The Northern Ireland Assembly Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has published a report, entitled Closing the Gap - Social Deprivation and Links to Educational Attainment, which looks at the long-standing problems improving the educational achievement of children from socially deprived backgrounds.
The report focused on the 913 million that the Department of Education has provided since 2005 to schools, firstly through the Targeting Social Need (TSN) and secondly through Sure Start programmes and the impact that this funding has had on narrowing the gap in educational outcomes.
The report recommends that a collaborative/cross cutting approach is taken to addressing all the issues identified in this important report, ensuring the recommendations will be delivered. Also required is a commitment from a new Executive for a cross-cutting approach to make available funding and resources that will seriously address social deprivation and educational attainment issues.
The report also looked at whether it was suitable to use Free School Meal Entitlement as the appropriate measure of social disadvantage, given that PAC had raised concerns about this as early as 2013.
Chairman of the Committee, William Humphrey MBE MLA said:
When we looked at whether the funds provided to schools have made an impact on raising achievement for young people, we were surprised to learn that only 60% of schools provided information on how they have used the funding available in 2019-20. We accept that this was a significant improvement from the previous year when only 6% returned this information. However, without this crucial information it is difficult to ensure that schools are making the best use of the funding and actually achieving better outcomes for young people.
We believe that the Department of Education and the Education Authority need to do much more to ensure that the remaining 40% of schools provide this important information.
We were astonished to learn that the Department only began collecting data on the Sure Start programme in 2015, even though the programme has been in place for more than 20 years. As a consequence, the Department is only beginning to understand the effectiveness of this important early years programme.
Mr Humphrey added:
It is concerning that there is no requirement for schools that receive TSN funding to spend it solely on supporting pupils from socially deprived backgrounds. At the moment, a school may use these funds to top up' the general school budget. This is clearly inappropriate and is inconsistent with the proscribed rules around other specialist funds such as Special Educational Needs (SEN).
The Committee also heard from an Expert Panel which was set up as a priority in New Decade, New Approach to examine the links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background. In its Final Report and Action Plan, it estimated the cost of implementing its recommendations at 11 million in the first year, rising to more than 73 million per year from year five.
Chairman Humphrey concluded:
As part of our inquiry, we visited a school that receives TSN and SEN funding - the Boy's Model in North Belfast. The school provided us with an example of the right way to use the funds available to address the issues of social deprivation. Not only has the school implemented targeted strategies to address the deficits in support and resources, they have included health and wellbeing classes as part of the normal timetable.
We believe it is vital that the Department and indeed all schools should put into place mechanisms to both identify and disseminate best practice so that all children benefit from the TSN and Sure Start funding.
We look forward to the Department and a future Executive implementing the recommendations in our report and believe that they will contribute to a significant impact on improving the outcomes of children from our most socially deprived backgrounds.