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Experts recruited to give struggling school pupils 'a real chance in life'

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Chair Dr Noel Purdy

Chair Dr Noel Purdy

Mary Montgomery

Mary Montgomery

Kathleen O’Hare

Kathleen O’Hare

Jackie Redpath

Jackie Redpath

Professor Feyisa Demie

Professor Feyisa Demie

Chair Dr Noel Purdy

The appointment of an expert panel to tackle educational underachievement in Northern Ireland has been welcomed.

Education Minister Peter Weir said he hoped the effort would give children from disadvantaged backgrounds "a real chance in life".

Creation of the panel was a requirement of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, with a particular emphasis on the long-standing issues facing working-class Protestant boys.

Commissioner for Children and Young People Koulla Yiasouma said: "I broadly welcome the minister's announcement on the formation of the panel as I believe the issue of education underachievement and social disadvantage is a significant one and my office looks forward to engaging with it."

She said the panel would also lay some ground work for the Independent Review of Education, which is also part of the Stormont deal.

SDLP education spokesman Daniel McCrossan MLA welcomed the announcement too, but said the panel must be focused on results.

"Every child across the North deserves a real chance in life, no matter where they are from," he said.

"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."

Sinn Fein education spokeswoman Karen Mullan MLA 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."

She also called on Mr Weir to 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," she said.

People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said working-class Protestant and Catholic children had been failed for too long by Stormont.

He said: "I asked the minister what connection he believes exists between poverty, deprivation and educational underachievement and measures needed to tackle it.

"Unfortunately, he didn't directly address the point.

"There's no point in the minister setting up a new body to look at underachievement if he will not look at one of the root and main causes of it - poverty."

Speaking in the Assembly yesterday, Mr Weir said: "Every child in Northern Ireland, regardless of their community background, deserves a real chance in life.

"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."

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 Longtower Primary; Jackie Redpath, chief executive Greater Shankill Partnership, and Professor Feyisa Demie, honorary professor Durham University.

Figures show that in 2017/18 just under half (48.6%) of free school meal entitled (FSME) school leavers achieved the benchmark of five or more GCSEs (A*-C), including English and maths.

This has improved by a fifth (22%) over 12 years, but is still far behind the equivalent for non-FSME school leavers at 78.1%, which also increased by 19.6% over the same period.

The new expert panel is to engage with relevant organisations, parents and children, as well as the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People.

Belfast Telegraph