20 November 2023

Update on the Independent Review of Education in Northern Ireland

Written by Rachel Toner

An external independent review of education in Northern Ireland was a key commitment within the New Decade New Approach deal 2020. The then newly restored Executive agreed to review the education provision, with a focus on greater efficiency in delivery costs, raising standards and access for all pupils.

The remit of the review is extensive, and the independent panel were tasked with looking at the learner’s journey through life, from early years education to further education settings. The independent panel were requested to provide a longer-term vision of what exemplary education at every level might look like by the mid-century.

Work commenced by the independent panel in October 2021, with the final report scheduled for delivery within 18 months. Completion has been delayed, but the independent panel published an interim report in October 2022 to identify the approach taken at that date.

Key aspects of the interim report include:

  • The extensive evidence gathering and stakeholder engagement conducted, which included direct engagement with education stakeholders, a public survey and the consideration of existing information and further commissioned research.
  • The efforts made to engage with a wide range of groups to capture a diverse range of opinions, ranging from the children and young people groups, charities which support children and young people, parenting groups, education practitioners including various schools and colleges and higher education institutions such as Ulster University and Stranmillis University College, government departments, trade unions and employer bodies.
  • The survey analysis from the 3325 responses received identified that the view that the three biggest weaknesses of education in Northern Ireland today are: (i) the divided system and lack of integration: (ii) the lack of funding and funding inequalities; and (iii) lack of support for special educational needs.
  • The major issues arising from the review, which include:
  • the scope to improve early year development;
  • the correlation between socio-economic background and achievement;
  • learner support for learners with special educational needs;
  • review of curriculum and assessment;
  • smoother transitions from each stage of education;
  • the challenges for further and higher education including enrolments, increasing cost pressures, competition with other parts of the education system and duplication with other parts of the education system;
  • the need to support the education workforce;
  • the institutional governance of education in Northern Ireland which is shared by the Department of Education and the Department for the Economy, with input from DAERA, the Department of Justice and the Department of Health on specific issues. Given the various interfaces, it has been indicated that there may be need for significant change;
  • the need to secure sufficient funding for education and ensuring funding is efficiently used. Early intervention can minimise longer term costs to provide better outcomes
  • spend per pupil in Northern Ireland has been the lowest of the four UK jurisdictions for over a decade and remains 5.5% less than the UK average; and
  • significant decline in investment and real terms reduction in spending on higher education, further education and industry skills of around one-third between 2010/11 and 2019/20.

Earlier this month the Department of Education announced, “The independent panel are making good progress towards their aim of completing the report in late autumn, though no specific date is yet available for publication.”

It was indicated within the interim report, that the final report shall adopt a timescale of some 20 plus years, acknowledging both resource and capacity challenges to implement change. The final report shall make recommendations to deal with immediate problems as well. Dr Keir Bloomer, who is leading the panel, recently identified that “One major challenge is financial. It is clear to the panel that education in Northern Ireland is seriously underfunded. But there are also areas where resources can be used better”.

Receipt of the final report is keenly awaited by the sector. Regrettably, any new strategic direction or policy decisions arising from the independent review will be stymied given the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which collapsed in February 2022. In absence of a functioning Assembly, non-elected senior civil servants effectively control how Northern Ireland is governed but are restricted from making any new policy decisions.

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.

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