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Education was the number one issue in NI Assembly Election

Published 13/05/2016

Our last article on public views regarding education as the NI Assembly election approached, looked at the evidence suggesting that parents are demanding more consultation in terms of education planning.

This was based on our BIG100 (i.e. 100 Hours) online poll in February which brought 2,886 individual responses.

Further LucidTalk surveys have been following trends in opinion and have asked people to rate public services in Northern Ireland. In our March Tracker Poll of our representative Northern Ireland Opinion Panel only 48% gave education a 'mild favourable' rating, with most of these judging the service 'Fairly good'.

But overall 52% of respondents (and NB our panel is reflective of NI opinion) currently think the NI education service is less than good. These were all worse ratings than the previous month, and any company worth its salt would be very concerned if its products were similarly viewed by consumers. There is no excuse for complacency in the public sector if the people who use services funded by the taxpayer show overall dissatisfaction with them.

However, it’s worth noting that education was by no means bottom of that NI public services rating question in our pre-NI Assembly 'Tracker' polls - that 'honour' belonged to the Department of Regional Development with Northern Ireland's infrastructure being viewed as requiring significant improvement (especially in Belfast!). But the problems with education are perceived as being more urgently in need of political focus, it seems.

Our LucidTalk March and April Tracker Polls also found that education was the top issue concerning the public during the recent Assembly election campaign. This is significant as the Health Service nearly always tops the 'issues' list in election campaigns. Perhaps the NI public are responding to John F Kennedy, who said “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education.”

Education provokes political and ideological debate more than any other public service.

The rise of education as a major issue in the recent NI Assembly election campaign no doubt reflects public concerns over the service, and a feeling that the system and structures need serious attention.

In addition we have all seen the many news articles describing the fragile economic state of the education system. Just last month, before the election, school leaders from across all sectors united to send a distress call to the Education Minister over the most recent budget changes. They warned that the quality of pupils’ school experience could be severely affected, with potential staff redundancies and a reduced curriculum.

Sam Fitzsimmons, Head of Communications at the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) said the situation comes as no surprise, after the IEF’s public engagement project revealed widespread concerns about education among voters: “The Fund has held a series of public meetings over the past few years to discuss a broad range of education issues and it’s clear parents, schools and communities want to see action to address many outstanding problems - including the transfer process, the budget crisis and the number of empty desks draining the system of resources.”

A recent LucidTalk opinion poll, commissioned by the IEF, clearly showed an appetite for rationalising school provision as a way of tackling financial problems. A representative sample of 1,094 people across NI was asked to prioritise a list of actions which might be taken in the face of pressures on the education budget. As the table below shows amalgamating schools, including cross-sectoral mergers, was the most popular choice across all demographic groups.

In another piece of research, a cross-party panel of MLAs was questioned by LucidTalk researchers late last year and asked for their views on systemic and structural reform of the education service. Replies included comments such as “The structure is overly fragmented”, “There is a lot of waste at the moment; we need one system that is efficient”, “Reform has the potential to save money” and “There needs to be one state education system…”

Sam Fitzsimmons of the IEF said: “A single system of common schools surely makes economic and social sense. President Obama on his latest visit to London commented that integrated education is a real symbol of progress towards a normalised community in Northern Ireland. Many of the political parties seem to be coming round to that point of view; now following the NI Assembly election we need to see political leaders with the will to turn words into deeds and deliver progress.”

This article was collated by Bill White, Managing Director of Belfast polling and market research company LucidTalk, with assistance from the Integrated Education Fund (IEF). You can follow LucidTalk and the IEF on Twitter: @LucidTalk and @IEFNI

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