Scroll down to find out more about this issue - including a summary for children and young people, background information including the relevant Children's Rights, how we are monitoring Government and our work in addressing the issue.

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Summary for children and young people

Northern Ireland has a number of different types of school at both primary and post primary level that cater for education choices made by children and their parents and also individual learning needs of pupils.

The UNCRC makes it clear that all children should receive a good quality education that meets their needs and supports them to develop their skills, talents and abilities and reach their full potential. This includes pupils with a Special Educational Need (such as a learning or physical disability), those with English as a second language and those who are educated outside mainstream school.  It is important that government tackles these barriers to make sure all children and young people can reach their potential in education.

More information for children and young people on Education

NICCY School Boy Working

Information on education

Although every child has a right to a high quality education, some children are much less likely to reach their full educational potential due to a range of issues beyond their control. Many children in Northern Ireland, including care-experienced children, disabled children, Traveller children, those from ethnic minorities, disadvantaged backgrounds, and with additional needs, face significant educational barriers. Academic selection and separated schooling continue to exacerbate inequalities, advantage children from more affluent families, and reinforce social and religious divides.

Barriers that can hinder children’s learning and full participation in our education system include exam pressure; the cost of education; academic selection; insufficient mental health and well-being support in school; and not having a voice in school.   Some groups of children, such as those with special educational needs or newcomer pupils, may face additional specific educational barriers.

Educational inequalities have been persistent in Northern Ireland and can only be fully addressed through the right government policies and long-term funding, aimed at ensuring every child experiences their right to an effective education, and through wider transformational reform of the education system.

Relevant Children's Rights

Views from young people

NICCY Dudes Youth Panel

“We envisage an education system of top quality, that adequately prepares children and young people for their futures, that’s used as an effective resource to deconstruct the sectarian divides so heavily entrenched into our society, one that enables and supports young people in challenges in their life, and one that teaches all young people with the best educational standards, without heed or barriers from social class, religious background and cultural identity.” NICCY Youth Panel Member

Children Looking to the Clouds

“..the creation of a new, single education system which would allow us to ensure that all young people receive a world class education, enabling us to pool resources into adequate mental health provision as a result of financial savings, and bridge together young people in our deeply divided society.” NICCY Youth Panel Member

Child Boy Leaning Against a Bush

“School years were tough, no support from social workers, would have liked to move schools but didn’t have the choice.” Young care experienced person, NI

NICCY Dudes Exam Stress

“Sometimes I feel there is more focus on learning for exams than understanding the content.” Young person, NI

Commissioner Comments on ruling that UK Government’s Education Secretary ‘unlawfully scrapped children’s rights’ - Cover

“We have too many types of schools, but not enough types of learning.” Young person, NI

Monitoring Government – what is Government doing to address educational inequalities?

In 2020, an expert panel was commissioned by the Department of Education (DE) to examine the links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background.  The panel’s Final Report and Action Plan, ‘A Fair Start’, was published on 1 June 2021 and is currently in the early stages of implementation.

NICCY recognises that the long-term strategic nature of the action plan will mean that positive impacts, particularly in areas such as GCSE attainment and wellbeing outcomes, will take considerable time. We will continue to scrutinize progress made in the implementation of A Fair Start’s actions and the impact on children’s educational and wellbeing outcomes.

An Independent Review of Education, a key commitment in the New Decade New Approach (NDNA), commenced in October 2021. The two-year Review is focused on the quality, equity and sustainability of the education system and covers a range of themes across three core areas:

  • Education journey and outcomes
  • Support for settings and schools, funding and governance
  • System level design, delivery and administration.

A Review of Free School Meals (FSMs) and Uniform Grant eligibility criteria is underway in Northern Ireland.  The Review will consider different options for FSMs and uniform grants, including options for universal FSM provision for certain year groups or pupils.   Additionally, an uplift of 20% in the school uniform grant, was announced by the Education Minister in June 2022.   Although welcome, the Commissioner considers that the grant is wholly inadequate to cover school uniform costs.

Other measures to tackle educational disadvantage include an increase of £2.3m in the 2021/22 Sure Start budget to provide additional support to children and their families in disadvantaged areas.   Robust evaluation is needed to clarify the Programme’s long-term benefits, including any contribution made towards narrowing the attainment gap.

DE’s Review of Newcomer Policy was resumed in January 2022 and  work is ongoing to progress 10 proposals for change to the existing policy, associated actions and proposed high level outcomes.

Our work on educational inequalities

NICCY’s work on addressing educational inequalities has been extensive, including the provision of advice to government on a wide range of areas including educational underachievement, special educational needs provision, transformation of the education system, the cost of education and Covid.

You can find our advice papers on our publication page. We also regularly meet with relevant educational authorities, including the Department of Education and the Education Authority, to raise concerns and receive progress updates on education related issues impacting on children and young people.

NICCY’s work on educational inequalities has focused on a range of areas including:

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