Educational Achievement: West Belfast

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly am 5:30 pm ar 4 Mehefin 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 5:30, 4 Mehefin 2024

In conjunction with the Business Office, the Speaker has given leave to Pat Sheehan to raise the matter of supporting educational achievement in West Belfast. I call Pat Sheehan, who has up to 15 minutes.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

This evening, I want to talk about educational achievement in West Belfast. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the developments that have taken place in education over the last number of years, as his two colleagues who held the Education Minister role before him certainly were. I acknowledge the contribution made by the Department through the funding provided to the West Belfast Partnership Board (WBPB) and the Full Service Community Network (FSCN).

For context, between nursery, primary and post-primary, there are 51 schools in West Belfast, including two grammar schools, five non-selective schools and one Irish-medium post-primary school. In fact, the Irish-medium post-primary school is the largest of its kind on the island of Ireland, and, as the Minister knows, it is absolutely bursting at the seams.

The fact that West Belfast is an area of high deprivation is reflected in the high number of young people who are entitled to free school meals. The average free school meal entitlement across the North at post-primary level is 27·7%; the average in West Belfast is 57·9%. At primary level, the average across the North is 28·3%, but it is more than double that in West Belfast at 59%. West Belfast also has a higher percentage of children with additional needs — just over 30% — as opposed to the regional average of 20%.

We are all aware of the strong link between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background. However, underachievement is not inevitable, and West Belfast is one area that has bucked the trend. In 2015-16, 58·1% of pupils in West Belfast received five GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths. By 2023, that figure had risen to 67·6%. That did not happen by chance, and much of the credit for the uplift must go to the West Belfast Partnership Board and, in particular, Angie Mervyn, who plays a pivotal role in that organisation and coordinates the area learning communities across West Belfast. The work that they do to boost attainment should serve as an example of good practice for others to learn from.

People will be aware of the notion that it takes a village to raise a child. Last week, I welcomed the Minister's statement that committed £20 million to a place-based initiative that will support a whole-community approach to education, a key recommendation of the 'A Fair Start' report. It is clear from the evidence that that whole-community approach to education is what has been happening in West Belfast. Arising from a West Belfast area-based Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) inspection, key priorities for development were established, including transition stages, strategic planning and quality assurance. Under the leadership of the West Belfast Partnership Board, opportunities were identified to develop a partnership approach to education with children and families at the core. A pathway of seamless transition from home or day care to nursery, then to primary and, finally, to post-primary education was established. That was important because research has identified transition years as being particularly problematic for some children.

The partnership was linked to neighbourhood renewal and to family support hubs, with everything designed to happen in the context of schools and the community working together to support each other and share best practice, leading to collaborative working to support children and families. Area learning communities were established at nursery, primary and post-primary levels, with meetings managed by the West Belfast Partnership Board. There is also a strategic steering committee that has, along with the chairs of each of the area learning communities, representatives from the Education Authority (EA), the ETI, the Education Department, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) and St Mary's University College.

As well as that collaborative working, the West Belfast Partnership Board organises an Easter school for GCSE maths and English at St Mary's University College. That is targeted at students with projected borderline C/D grades in those subjects. The Easter school lasts for four days. It involves 20 hours of intensive tuition that teachers from the local schools provide, supported by student teachers from St Mary's. In 2022-23, 63% of the young people taking part in the Easter school were entitled to free school meals. The outcome was that 77·5% of all the young people who participated in the Easter school received a grade C or above.

It does not stop there. In an attempt to make third-level education more accessible for young people from West Belfast, the Aisling Bursaries were established. Local businesses and individuals donate funds that are given to young people in third-level education at undergraduate and postgraduate level and in further education. Over the past 24 years, almost £1 million has been raised, and 1,247 young people have benefited from those bursaries.

The evidence is clear: when young people underachieve at school, they are more likely to end up unemployed, to suffer from poor health, to die young, to come to the attention of the criminal justice system or to have to deal with addiction. Tackling underachievement and maximising the opportunities available to our young people are therefore vital to improving the outcomes of our most disadvantaged young people. They are also fundamental to improving our society. That is why it is not the role of the Department of Education alone to ensure that our children enjoy the best possible opportunities. How can children achieve their full potential if they suffer from chronic ill health, come from dysfunctional families or live in unsuitable accommodation or if their additional needs are not met?

We need the Department of Education, the Department of Health, the Department of Justice, the Department for Communities and the Department for the Economy to work in collaboration to deliver for all our children and young people. The fantastic educational achievements in West Belfast and, indeed, across the North can be improved even more with greater cross-departmental collaboration. The Children's Services Co-operation Act 2015 empowers Departments and agencies to cooperate, where appropriate, to deliver services aimed at improving the well-being of children and young people. There needs to be more use of that legislation.

In 2012-13, the average percentage of pupils in West Belfast attaining five or more GCSEs, including maths and English, was 49·1%. By 2021-22, the figure had risen to 68%. For pupils entitled to free school meals, the average percentage of pupils in West Belfast achieving five or more GCSEs, including maths and English, was 31·1% in 2010-11. By 2021-22, that had risen to 59·6%, which is almost double. Those are phenomenal increases and are a testament to the work being carried out in the schools, in the community and in families. It is collaboration in action. All that I have spoken about this evening is tried and tested. It is all evidence-based, and the Department should harness the expertise that exists in West Belfast to help roll out the model to other areas that would benefit from it.

Finally, I commend all the staff and pupils in the 51 schools, the West Belfast Partnership Board, the Full Service Community Network, all the other community organisations and all the families for their involvement in that great collaboration. You are doing West Belfast proud.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

All other Members who are called will have approximately six minutes in which to speak.

Photo of Danny Baker Danny Baker Sinn Féin

I begin by thanking our school principals, teachers and non-teaching staff for the fantastic work that they do in supporting the children and young people of West Belfast. It is also vital that I highlight the work carried out by our informal educators, who work tirelessly across my constituency in the statutory and voluntary sectors. Their immense efforts to impact positively on young lives must not go unrecognised. Youth workers have faced difficult times that include job insecurity, and many experienced youth workers have left the profession in recent times.

The informal education sector is uniquely positioned to engage young people who have fallen away from formal education and become disconnected from their community. For some, that path has led to destructive decisions. That is why the work of groups such as the Attach programme's youth work team in West Belfast was so vital. Its outreach efforts helped steer vulnerable young people towards positive decisions and re-engagement in constructive life opportunities. The cut to its funding, however, dealt a massive blow to its ability to make an impact in West Belfast in recent times.

I was in the Balmoral Hotel when our community came together: our community groups, the PSNI, political reps and youth workers. The fear was that all the great work that was being done would unravel in the time ahead, and, unfortunately, we have seen that in recent weeks with increased attacks on Glider services. When the Attach team was operational, they were only a phone call away, and they would respond no matter what the circumstances were.

I can think of the most serious one in recent times: a riotous situation that took place over a number of nights on Lanark Way. It was the youth workers who led the way in taking our young people away from that situation. We are now starting to feel that coming into our community, again. It is not as serious as that, but when you see attacks in our play parks and at night, that is a real growing concern.

I ask the Minister to work with the Education Authority and to look at this particular programme, because it was unique for West Belfast. It had full community buy-in and wrap-around support, and they were the front face of who you went to when children were in a vulnerable situation. Investing in those services is an investment in the well-being of our youth and the future prosperity of West Belfast. I urge the Minister to support this programme and the many others that transform young lives through education, mentorship and community engagement.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance 6:00, 4 Mehefin 2024

I declare that I have two immediate family members who work in schools in West Belfast.

Unfortunately, my West Belfast constituency has amongst the highest rates of educational underachievement in the North; the highest number of people on the housing waiting list; the highest number of households affected by welfare reforms, such as the two-child tax limit; and the highest rates of poverty, with 28·5% of children living in poverty. Some 26 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, working-class communities like West Belfast and beyond suffer worse levels of poverty and deprivation than ever. Given the link between poverty, class and educational outcomes, it is no surprise that educational underachievement remains so high in West Belfast.

The other thing that has remained constant in that time is that, for the most part, West Belfast has been dominated by Sinn Féin. The promised peace dividend, opportunities for a better life, better education and so on have not been felt in working-class communities like mine. That is because the brutal economic policies that have been inflicted on working-class people by Stormont have stymied the potential of generations of people, including school pupils. That is not to single out one party, but the experience of West Belfast points to the collective policy of the Stormont Executive, which has devastated our communities through years of punishing cuts. The education cuts suffered by schools on the Falls under Sinn Féin's watch are the same as those suffered by pupils and schools on the Newtownards Road or the Shankill Road under the DUP's watch, and so on.

It is a disgrace that, almost every year, we see schools being forced to fundraise for basic materials, early years initiatives fight to stay open and youth clubs and other educational settings fight to save services that are under constant threat from Stormont. Just last year, we heard that the strategy from the 'A Fair Start' report to tackle educational underachievement was underfunded to the tune of £18·9 million in 2023-24. I have seen nothing to suggest that the new Administration are about to make up any of the shortfall. So, while I agree with the instigator of the Adjournment debate that we need to fund early years, champion emotional health and well-being, support our teachers and make the curriculum and exam process relevant to the needs of our young people, I ask how that is possible in the context of an austerity Budget once again brought forward by a Sinn Féin Finance Minister and subsequently agreed by the DUP and the Alliance Party. According to the strategy outlined by the Executive parties, prioritising funding to deal with educational underachievement will require cuts to other areas. I do not think that school communities, early years or youth services should accept any funding agreement that says that you have to rob Peter to pay Paul. The difficulty for the Executive is that to deal with any of these issues facing our young people, schools and communities, you have to break with the Tories and fund services at any cost.

Dealing with educational underachievement will also require a holistic approach that deals with poverty as the root cause of these problems. Anti-poverty strategy? We are still waiting. How many years has that been? Children cannot concentrate in class whilst going hungry or worrying about their next meal. Therefore this Sinn Féin- and DUP-led Government cannot deal with educational underachievement whilst cutting workers' wages, implementing such welfare reforms as the two-child tax limit, hiking people's rates bills or bringing forward anti-working-class, revenue-raising measures. Homeless children, or children in substandard accommodation, cannot do homework or study in cramped living spaces or while sofa-surfing. Therefore, you cannot tackle educational underachievement while failing to build social homes and refusing to deal with the housing crisis. You cannot deal with educational underachievement while cutting school funding, youth services or refusing to give education support workers a much-needed pay and grading review. Unfortunately, like much of what we hear from the Government, none of it matters unless they are prepared to provide the funding needed to match their grand plans and statements. If they are not, they should do us all a favour and stop the grandstanding. Our schools and young people deserve much better.

That is, of course, not to mention the underfunding and pressure faced by the Irish-medium education sector as well. There has been a growth in demand from people who want to educate their kids through Irish-medium education, but often na bunscoileanna agus na naíonraí

[Translation: the primary schools and the nurseries]

cannot accommodate them or cope. I say that as parent of a child whom I hope will avail himself of those services. I want to let the Minister know that parents and family members are organising to put pressure on his Department to ensure that those people who want to educate their children through the medium of Irish have those services and can send their children to na naíonraí agus na bunscoileanna.

Photo of Aisling Reilly Aisling Reilly Sinn Féin

I also commend the West Belfast area learning community, working with the West Belfast Partnership Board, for its efforts in collaborative learning to improve outcomes for learners throughout West Belfast. It is this community approach that epitomises all that is good about education. It is vital to recognise that education is not just the responsibility of teachers and schools. Education happens in the home and in the community, as well as in the classroom. It is when all those things work in harmony that our young people have the opportunity to thrive and reach their full potential. That is why we need to build on that in the time ahead. I also know many teachers, staff, parents and governors involved in schools, including in my area of lower Andersonstown and upper Springfield in West Belfast, whose dedication to the children in their care is nothing short of inspiring.

The people of West Belfast have always valued education. They recognise its power to transform lives for the better. It was that community commitment to education that saw the ground-up development of Coláiste Feirste, for example, which I was very fortunate to attend. Irish-medium education in West Belfast began with just a handful of parents, battling against overwhelming odds and all kinds of resistance but united in their shared commitment to the right of our children to enjoy a quality education through the medium of their native language. Today we have a thriving Gaeloideachas

[Translation: Irish-medium education]

sector in West Belfast, where children and young people benefit from full-immersion, Irish-medium education, from naíscoil go meánscoi.

[Translation: from nursery school to secondary school.]

Glór na Móna also does tremendous work in the community and in youth work, among a range of other areas, to ensure that education does not stop at the school gates.

In West Belfast, we are also very much looking forward to the planned new build of All Saints College on the Glen Road, as that represents an investment not just in bricks and mortar but in the future of our young people. It shows them that we believe in them and that they are worth investing in. That should be our main role as political leaders and lawmakers. We need to encourage aspiration, create opportunities and demonstrate to the children and young people of West Belfast that they have a future here. We will do that by investing in the schools estate, and I want to see every school that requires it benefit from the required capital spending. We know that all Departments are under pressure due to chronic underfunding from the British Government for many years now, but we still have a responsibility to ensure that we do the best for those whom we are here to serve, not least the children and young people who attend our schools and colleges.

I welcome the Minister's statement that committed £20 million for a place-based initiative to support a whole-community approach to education, as recommended in the "A Fair Start" report. As I said earlier, a whole-community approach is vital to a successful educational system. So, too, is a united political approach. Creating aspiration and fostering opportunity are multifaceted and require a cross-departmental approach. It is an unfortunate reality that we still have many different viewpoints as to how the education system here should operate. However, for me, it is very simple. You just have to look at the evidence, here and internationally. We still have a long tail of underachievement in the North and far too many young people leaving school without the qualifications that they need or the aspiration that they deserve. Academic selection and rejection is the key driver of that inequality, and continuing with that flies in the face of the overwhelming empirical and international evidence that demonstrates how damaging the transfer test is for children and their outcomes in life. We can do so much better for them, and I urge all parties to embrace that message. We need to be ambitious for our children and young people. We need to be ambitious for their futures and create opportunities for them to stay here, live here, thrive here and raise their families here.

Today, we are talking about supporting educational achievement in West Belfast. I will do everything that I can to support the collaboration, investment and political leadership that is required to do that. However, the Sinn Féin vision for education is one in which all areas thrive, all economies benefit and all children get the opportunity to reach their full potential here in life.

Photo of Brian Kingston Brian Kingston DUP

I am very pleased to speak about this topic, and I thank the Member for West Belfast for bringing it to the Assembly. I will focus my comments on the greater Shankill part of West Belfast, which, obviously, I know well, having been a councillor for the area for 12 years on Belfast City Council and a community worker in the area for many years. I also declare an interest as a long-serving governor of Belfast Boys' Model School and Malvern Primary School.

A great deal of effort goes into supporting educational achievement in the greater Shankill area. As Members may be aware, in 2014, the Greater Shankill Partnership asked the Northern Ireland Departments to recognise the designation of the greater Shankill area as a children and young people's action zone. I attended the launch of that here, as did five Stormont Ministers. We are now halfway through that 20-year designation. Three of those Ministers are still Assembly Members. The zone aims to improve coordination and cooperation between different government initiatives, with the aim of providing improved wrap-around support for children and young people.

I welcome the fact that the Education Minister is present for this debate. I thank him for finding the time to attend. He may wish to make reference to announcements that he made just last week that are relevant to this topic. The first was the confirmation of capital new build funding for Glenwood Primary School, which is the largest of the eight primary schools in the greater Shankill area. I spoke about that matter in a Member's statement this morning, in which I thanked the Minister and his predecessors for bringing about the confirmation of that long-awaited funding. The Minister also announced last week £20 million for a major programme of investment to deliver innovative and community-informed approaches to raising achievement and reducing educational disadvantage in Northern Ireland. In areas of multiple disadvantage, there are additional challenges and complexities that face children, their families and the education system. I will always speak up for the need for additional resources to help children, their families and the educational system to address and overcome those additional challenges.

As Pat Sheehan mentioned, in the wider west Belfast area, Full Service Community Network funding flows through the West Belfast Partnership Board, and is used for interventions that are considered to be the most appropriate. In the greater Shankill area, Full Service extended schools money is given directly to the Boys' Model School and the Belfast Model School for Girls to put in place relevant interventions, including linking with community partners, such as the Greater Shankill Partnership. The Model schools submit a joint evaluative report to the Department of Education each year on that funding. I understand that the funding is approximately £185,000 per year for each school. It is considered invaluable by the school governors. In the Boys' Model School, it funds parent support; transition activities for P7 to year 8 pupils; pupil support teams of staff who engage with vulnerable young people who are at risk of dropping out; and learning mentor intervention, which is targeted academic support at GCSE and A level. Both Model schools have seen year-on-year improvements in results and pupil attendance, notwithstanding the COVID impact. That could not happen without Full Service extended schools money. That money is approved annually, and so it remains constantly under threat. It would be catastrophic for the Model schools if it were to be lost. Funding in young people's education is the best way in which to prevent negative consequences later in life.

I say as a member of the Boys' Model School board of governors that the school consistently performs well above the expected level of exam results for its level of free school meal pupils.

The school principal, Mary Montgomery OBE, was a key member of the expert panel on educational underachievement in Northern Ireland. The panel submitted its final report and action plan entitled 'A Fair Start' to the Education Minister in May 2021, and the Northern Ireland Executive endorsed it.

Both Model schools are also part of the north Belfast area learning community, which involves 11 post-primary schools on a cross-community basis plus the Belfast Metropolitan colleges. It facilitates shared classes in some A-level subjects, for which one school alone could not provide sufficient numbers. A number of inter-school activities bring pupils together in the interests of shared education, including the inter-schools North Belfast Youth Choir, formerly known as Harmony North.

Returning to West Belfast before someone reminds me of the subject of the debate, I am pleased to note that the eight primary schools in the greater Shankill area are in the process of establishing a Shankill primary area learning community. That is a positive initiative that will benefit the entire school community.

As has been mentioned, there are a bursary funds for pupils, one of which is run by the Boys' Model, one by the Aisling awards and one — the Baroness May Blood awards — by the Argyle Business Centre. Those three bursary awards cooperate to enable pupils to move on to further and higher education.

In closing, I welcome the opportunity to highlight some of the positive initiatives supporting educational achievement in the greater Shankill area.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP 6:15, 4 Mehefin 2024

I had the option tonight of speaking in the debate or leafleting in Lagan Valley. One of my earliest forays into school visits happened in 2016 or 2017, when I visited a school in West Belfast. Pat Sheehan was there. He gave me a handshake and welcomed me to, I think, the Christian Brothers' school on the Glen Road: is that fair?

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

It was great.

I have a real passion not just for education but for the children from West Belfast. I have to declare an interest, and the reason is that my dad's family — the Butlers — come from west Belfast. I skinned my knees in Springmartin and Highfield from the late 1970s and through the 1980s, and I ran about with a lot of young people there at that time. They are not so young now; we are in our 50s. There are schools up there that no longer exist. There was a school up in Springmartin. I remember its image, but it is no longer there. In fact, some of my family have to travel to schools in north Belfast — the Boys' Model, for instance.

It is perverse that there are areas and borders on maps of Northern Ireland that show places where, statistically, our children are failed. I am a Butler from Lagan Valley, and there are Butlers in West Belfast who are every bit as bright, clever and talented. However, the statistics will say that, potentially, they may face a more difficult challenge in their educational attainment or achievement. That is not indicative of the person or the families; it is indicative of a societal problem that we have allowed to develop over many years. We absolutely must get to grips with it. I will give Mr Sheehan absolute credit for this: there probably has not been an Education Committee meeting at which he has not tussled with that one, and that has been the case for a while.

I am really pleased to speak about the matter, because, sadly, educational underachievement blights many sections of the community, particularly those who struggle with poverty. The problem is not merely an educational challenge but a societal one. When children grow up in disadvantaged environments, the odds are already stacked against them. Many schools in those areas face significant hurdles, including higher levels of disadvantage, which have already been talked about, and higher levels of additional needs. Mr Baker mentioned the higher levels of need among some of our students. When you go around those schools, you often find that some of them are in the greatest state of disrepair, unfortunately, which has a fundamental effect on the therapeutic environment in which children learn. However, our schools, teachers and support staff do phenomenal work, despite the challenges being, sadly, greater.

I have witnessed first-hand the transformative power of Sure Start. Only a couple of weeks ago, I managed to visit a number of Sure Start centres in West Belfast, one of which was Clan Mór, which is on or just off the Falls Road. It is not off the Falls Road. Clan Mór is beside — what do you call the big church, Pat?

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Clonard monastery — Clan Mór Sure Start is there. I also visited Shankill Sure Start, which is in Ballysillan. I had to work out why it is in Ballysillan but is called "Shankill Sure Start". I could not help but be moved by the dedication of the staff and the palpable impact that they have on the lives of the children there. It was phenomenal. I had sand ice creams thrust at me. Those children were learning and playing, and it was absolutely fantastic. I pay tribute to Sure Start and all the other initiatives that are tackling this at the very start. We need to give our children the best start in life, as that is what will make all the difference.

He will go buck mad when he sees this, but I will also pay tribute to a success story from Sure Start. My cousin Robert's son is called Ashton, and he is the head boy at Belfast Boys' Model School. He was one of the first children to go through Shankill Sure Start. If you needed evidence that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, Ashton is that. He is a fantastic sports student — that is not in the Butler genes; it must be in the McQuade genes. He is head boy at Belfast Model, and he lives in West Belfast. As you rightly said, Belfast Model is in North Belfast, on the border, but my nephew — my cousin's son — comes from West Belfast, and he is doing us all proud. That is a real marker of what can happen if we get the start right. Through his parents' support and the impact of Sure Start in his life, he has grown into a fine young man. He is a credit to West Belfast and to Belfast Model.

Education is the best route that any child can take. It opens the doors of opportunity and breaks the cycle of poverty. There should be no borders. I said this at the start. We talked about borders, but there should be no borders in educational attainment for any child. Every child deserves the best start in life and the chance to succeed and reach their full potential. We must continue to support and invest in our schools, particularly those in disadvantaged areas. By doing so, we build a brighter future not only for our children but for our entire society. We need to support the great initiatives that Mr Kingston and the Members for West Belfast talked about. Thank you for bringing the topic for debate, Pat.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I, too, really welcome being able to contribute to the debate. Educational attainment is a really important subject in respect of West Belfast and the North more broadly.

Since Members — including some who do not represent West Belfast — are sharing personal stories about their connection to education in West Belfast, I will share mine. Although I represent South Belfast, some schools in the south-west Belfast part of the constituency have an intake from West Belfast. That includes Malone Integrated College and Rathmore Grammar School. A significant number of kids who live in the West Belfast constituency go to Rathmore and Malone. My aunt was, for years, a French teacher in St Rose’s, which no longer exists and is now part of All Saints College. She used to organise exchange trips over to Brittany for girls from St Rose's and St Louise’s Comprehensive College. When I was, I think, 12— a wee culchie from Downpatrick — I was persuaded, possibly against my better judgement, to go on a one-man exchange trip to Brittany with a bus full of girls from St Rose's and St Louise’s. We are talking about educational attainment: well, I certainly got an education from that bus-full of girls from West Belfast, who were not long educating me in what I was right and wrong about. It was great craic.

It has been said that educational attainment in West Belfast has improved but is not where it needs to be. It is also true that West Belfast, despite progress and the amazing contribution of educators and community groups there, who have been named, deprivation levels are far too high, as they are in other parts of this region, and educational attainment is not high enough. Educational attainment is not where it needs to be in this region more generally, but it is —

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

On the issue of underachievement in West Belfast, the average percentage of young people who get five GCSEs, including English and maths, sits at 2% below the regional average, but, when you take account of the deprivation that exists there, that is extremely high and well above the average for the type of area that we are talking about.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I completely acknowledge that. The point of my remarks was not to single out West Belfast as an area of underachievement, because the Member is right that, clearly, there is real attainment going on there. However, it is true that attainment is not good enough in the North generally. He has been one of the most consistent advocates, as his colleague Aisling Reilly was earlier, of the idea that the long tail of underachievement in this region is intimately connected to our system of selection and the fact that we have a pernicious system that divides kids at age 11 and promotes a form of selection that no serious objective analyst or academic who is looking at educational outcomes thinks is a good way of running your education system or, frankly, your economy. It is important to put that on the record. Kids in West Belfast suffer from that, in part because it is also an area of higher than average deprivation. It is important to say that, and it would not be honest of us not to say it.

I want to draw on a couple of particular themes that have been talked about today. Some of the important initiatives that go on in West Belfast have rightly been highlighted. Obviously, West Belfast, in addition to all the great schools there, has one of the North's two teacher training colleges, and I know that St Mary's plays a huge part — the summer schemes at St Mary's have been outlined — in the broader community work of improving attainment and joint working between agencies, schools and, indeed, community groups.

There are specific issues that, we know, affect kids across this region, particularly in working-class families, such as the cost of school uniforms and holiday hunger, and those structural challenges exist in West Belfast too. My colleague Paul Doherty, councillor for Black Mountain, who does amazing work in Foodstock on the Andersonstown Road, has done particular work on, for example, holiday hunger and school uniform drives. That is a real challenge. We had questions to the Minister yesterday about that. That is one of the real pressures that face families in the west of the city, as it is in other parts of this region.

It is important to say that, in getting to the root of some of the issues that we face in West Belfast and across the North regarding educational achievement, we need to see specific targets. I will look to a Programme for Government, when it finally emerges, to see what the specific targets are for the Executive. I acknowledge that there are real funding constraints facing the Minister and other Ministers, but it is important that we see specific, measurable outcomes. Hopefully, some of those will be outcomes converted from the independent review of education and the report, 'A Fair Start'.

Gerry Carroll acknowledged and was right to say that there are concerns around the underfunding of some of the recommendations in 'A Fair Start'. I acknowledge that there is not endless money. The way in which we are funded in this place imposes constraints. We, as an Opposition, have never been unrealistic about that, but that means that it is even more important that there are clear and measurable targets for families and educators in West Belfast and other parts of the North. They need to know what the targets are, what will be prioritised and what will be delivered. There are specific things that I would like to see tackled in this mandate, but I suspect that they will not be, in part because I do not think that the Minister will be able to get political agreement; in fact, I am not sure that the Minister would give that political agreement in the Executive. What are the specific actions that will be taken to improve educational attainment in places like West Belfast?

In commending the debate and acknowledging the huge progress that has been made and the real work done by educators in West Belfast, I should also talk about the impact of lost programmes and lost funding for things like Healthy Happy Minds and holiday hunger. Real work has been done by educators and community groups and by schools like St John the Baptist Primary School on Finaghy Road North, which has had to do its own fundraising and plug gaps caused by lost funding. While acknowledging all the positive work that is happening and the positive progress in West Belfast and other parts of the city, I would like to see specific plans in a Programme for Government. If the Minister is able to shed any light on that, that would be most helpful.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I thank the Member for West Belfast Mr Sheehan for securing the Adjournment debate. He has managed to keep Mr Butler out of Lagan Valley, and he is depriving me of the same opportunity to be with my colleague, although he is in Lagan Valley.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

He has stolen a march on you, Robbie.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

At least I have had it confirmed. There was always speculation that Robbie was related to Paul Butler, who is of renown in West Belfast. I would like to get a DNA test done, but we will not go on to 'The Jerry Springer Show'; we will stay here in the Assembly.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to respond to some of the issues, and I will pick up on some of the Members' contributions in due course.

Every child has a right to high-quality education in a setting of their parents' or carers' choice, where they can be happy learning and succeeding. I am committed to delivering better outcomes for all children and young people across society, and so are the Members who have contributed to the debate. Where disadvantage exists, we must work collaboratively to address the causes and the consequences. Whilst more can and should be done, we must acknowledge West Belfast as an example of an area where there are strong community partnerships and an ongoing commitment to improving educational outcomes despite the challenges.

That is one of the reasons why Belfast has been included in the RAISE programme that I announced last week. It is a new programme of investment in communities and families in the most educationally disadvantaged areas across Northern Ireland. The RAISE programme aims to address a key element of the 'A Fair Start' report by promoting a whole-community approach to education through place-based partnerships. Funding of £20 million is being provided through the Shared Island Fund for a period of two years. It will operate in specific localities across Northern Ireland that have been selected using objective criteria based on data. The RAISE programme offers the opportunity to look afresh at the issues caused by deprivation and to drive forward a whole-community place-based approach to education and the issues that children and young people face.

Northern Ireland is not unique in needing to tackle educational disadvantage. Indeed, the most recent programme for international student assessment (PISA), published at the end of 2023, evidenced a significant attainment gap here between the least disadvantaged quarter of pupils and the most disadvantaged across mathematics, reading and science, but the gap was not significantly higher in Northern Ireland than the average gap across the OECD countries.

I am delighted that my Department has invested in children and young people, families and the community in West Belfast over the past eight years through the West Belfast Partnership Board's Sharing the Learning programme, which has been acknowledged in Members' contributions in the Chamber this evening. That has come about because of the active representation from elected representatives for the West Belfast constituency in the Assembly and at council level and also by having Ministers from different parties responding to that. A total of £1·5 million has been provided during that period. It is an excellent example of a community partnership delivering bespoke interventions to address local issues. It provides essential support from cradle to career. I hope that that way of working can be used as a model as my Department considers how to implement community-informed solutions to help to raise achievement and reduce educational disadvantage.

We should celebrate the work undertaken in West Belfast by the committed teachers and community workers who have delivered significant outcomes in one of the most deprived areas in Northern Ireland. It is an area where 25 of the super output areas are in the 20% most deprived areas in Northern Ireland, and 19 of those are in the top 10%. Despite that, we can see improvements in the educational outcomes in the area. In 2018-19, 63·7% of school leavers resident in West Belfast achieved at least five GCSEs at A* to C grades or equivalent, including English and maths. Whilst that was below the Northern Ireland average of nearly 71%, it represented an improvement of nearly 12 percentage points since 2012-13. During the same period, the Northern Ireland improvement was 8·5 percentage points.

Of course, more can be done. There remains a gap between West Belfast and the Northern Ireland average at GCSE and A level. When we look closer at the data, we can see that the attainment gap between boys and girls is lower in West Belfast than the Northern Ireland average, as is the gap between free-school-meal pupils and non-free-school-meal pupils. The most recent figures, in 2021-22, show that 93·3% of school leavers resident in West Belfast reported going to higher education, further education, employment or training. That is just below the Northern Ireland average of 95·8%.

The overarching message should be that significant work has been done to improve educational outcomes in West Belfast, and that needs to continue. The Sharing the Learning programme is one example of the positive work that is being done. It operates in 24 nursery schools, 19 primary schools, eight post-primary schools and 14 after-school provisions. Its success has been down to the relationships that have been developed over time with and between schools and across all the school sectors and by collaborating effectively with the community and voluntary sector to provide a wide range of support that our children and young people need to succeed.

It is a model that should be further explored in other localities facing similar challenges. The range of projects that are supported and their achievements is impressive. Parent-and-child programmes have supported the transition from home to nursery and from nursery to primary school, thereby supporting readiness to learn. Primary support in literacy and numeracy has been provided to over 3,000 Key Stage 2 pupils, with further support through community-based after-school programmes and participation in programmes such as 'The Irish News' Young Readers critical literacy programme.

The West Belfast Partnership Board has also worked with practitioners in the area, including Sure Start, community-based providers and schools to develop resources such as progression of play, which is from nursery to year 2; year 7 to year 8 transition resources; and special educational needs transition resources from nursery to primary school.

The name "Sharing the Learning" is an apt one. I know that many other voluntary and community groups and schools have benefited from the West Belfast Partnership Board's experience and knowledge. Examples include partnering with the teaching colleges to deliver workshops on community education programmes, as well as the THRiVE programme in Monkstown and Rathcoole, of which Members will also be aware.

West Belfast has also benefited from the Full Service Community Network, which forms part of the fabric of support that is unique to that area. My Department has been able to support the network financially in recent years to deliver programmes that enhance employability, improve the quality of teaching and learning and build collaborative relationships to deliver services for newcomer children and their families. The network has also employed a dedicated Irish-medium support teacher to work directly with children in schools to help support Irish literacy and fluency. Since 2016, the FSCN has worked with schools to support the growing population of children and families from asylum-seeking and refugee backgrounds, with training for entire school communities, as well as dedicated English as an additional language provision for children and families.

In addition to the significant targeted funding and programmes that are designed to tackle disadvantage, all schools are supported and challenged, as appropriate, to raise standards and bring about improvement. The Department's school improvement policy set challenging, system-wide targets for attainment at end of Key Stage assessments and in public examinations at GCSE and A level from 2010 to 2020. While statutory assessment at Key Stages 1 to 3 was disapplied during the 2019-2020 year, pending a review, creating a dearth of data on how our schools and our system are doing, participation in international studies also reassures us that we continue to perform well compared with other OECD averages and exceptionally well in some areas, such as reading. We need to establish improved measures, however. We want to know about pupils' progress, what their educational journey looks like and what value has been added. For example, are pupils happy? Are they learning? Do they go on to succeed when that journey ends? Are they living happy and healthy lives and contributing to the economy and society in a meaningful way?

Educational disadvantage can present in many different ways. More can and should be done to close the attainment gap and to address the wide range of barriers to learning that many children and young people face. Supporting educational achievement in West Belfast is no different from supporting it in any other area. Our expectations and aspirations should be as high for every pupil, every school and every neighbourhood. A school that is connected to its community is one of the four characteristics of a good school, as set out by my Department in its Every School a Good School policy.

West Belfast is an area where community links with schools are well developed. I am committed to delivering better outcomes for all children and young people across our society and to bringing about investment, where possible, to support a more prosperous, harmonious, happier and healthier society. The example of West Belfast shows the value of place-based approaches to tackling educational disadvantage, ensuring that schools, families and community partners all work together to improve outcomes from the cradle to the career.

This approach means that our most vulnerable learners are supported through development from preschool to key transition points at primary and post-primary level.

I assume that I have 15 minutes, Mr Deputy Speaker, or is it 10?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 6:30, 4 Mehefin 2024

It is 10. I think that I did not remind you of that.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Apologies for that. Very briefly, a couple of Members raised a few points.

Mr Baker, I will follow up in more detail the project that you mentioned, and officials will engage with you on that.

Mr Carroll raised a number of issues around the 'A Fair Start' recommendations being underfunded. I point him to the announcement last week of £20 million, very much building on 'A Fair Start' — evidence of what can be changed and what the Executive are doing. Yes, we would like to do more, but I gently say to the Member — he will probably not listen to me — that you do not always have to have a pop at political parties. I think that everyone in the Chamber has tried to represent their constituencies, and I have demonstrated how West Belfast has made considerable progress over the years. That has been through all the parties representing that constituency and different political parties. Each of us in the Chamber is personally invested in education. I sat on the boards of governors of three schools for nearly 20 years, so I do not just do policy; I put it into practice. Brian Kingston said that he currently sits as a governor of two schools. The Member may or may not have sat on a board in the past, but we do get engaged at a grassroots level, and I am sure that he does too. However, there are occasions for me to gently say to the Member that you do not always need to politicise something such as this when we are trying to speak to issues that we have made progress on.

I appreciate that time is against me and that I have already exhausted your good grace, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank Members for their contributions.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Minister, you actually kept us within our time limit, and I am very grateful for that. Thank you for your contribution.

Adjourned at 6.42 pm.