Published on: 30 Jun 2017

It’s about schools adding value for every pupil, regardless of their starting point and their potential to achieve, and how we uncover barriers to learning, whether that’s improving engagement and confidence or identifying learning difficulties

Educational underachievement in Northern Ireland schools at a critical juncture

Last week, the Prince’s Trust said that the political situation in Northern Ireland is contributing to current educational challenges and warned that educational underachievement has become a ‘critical issue’. They highlighted in particular problems with attendance, attainment and motivation; issues they believe have been compounded by the lack of direction and leadership as a result of the collapse of the NI Executive, and the challenges schools are experiencing with the budgets they are allocated.

Educational underachievement in NI has been a topic of debate among educationalists for more than a decade, and of course, it’s not unique to NI. Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality. 

I have been involved in education in NI for the last 30 years and I don’t believe that educational underachievement has been tackled sufficiently. Many schools express their own individual concerns about their inability to provide extracurricular activities and that they are unable to provide the resources necessary for every young person can achieve to their fullest potential as part of the ‘every school a good school’ strategy.

They are also concerned that young people – particularly those from disadvantaged communities – will fall foul of the reduction in school funding. Around 9,000 children in all leave school without passing five or more GCSEs (including Maths and English) at A*-C and almost one in five pupils leave primary school not having achieved the expected level in English and Maths.

Intervention strategies are paramount to tackling the causes of educational underachievement. It’s about schools adding value for every pupil, regardless of their starting point and their potential to achieve, and how we uncover barriers to learning, whether that’s improving engagement and confidence or identifying learning difficulties.

Whatever the future holds, we are at a pivotal juncture. We wait to see if we will have a newly formed Executive that can start the process of ‘No child left behind’ but either way, I hope that some of NI’s extra funding will be used to reduce the educational underachievement of our young people in NI schools.

By Paul McGlade, Regional Director NI, Scotland and Wales, GL Assessment

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