24 January 2024

Independent Review of Education in Northern Ireland- Findings of Final Report

Written by Rachel Toner

The final report from the independent review of education in Northern Ireland was recently published. The Panel made twenty-five key recommendations within the report, which seek to radically reform the education landscape in Northern Ireland.

The independent review of education was a key commitment within the New Decade New Approach deal 2020, which underpinned the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive in 2020. The task of the Panel was extensive – to review the entire education system and suggest how it could be improved. The research spanned a two-year period and involved considerable stakeholder engagement and an impressive scale of evidence gathering and analysis.

The full report is broken down into three volumes, which can be viewed here, however a number of the recommendations include:

  • immediate and significant investment for education. The Panel identified that there is a funding crisis within education in Northern Ireland as a result of systemic underfunding. Their analysis shows a real-terms reduction by £145million over the last 11 years, whilst student numbers have increased 7% over that same period. The Panel estimated that £291 million of additional funding is required to meet the funding gap with England and Wales and to address the costs of special needs education.
  • expand early years education. This would include the establishment of a programme where two-year-olds receive pre-school education for 20 hours a week coupled with an expansion of the provision to 3-year-olds to 22.5 hours a week. The implementation of this recommendation is intended to detect and redress any developmental issues or underachievement at the earliest stage. In addition, given that two-years of age is a formative period when the brain is rapidly developing synapses, earlier engagement should also enrich the learners experience and development.
  • transform the special education needs provision to ensure equality for all learners. The data shows that the number of students in Northern Ireland with special educational needs is more pronounced than in any of the other jurisdictions in the UK. The number of children attending a special school has increased by 51% between 05/06 and 22/23. The recommendations made included capital investment for the special school sector and an immediate change to how statements are written to increase the capacity for schools to cater for special needs, reduce reliance on classroom assistant time, better meet the needs of the learner and introduce a requirement for regular review.
  • raising the compulsory school age from 16 to 18 so that all young people remain in education or training until 18. The Panel identified that there is a “battery” of exams between the ages of 16 and 18, which can impede learning as opposed to bolstering it. The recommendation extends to limiting the number of exams for 16-year-olds are required to sit, however this would require a central direction across the UK given the norm across the sector. Through a revised curriculum, the aim is to develop lifelong learners and move away from the segmented approach to education.
  • retain local talent – the research identified an annual “brain drain” from Northern Ireland as students travel across the Irish Sea to Great Britain in search of higher education. Over 17,000 students from Northern Ireland attended higher education institutions in Great Britain in 2019, with only 30% returning to Northern Ireland after graduation. The Panel considered “deeply injurious” to Northern Ireland’s interests, which in a post conflict era needs to attract investment and will be better placed to do so with a highly skilled workforce. The Panel recommended that the Maximum Student Number, which links to the funding awarded to the two Universities and six further education colleges for NI domiciled students, be raised gradually and to finance this expansion, the fees should also be raised by 10%.
  • establish a single unified government department to oversee the entire education journey. Presently, the Department of Education are tasked with education at primary and post-primary schools, whereas the Department for the Economy oversee further and higher education institutions. The Panel identified that the separate funding arrangements resulted in poor collaboration between schools, further education colleges and universities, which is essential to aid transition for the learner.

The Department of Education Permanent Secretary, Dr Mark Browne welcomed the final report, stating how “the remit of the report set out a unique and challenging opportunity to consider all aspects of the design, structure and delivery of education in Northern Ireland.” The Department of Education also acknowledged that given the recommendations are “wide-ranging, far-reaching and signal a significant change to existing policy and service delivery they would require Ministerial direction, Executive agreement and, importantly, immediate additional resources.”

The Assembly collapsed some 23 months ago and the latest deadline to restore power-sharing has been extended again to the 8th February 2024. Whilst there is no certainty of a return date, it is certain that the recommendations of the Panel will have to wait until power-sharing is restored, to the detriment of the children and young people of Northern Ireland.

If you would like any further information or advice, please contact Rachel Toner from our Commercial team.

*This information is for guidance purposes only and does not constitute, nor should be regarded, as a substitute for taking legal advice.

About the author

Rachel Toner

Senior Associate

Rachel is a Senior Associate Solicitor within the Commercial team at Carson McDowell. Rachel regularly advises both public and private sector clients on a spectrum of commercial matters, from general commercial contracts, terms and conditions of business, specialist industry specific contracts such as manufacturing or franchise agreements to advice on data protection and intellectual property matters.