New report identifies Early Years as a key priority area to address educational underachievement

A report examining the links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background in Northern Ireland has today (Tuesday 1 June) been published by an Expert Panel, and welcomed by Education Minister Peter Weir.

A Fair Start’ identifies eight key areas, within which there are 47 actions designed to achieve long term, positive change within the education system here. The eight key areas are:

  • Redirecting the focus to Early Years.
  • Championing Emotional Health and Wellbeing.
  • Ensuring the relevance and appropriateness of Curriculum and Assessment.
  • Promoting a whole community approach to education.
  • Maximising boys’ potential.
  • Driving forward Teachers’ Professional Learning.
  • Supporting the professional learning and wellbeing of school leadership.
  • Ensuring Interdepartmental collaboration and delivery.

The Expert Panel was formed as a result of a New Decade, New Approach commitment. Evidence from almost 350 stakeholders informed the development of actions which the Panel believes can make a significant, long-lasting impact on children’s learning now and into the future, but which will require significant investment for the long term – specifically, £180 million over the next five years.

Redirecting the focus to Early Years

The Report’s first ‘Key Area’ sets out a strong rationale for redirecting focus to the Early Years, recognising the benefits of effective early intervention on physical and mental well-being, educational attainment and longer term employment prospects. There is important recognition that educational outcomes in later years are shaped by the experiences of children from pre-birth to age 4, and evidence detailing the benefits of early intervention.

In order to do this, the Panel recommends supporting parents and families to facilitate children starting school better prepared to learn. There is also a call for further investment in services to identify, assess and support our youngest children with special educational or additional needs. The report also highlights a need for greater recognition of the Early Years workforce, reflecting the importance of adequate training, relevant qualifications and an appropriate pay structure.

The report links to research evidence demonstrating the link between children’s early experiences and their future learning and development, and confirming that investing in quality early years care and education has significant and long term benefits for individuals and society with short-term spend offset by long-term benefits. Specifically, research from James Heckman explains that “The highest rate of return in early childhood development comes from investing as early as possible, from birth through age five, in disadvantaged families…The best investment is in quality early childhood development from birth to five for disadvantaged children and their families.”

It is noted that, as well as the educational and developmental impact on children, early intervention will also be critical in reducing the numbers of children in Northern Ireland who are growing up in poverty.

Action plan

Within this section of the report there is an action plan setting out nine recommendations and 13 associated key actions, identifying lead Departments and indicative funding requirements. These include:

  • Supporting the Department of Education’s efforts to bring forward a Childcare Strategy, which will include a focus on child development (it is noted that funding for the Childcare Strategy will be bid for separately and is not reflected within this Plan)
  • Reviewing and building on Sure Start programmes
  • Standardising the length of pre-school education to at least 4.5 hours per day for every child and including access to free school meals for eligible pre-school children
  • Delivering pre-school education that is age and stage appropriate for children
  • Ensuring the pay and qualifications of the Early Years workforce reflect the importance of the sector, and developing a training, qualifications and CPD strategy
  • Enhancing programmes that engage with parents and families of children from pre-birth to age 4, recognising the importance of families in supporting learning and development
  • Expanding and enhancing the existing EA Early Years SEN Inclusion Service.

Measuring success

If the range of actions are implemented, the Panel anticipates:

  • A noticeable improvement in the number of children better prepared to start school
  • Parents and families will be more knowledgeable about their child’s development and how to support it
  • Waiting times for SEN assessments will be significantly reduced as support will be provided earlier and as appropriate in line with children’s needs
  • There will be a clear, seamless supported developmental pathway available to all children from birth to four years old, providing the vital basis for the Foundation Stage of the Curriculum.

What next?

This is an important and welcome report which, alongside a range of other key areas, highlights the central role of early years in giving our children and young people the best start in life, and tackling educational underachievement. It includes concrete actions, linked to evidence-based recommendations. We now need to see whole Executive and cross-departmental commitment to delivering on the actions and recommendations set out in the report as a matter of urgency, so that the outcomes can be achieved. This must include progress on the long overdue Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland, as this will underpin the achievement of key recommendations with this comprehensive and wide-ranging report.