From the day they are born some children will face significantly greater obstacles which need to be met and overcome before they are in a position to realise their full potential.
Some will manage to overcome these difficulties and others will not. These hurdles can include socio-economic background, the home environment and also a child’s exposure to Adverse Childhood Experiences.
The stark realities of educational underachievement and its links to socio-economic background have been highlighted further by the Covid-19 crisis.
This long-standing problem has been exacerbated by the interruption to school-based learning which is recognised as having a disproportionately adverse effect on those pupils already amongst the most disadvantaged.
The issue of educational underachievement, specifically the long-standing issues facing working-class Protestant boys - is one I have been actively committed to addressing since 2012.
I am therefore glad to be in a position to take this crucial work forward as now, more than ever, there is an overriding impetus to have the issue of educational underachievement addressed.
It is widely accepted that Protestant boys with Free School Meals Entitlement have consistently had one of the lowest percentage attainment levels of all pupils and this demographic is mentioned specifically in the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ document. But many children are suffering across the spectrum and I want to ensure this review will address the needs of every child, across every demographic because every child deserves hope.
I really believe that education is empowering and can allow children to realise their hopes and dreams. I’m so thankful we have so many excellent Teachers and Principals who strive to encourage, develop and inspire our children.
Finding the right action plan to tackle educational underachievement has been a priority for me since my reappointment as Education Minister in January. I have made the public commitment this will not be ‘another review’ nor is it a further piece of research; the Review Panel will produce a costed action plan to deal with this issue which I will then implement. I have also set an ambitious timescale of nine months for them to complete their work.
The Expert Panel – chaired by Dr Noel Purdy of Stranmillis College and made up of expert educationalists and community leaders - will commence work in September with their final report scheduled for completion by the end of May 2021.
I want to thank the panel members personally for their service and they are no doubt cognisant of the historic opportunity they have to change many young lives in NI.
Given the wide range of issues which impact upon educational underachievement, the Panel will seek the views of schools, parents and the wider sector thereby giving voice to those stakeholders and highlighting the important role played by families, parents and communities in addressing the issue.
Schools are largely responsible for children’s academic learning but, alongside the vital support of the community, children learn some of their most important lessons at home which provides an essential foundation for schools to build upon.
The Panel will no doubt consider the support mechanisms that can be put in place to help families and, by extension, nurture and aid children’s learning.
It is my strongly-held belief that every child in Northern Ireland, regardless of their community or socio-economic background, deserves a real chance in life and I am determined that no child should suffer the burden of circumstance in determining his or her outcomes.
I am committed to doing all I can to improve these results, for everyone. This is an issue which unites us, regardless of our political affiliation or constitutional preference.
I believe the Panel has the potential to significantly improve the outcomes for thousands of children and young people in Northern Ireland. We cannot, nor should we, delay any further in expediting this incredibly important work.
Peter Weir MLA is Northern Ireland's Education Minister