Underachievement in Education

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Speech to the NI Assembly 

Mr Speaker/ Deputy Speaker

I want to thank Ms McIlveen and Mr Ross for putting forward this important motion.

This is a subject that, given the excellent promise and capability of our education system and the skills of the teaching profession, we should not be debating today. We should not need to debate this issue.

Underachievement in education has a negative influence throughout the whole of Northern Ireland but the statistics show it has a major depressing and dismal impact within the inner city areas. And I see the evidence of this every day in my constituency office or as I travel around my constituency.

In many, many ways the terrorist campaign of the recent years has contributed to this crisis with children experiencing both physical and psychological problems at a tender age; problems children should not have to suffer.

And those who engaged in terrorism have played a role creating this problem.

I meet young men and women who are seeking employment or housing who cannot fill in an application form, I come across young people whose only occupation seems to be hanging around the doors of pubs or bookmakers; young people without hope for the future.

These young people progressed through an educational system many of them without gaining one qualification and many of whom, at a very early age, became prey to the paramilitaries.  We have a responsibility to offer them hope. We need to ensure that this current generation will not endure the street violence and the bombers and gunmen will never again stalk the streets of our cities and towns.  
And it would be appropriate to pay tribute to the many teachers who work in the difficult circumstances of schools that are in poor condition, under funded and short staffed for the very professional job they do.

The picture of education in my own constituency is a mixed picture, it has very good schools with pupils that are highly motivated and achieve excellent examination results. These young people are a credit to their schools, themselves and especially to their parents. And parents are the vital ingredient of this success.

On the other hand there are children leaving school without any success and indeed a recent report, East Belfast: A baseline Education Study commissioned by the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education concluded that very substantial needs exist, and that a robust case can be made for substantial interventions in East Belfast by BIFHE.

Key Findings

In the East Belfast wards under study, there is a total population of circa 60,000. Over 40% of the adult population (those 16 years and over) have no qualifications, and the population aged 35 and over is particularly poorly qualified. Those with no qualifications are least mobile and those with higher qualifications most mobile in terms of migration.

Only 6.7% of adults in East Belfast were enrolled in further education classes in the last academic year. However, more than 8,500 individuals aged between 16 and 64 are likely to have basic literacy needs and 8,700 are likely to have basic innumeracy needs.

Upwards of 17,000 people have difficulty with reading and writing? 

East Belfast has a smaller percentage of the population in good health than is the case for Belfast as a whole; again a contributory factor in academic underachievement.

Professor Sir George Bain in his report, Schools for the Future: Funding, Strategy, Sharing  makes the point “The education of children is one of the most important aspects of any society, especially a society such as Northern Ireland, which is experiencing rapid social, economic and political change.” It shouldn’t need to be said.                                                                                                                                     

The Way Forward – Educational Ethos