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Northern Ireland's Education System Must Do Better

I am delighted that today we have published the second of our scoping papers on my priority areas of work.  Education is the service that impacts on every single child nearly every single day for at least 12 years of their lives and usually longer.  It is the service that gives children the tools they need and helps prepare them for their future.  The “Educational Inequalities and Inclusion Position Paper” outlines our core work in the area of education and identifies the main issues for children and young people in Northern Ireland.

Article 29(1) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is clear that the purpose of education is more than academic attainment when amongst other things it states that education should be directed to:

  • The development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.

The idea that the education system should adopt a whole-child approach is not a new one but it is certainly not one that we currently measure our system on.  I have been approached by too many young people, parents and educators to ignore the fact that education-related stress is a reality for an unacceptable number of children and young people.  The ability of children to achieve well at school is further compounded by high levels of mental ill-health in Northern Ireland.  It is not the role of education to address mental health, but working in partnership with other agencies they are very well placed to make a real and lasting difference.  It is important that we judge our education system on the emotional well-being of our children and young people as well as their academic attainment.

Our scoping paper attempts to outline how well the education system in Northern Ireland is meeting its international children’s rights obligations.  There is clear evidence that many groups of children are falling behind others and regardless of policy intent there is insufficient resourcing and commitment to ensure that these children get the additional support they require to have the same educational experiences as their peers.

“Here she goes again, arguing for more money at time of austerity,” and, “time to get real,” are understandable responses from those who are tasked with providing a service with insufficient funding.  And of course I do not envy their task but I do believe we must take a different approach.  Firstly, when budget cuts are required there must be a transparent process by which decisions are made with a clear assessment of the likely impacts of cuts and why it is deemed that the areas which will be cut are more acceptable than others.  However, as this report demonstrates, additional funding is required in so many areas particularly for children with additional and special needs and therefore doing more with less (no matter how scientific the processes is) can only be a short-term solution. 

If we are serious about providing a world class education system for the children of Northern Ireland, one that fulfils the promise we have made to them when signing the UNCRC, giving children the best start in life and ensuring that they develop to their maximum potential, we need to be confident that the more than £2 billion spent on education is invested in the most efficient and productive way possible. 

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has consistently reminded the Northern Ireland government of the need to accelerate integration of education, this was re-iterated in the latest Concluding Observations following its examination of the UK government’s compliance with its obligations under the UNCRC last year. The Committee recommended that government:

  •  In Northern Ireland, actively promote a fully integrated education system and carefully monitor the provision of shared education, with the participation of children, in order to ensure that it facilitates social integration;

NICCY’s work on education is outlined in the report and falls within 9 broad areas, many of which will require additional investment, which to some extent can be found in ensuring that we reduce the unnecessary costs of our divided education system.

In an interview with The Belfast Telegraph on Monday (31st July 2017) the actor Adrian Dunbar said:

“We pay millions of pounds to separate Catholic and Protestant children, and even more millions on attempting to bring them together as adults.”

I couldn’t agree with him more.

Northern Ireland’s education system should be integrated, not only on the basis of religion, but also academic ability, gender, race and disability.  Now is the time to set aside vested interests and design an education system that is based on the lessons of the last 50 years and the evidence concerning achieving the very best for all our children and young people.  They deserve nothing less.

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