Education Minister Peter Weir has announced the appointment of an expert panel to examine the links between educational underachievement and social disadvantage.
The panel was established under the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement which set out the requirement for an expert group to examine and address links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background.
The chair and five panel members are: Dr Noel Purdy, Stranmillis University College; Mary Montgomery; principal, Belfast Boys Model School; Kathleen O’Hare, retired principal, Hazelwood Integrated College and former principal of St Cecilia’s College; Joyce Logue, principal of Longtower Primary in Derry; Jackie Redpath, chief executive, Greater Shankill Partnership and Professor Feyisa Demie, Honorary Professor, Durham University.
Speaking in the Assembly Minister Weir said that he has been passionate about the problem of educational underachievement since 2012, when he worked with Protestant boys who were receiving free school meals.
“Every child in Northern Ireland, regardless of their community background, deserves a real chance in life," he said.
"From birth, some children will face significantly greater obstacles which need to be overcome before they are in a position to realise their full potential. Currently some manage to overcome these barriers and others do not.
“Since taking office at the start of this year I have been committed to establishing an expert panel as soon as possible. I believe this issue is simply too important to ignore.”
In 2017/18, only 48.6% of free school meal (FSME) school leavers achieved the benchmark of five or more GCSEs (A*-C), including English and Maths. While this figure has increased by over 22% in the last 12 years, the equivalent for non-FSME school leavers was 78.1% with a 19.6% increase over the same period.
The panel will engage with organisations which have experience of the issues associated with educational underachievement.
This includes parents and children as well as the wider education sector, government, the voluntary and community sector, business representative organisations and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People.
The minister added: “Despite, the Covid-19 pandemic, I have remained committed to establishing this review panel and enabling them to start their work and now I have also set an ambitious timescale of nine months for the work. They will start work in September and I have tasked them to produce a final report by the end of May 2021.
“I believe the panel has the potential to significantly improve the outcomes for thousands of children and young people in Northern Ireland.”
SDLP Education Spokesperson, Daniel McCrossan MLA welcomed the establishment of the panel and said it must be focused and outcome orientated.
The West Tyrone MLA said: “Every child across the North deserves a real chance in life, no matter where they are from. Education has an incredible potential to equalise and empower, but far too many children face insurmountable barriers and do not get the chance to realise their full potential. This is an injustice and it must be addressed urgently.”
“While I welcome the appointment of an excellent Expert Panel who will bring significant insight and expertise, this must not be another scathing report that sits on a shelf. This issue is simply too important to ignore. The Panel must be focused with clear outcomes and then the Minister must commit to act upon them. There is no more time to waste.”
Sinn Fein Education Spokesperson Karen Mullan MLA also welcomed the announcement and said it is "crucial that this panel goes beyond words, and outlines real and palpable actions that can be taken by the Minister to effectively address this issue".
“The panel must also face up to the clear correlation between transfer test results and social background. Countless studies into transfer tests have found that pupils from working class families are unfairly disadvantaged with limited access to additional support and resources. This early disadvantage must not be allowed to define the future of young people.
“It would be remiss of both the panel and the Minister to commit to addressing social disadvantage, while taking no steps eradicate the transfer test system."