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Children's watchdog slams educational underachievement in Northern Ireland

By Mark Bain

The education system in Northern Ireland would have folded years ago if it was a business, according to a damning report by the Children's Commissioner.

The report is Koulla Yiasouma's first statement on children's rights here since she took office in 2015.

It highlights the ongoing failure to address educational underachievement.

"Our children cannot continue in a system where how well you do in education relies on your gender, religion, race, sexuality, or whether you are rich or poor. Statistics are telling us that all of these things impact children's ability to achieve academically," the report says.

Some 94% of children at grammar schools achieve five GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and maths, as opposed to 50% of children who do not attend grammars.

Just 50% of free school meal entitled (FSME) children achieve five GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and maths compared to 78% of children who are not entitled. And only 14% of children in grammar schools are FSME as opposed to 40% in secondary schools.

The report adds: "If the education system in Northern Ireland were a business it would have folded years ago.

"There is insufficient evidence that resources are spent as well as they could be and whether the various education sectors in NI represent value for money.

"We are failing to have the honest and open conversations that set aside vested interests and put all our children at the centre of decision-making."

The report also reveals how children with special educational needs are not having their needs met. The vast majority - 79% - of statements of special educational needs are completed outside the statutory time limit of 26 weeks.

"Whenever I visit a school, particularly a primary school, children with special educational needs is the number one issue raised with me. This is also being reflected in the calls coming through to my office," said the commissioner.

Children remain the most likely age group to be in poverty here and this, Ms Yiasouma said, has an adverse impact on their educational achievement, mental and physical health, and has been the case since 2002/3 when data was first published.

She said that "27%, that's 118,000 children in Northern Ireland, are in poverty, and changes to social security are likely to increase this. So not only are we failing currently, we are set to take major backwards steps".

Ms Yiasouma also said the lack of a functioning Executive meant that nothing had been put in place to alleviate the limiting of the child tax credit to two children.

She said this "is projected to affect 2,518 children and their families in Northern Ireland this year and 11,870 by 2020. This will cost families £2,780 per child or £7m across NI this year and £33m by 2020".

"While it is clear the lack of a government is preventing improvements being made to the lives of our children and young people, there is also a history of slow progress on children's issues which pre-date the collapse and add to systemic failures in their lives," she added.

She called for a stronger voice for young people here.

"At a time when Northern Ireland is at the centre of Brexit negotiations, it is more than disappointing that we don't have a Northern Ireland voice informed by young people here to discuss how future rights, the border, funding and child safeguarding arrangements will be protected," she said. "The lack of government can no longer be used as an excuse for lack of progress."

Belfast Telegraph


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