Underachievement replacing selection as Stormont’s main education theme

At the DUP conference last month, the party published a paper entitled No Child Left Behind, a study into educational underachievement in Northern Ireland. The document was researched and written by the North Down party councillor, Peter Martin, who consulted with many educationalists ahead of producing the paper.

The report can be accessed via the link at the bottom of this article.

Peter Martin’s paper is a welcome addition to the body of work being developed on the theme of tackling educational underachievement. It should help advance the debate beyond simply repeating fixed positions on academic selection, focusing instead on proposals based on the core principle of treating all of our children equally. Being serious about that as an objective, of not leaving any children behind, compels us to examine not only what existing practices make that outcome more (or less) likely but what additional proposals can and must be considered to close the gaps.

In the DUP document, there are short chapters addressing themes ranging from ‘Why are early learning interventions so important?’ to ‘The impact of Socio-Economic Factors’ and a section entitled ‘Issues to consider’ which looks at parental aspirations and attitudes and the absence of male role models for working class boys. Further sections explore the issues of Attendance and Punctuality, Quality of Teaching and Learning, Leadership and Governance in Schools, Piecemeal adoption of Best Practice and Attachment Disorders.

The report noted both the poor performance of working class Protestant boys in our system and the fact that Catholics form the vast majority of working class boys failing to secure basic qualifications before leaving school, a theme which I have written about on Slugger recently.


All in all, I found it an informing read, signalling that the DUP are serious about exploring substantive issues that can either exacerbate or help alleviate educational underachievement.

Of course, many will contend that the elephant in the room remains academic selection, and the manner in which it contributes towards underachievement by making harder the job of those tasked with doing the heavy lifting in our education system- ie the school leaders and teachers in the non-grammar sector. Proposals aimed at dealing with that reality will be watched with interest in the time ahead, not least since the Minister’s few major pronouncements to date have tended to focus more on the process in which the transfer procedure is conducted for aspiring grammar school pupils than on the consequences for those not making the grade(s).

The meaty part of the report is the final Recommendations section, which contains a set of concrete proposals and actions. These are listed below:

  • Ensure that early intervention in pupil non-attendance is adopted by schools as a priority issue.
  • Ensure a rigorous absence policy is adopted by schools.
  • A fresh look at the Leadership training provided for Pre and Post Primary Principals, especially in areas of socio-economic deprivation.
  • Boards of Governors should consider asking Principals to undertake the Ron Mirr Self Evaluation Questionnaire for their school.
  • Consideration to be given to a Northern Ireland Educational Underachievement Conference which would facilitate the sharing of best practice amongst school leaders.
  • A social media based literacy campaign could encourage children and parents to read together.
  • Address low parental expectations and aspirations through a specific ongoing educational campaign.
  • Encourage partnerships between Primary schools in areas of socio- economic need and Post primary schools where male pupils interact and read with Primary pupils.
  • Consideration should be given to the future of the Nurture Unit Project which is currently being formally evaluated it terms of its impact. Continuation of such a project could be a valuable and fiscally sound early intervention for attachment disorders.
  • Schools should be encouraged to adopt further links with both the Community, Voluntary and Business sectors. This could facilitate sponsorship or joint working on specific projects.

The paper is notable for being low on cost, focusing more on highlighting effective practice and approaches in relation to school leadership in the expectation that disseminating and successfully replicating these practices can have a positive impact. Given that Martin is a DUP elected representative, it is understandable that he would avoid putting himself in the position of proposing actions which the Minister might struggle to fund at a time when budgets are tight.

During the past week, Stormont’s Education Committee met to agree the terms of reference for its planned enquiry into educational underachievement which will run during 2017.

Earlier this year, the DUP’s Emma Lyttle Pengelly established an All-Party Group on Educational Underachievement in the months leading up to the Assembly election, writing to all schools in January 2016 asking for submissions with the promise that a report would be written up inclusive of those ideas. That report has yet to materialise but I would expect it to be published soon.

Slowly but surely, we are moving the education debate at the political level onto the substantive matter of actions and interventions which can have a measurable impact upon academic standards and levels of achievement in the widest sense, as well as specifically relating to the most vulnerable communities.

There have been a number of initiatives in recent times which have made a significant impact in terms of supporting those tasked with educating those most vulnerable to underachievement in our society.

I have written extensively about the Signature Project on Slugger before, and how its impact can be measured in terms of academic performance over the two years of its duration.

But there have been other initiatives which have received very favourable feedback regarding their effect at ground level.

Peter Martin makes reference to the Nurture Unit Project in the report as being potentially “a valuable and fiscally sound early intervention for attachment disorders”, while he also cites an Education Endowment Foundation evaluation into the effectiveness of the Accelerated Reader programme, which continues to grow in popularity across our local schools.

The provision of Family Support Hubs has been a welcome pro-active development which has enabled schools to help signpost families to support agencies once problems and difficulties have been identified or admitted to. Those with any experience of underachievement will know that the family and community context can be a critical factor contributing towards children failing to realise their full potential.

Consequently, providing a facility through which schools and other organisations can seek to help parents and families overcome difficulties is a very positive development, not least since the other go-to statutory agencies for schools are perceived by parents as being of the ‘stick’ variety- ie Education Welfare Office and Social Services.

Closing the performance gap for pupils from socio-economically deprived communities was the primary reason why Professor Robert Salisbury proposed changes to the Common Funding scheme, which sought to provide additional funding for schools with the greatest concentration of disadvantaged pupils. That was fiercely resisted by the DUP and others at the time.

While the Assembly’s Education Committee embarks on an investigation of its own into educational underachievement, it is worth remembering that the NI Audit Office produced its own report in February 2013 entitled Improving Literacy and Numeracy Achievement in Schools, and it contained numerous recommended actions of its own, including a specific recommendation on developing a shared good practice culture.

Addressing underachievement will require more than the cost-neutral cultural changes contained amidst the proposals in the DUP document, though the proposals are in themselves well conceived and worthy of consideration and action. Additional proposals such as sustaining and expanding the provision of Nurture Units in schools, exploring the potential for a new Signature Project (albeit on a smaller scale), developing and supporting a truly effective culture of sharing best practice will all require significant funding commitments at a time when the Education budget is tight. With schools already facing growing industrial action on account of the Education Minister pulling off the table the anticipated salary increase for teachers from last year, Peter Weir is likely to have a busy 2017.

The report includes a number of motivational quotes peppered throughout the document from famous individuals, including this one from Albert Einstein, which I will end with for no other reason than that it made me smile:

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.