The Department of Education is pressing ahead with implementing the recommendations of A Fair Start — a report released a year ago seeking to address academic underachievement in schools in Northern Ireland — despite the absence of an Executive and doubts over long-term funding.
The expert panel behind the report met with Education Minister Michelle McIlveen this week to hear an update on the progress.
Dr Noel Purdy from Stranmillis University, who chaired the expert panel, said they had been encouraged by the progress to date but urged continued support for the recommendations from all political parties to ensure the report is implemented in full.
It’s expected to take several years before the Fair Start recommendations are full implemented, and once that has been achieved it’s estimated it will take £73m a year from the education budget.
“As a panel we are very encouraged that progress is being made towards the implementation of the 47 actions in A Fair Start, even in the current climate of political and financial uncertainty,” he said.
“We look forward to further progress on all of the actions and continued support from all the main political parties.”
The meeting will allay some fears that the report was destined to join others gathering dust in the archives at Stormont, with the Department confirming work was continuing despite the Stormont stalemate.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education said: “Work is continuing on delivery of the actions contained within the report A Fair Start.
“In 2021/22, 22 (47%) of the 47 actions were initiated along with 10 new actions to ensure that progress could be made quickly given that this was a New Decade, New Approach commitment.
“Funding in 2022/23 is £9.45m in total, £6.6m Resource and £2.85m Capital.
“Building on the progress made in 2021/22, the Minister has approved 45 actions to be taken forward this year (39 original actions plus six new actions).
“The next progress report is due by June 30, 2022.”
The expert panel was established by former Education Minister Peter Weir to examine the links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background, and to draw up a costed action plan.
On it’s launch he said it was the most important business he had undertaken during his tenure as Minister.
“What we were tasked to do from the outset was quite different from previous reports,” said panel chair Dr Purdy.
“We have proposed costed actions over a period of six years for the NI Executive to follow, all to be overseen by the First and Deputy First Ministers.
“But it all has to work together. What we can’t afford is for Ministers to start cherry picking the easier or cheaper actions they are able to progress and leave the others behind. It all works hand in hand. The pathway to reducing the gap in educational attainment and ensuring all our children have a fair and equal start in life is there to follow.
“This is no quick fix,” he added.
“It will take time for all the elements to come together. But our expert panel has worked hard to ensure that this report is more than a sticking plaster. It’s time to get serious about addressing educational underachievement, but that’s going to require sustained financial commitment from all Executive parties.”