLA as Minister for Education. A former teacher of history and politics, McIlveen has previously served as a Junior Minister, Minister for Regional Development, and Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
However, now DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson MP has indicated that he will make further adjustments to his ministerial team in September. Speaking with agendaNi, he said: “I do want to make some further changes at ministerial and at Assembly level, but I wanted time to talk to colleagues, to have a sense of their aspirations and of their interests.
“I want to spend the month of August focusing in on the changes that I want to make. However, I am not in a position, at this stage, to predict what those will look like.”
As such, McIlveen’s tenure in the education portfolio could be relatively short-lived.
Totalling £2,323 million, the Department of Education’s opening resource budget for 2021/2022 is broken down as:
- £2,083 million in funding for schools and students;
- £97.6 million for Education Authority earmarked budgets;
- £27.6 million for other non-departmental public bodies;
- £10.9 million for other education services (including funding for third-party organisations);
- £32.8 million for Early Years Provision;
- £33.5 million for youth (mainly comprising mainly budgets for the Education Authority’s Youth Services Programme);
- £32.7 million on Department of Education costs;
- £4.8 million for NDNA commitments; and
- £103.3 million in Covid-19 funding commitments.
Programme for Government 2021 (draft)
A public consultation on the Programme for Government (PfG) draft Outcomes Framework 2021 ran from late January to late March 2021. The first of nine strategic framework outcomes contained within the draft is ‘Our children and young people have the best start in life’.
Acknowledging the correlation between early life experiences and future health and wellbeing, this outcome focuses on “ensuring all out children and young people grow up in a society which provides the support they need to achieve their potential”.
For children and young people, the PfG states, this is about providing access to high quality education and instilling skills to facilitate better life choices, while also ensuring “good health, quality physical environments with space to play, opportunities for cultural and artistic expression and to make a positive contribution to society, and protection from violence and harm”.
Key priority areas across this outcome, therefore, include:
- access to education;
- capability and resilience;
- early years; and
- skills and attainment.
Within access to education, objectives include mitigating resourcing pressures, adopting a strategic approach to planning, and “supporting our education sector, including integrated and shared education”.
Similarly, within the skills and attainment priority, aims include delivering a high-quality curriculum, enhancing careers advice delivery, improving educational attainment and opportunities, tackling persistent underachievement, and facilitating access to the curricula for children with additional needs, such as those with special educational needs and newcomer children whose first language is not English.
Free School Meals
As identified in A Fair Start, statistics indicate that in each school, further education, and higher education, “boys, especially those entitled to Free School Meals (FSME) from both sides of the community divide, are underachieving”.
A total of 28.4 per cent of all pupils, or 97,631 students were entitled to free school meals, with almost three-quarters availing of them on school meal census day 2020/2021.
According to School Leavers Data for 2019/2020, only 50.5 per cent of male school leavers entitled to free school meals achieved >5 GCSEs at A* to C, including maths and English, while 60.9 per cent of their female counterparts did likewise. Overall, significantly fewer school leavers entitled to free school meals (55.7 per cent) achieved >5 GCSEs at A* to C, including maths and English when compared with the average for all school leavers (76.2 per cent).
Destinations of school leavers
In 2019/2020, a majority of school leavers entered into higher (47.9 per cent) or further education (29.2 per cent). A further 8.7 per cent entered employment and 9.5 per cent went into training. However, 2.8 per cent entered unemployment and the destinations of an additional 2.0 per cent is unknown.
Teacher workforce statistics published by the Department of Education and NISRA for 2020/2021 indicate that there are 20,410 teachers in Northern Ireland, 16,374 are full-time and 4,036 are part-time. This represents an increase of 506 teachers when compared with 2019/2020. Overall, 77.2 per cent of teachers are female.
A Fair Start
Following the New Decade, New Approach agreement, in July 2020, then Education Minister Peter Weir appointed an Expert Panel on Educational Underachievement to explore examine the correlation between socioeconomic disadvantage and educational underachievement. The independent panel was tasked with proposing recommendations as well as a costed action plan.
In May 2021, A Fair Start, the final report and action plan of the Expert Panel was submitted to the Education Minister and subsequently endorsed by the Executive. The panel’s objectives were to:
- explore correlation between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background;
- examine the “long-standing issues facing working-class, Protestant boys”, and produce specific actions to alleviate these;
- publish an interim report;
- create an action plan for change to “ensure all children and young people, regardless of background are given the best start in life”; and
- estimate the cost of action plan implementation.
Having conducted its work between September 2020 and May 2021, the final report is unambiguous in determining: “There has been almost unanimous agreement that addressing educational underachievement brought about as a consequence of social-economic disadvantage is wider than education alone and if 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 the route out of poverty.”
Reflecting on the written and oral evidence it received, the panel allocated actions across eight key areas.
- Redirecting the focus to Early Years.
- Championing emotional health and wellbeing.
- Ensuring the relevance and appropriateness of curriculum and assessment.
- Promoting a whole community approach to education.
- Maximising boys’ potential.
- Driving forward Teachers’ Professional Learning (TPL).
- Supporting the professional learning and wellbeing of school leadership.
- Ensuring Interdepartmental collaboration and delivery.
Replete with 47 cross-departmental actions across each of these eight areas, A Fair Start asserts: “We believe the actions set out in this Action Plan are capable of making a significant, long-lasting impact on children’s learning now and for the foreseeable future however, this can only be achieved if we invest appropriately and significantly in education for the long-term.”
Welcoming the final report, Weir thanked the panel chair and members, outlining: “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… No child should suffer the burden of circumstance in determining his or her outcomes. The Northern Ireland 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.”
Therein lies the challenge. Whichever politician assumes responsibility for the education portfolio in the remaining months of this Executive’s mandate and in the lifetime of its predecessor will be challenged to lead on the transformation agenda, deliver on the PfG commitments and A Fair Start actions, and secure the future of education amid “many competing priorities”.