16 May

Education – could do better is the message to the new NI Assembly

Research carried out just before the NI Assembly Election found widespread dissatisfaction with public services in Northern Ireland – and Education was no exception to this.

Independent polling company LucidTalk ran a “Tracker” survey (one of a series following trends in opinion) in March and found that only 48% of the representative sample gave education even a slightly favourable rating.  Most of these people judged the service a middling  ‘fairly good’ (ie very few thought education in NI “very good”).

So overall 52% of respondents currently think the NI education service is less than good. Add to that news the fact that these were worse ratings than the previous month.  Any company worth its salt would be very concerned if its products were similarly viewed by consumers.  There is no excuse for complacency in the public sector if the people who use services funded by the taxpayer show overall dissatisfaction with them. Surely we should expect something “very good” in return for our contribution.

It may be worth noting that education did not emerge as the worst service according to that tracker poll.  But it seems that the problems with education are perceived as most urgently in need of political focus. The LucidTalk March and April Tracker Polls both found that education was the top issue concerning the public during the Assembly election campaign. This is a significant shift, the Health Service having nearly always topped the ‘issues’ list in election campaigns until now.

But then, as John F Kennedy said “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education”.

Education provokes political and ideological debate more than any other public service. The rise of education as a major issue in the recent NI Assembly election campaign no doubt reflects those public concerns over the service, and a feeling that the system and structures need serious attention.

We have all seen the many recent news articles describing the fragile economic state of the education system.  This term, school leaders from across a range of sectors have united to send a distress call over the most recent budget changes. They warned that the quality of pupils’ school experience could be severely affected, with potential staff redundancies and a reduced curriculum.

The Fund has held a series of public meetings over the past few years to discuss a broad range of education issues and it’s clear parents, schools and communities want to see action to address many outstanding problems -  including the transfer process, the budget crisis and the number of empty desks draining the system of resources. So the latest opinion polling comes as no surprise.

A separate, earlier, LucidTalk poll of the NI public (in autumn 2015), commissioned by the IEF, clearly showed an appetite for rationalising school provision as a way of tackling financial problems. A representative sample of 1094 people across NI was asked to prioritise a list of actions which might be taken in the face of pressures on the education budget. The concept of amalgamating schools, including cross-sectoral mergers, was the most popular choice across all demographic groups:

To read this document click here.

In another piece of research, a cross-party panel of MLAs was interviewed by LucidTalk late last year and asked for their views on systemic and structural reform of the education service. Replies included comments such as “The structure is overly fragmented”; “There is a lot of waste at the moment; we need one system that is efficient”; “Reform has the potential to save money”; and “There needs to be one state education system…”

It surely makes economic and social sense to develop a single system of common schools. President Obama, on his latest visit to London, commented that integrated education is a real symbol of progress towards a normalised community in Northern Ireland.  The public seems to share that view as do, increasingly, many politicians. Now, as we embark on a new NI Assembly mandate,  we need to see political leaders with the will to turn words into deeds and deliver progress.

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8 Apr

Snapshot of support for education reform

 By Bill White CEO, LucidTalk polling company

Education is a key issue in Northern Ireland (as it is anywhere) and our recent NI-wide opinion poll for the Integrated Education Fund produced some interesting results and showed some key patterns and trends. As you probably know, the main key advantage of polling is that it allows us to get regular snap-shots of public opinion, about not only voting intention, but views on policies, political leaders, and a whole host of topics that can’t be measured in public elections e.g. in this case views regarding education. They also allow us to see how males/females, particular age-groups, and here in NI how our religious groups think about topics and issues – again these can’t be measured just by public elections.

Some key patterns emerged from the  poll findings. For example, we asked a question about nine key education issues, and asked respondents to grade these issues 1 – 5 in terms of importance (from very important to very unimportant). It is noteworthy, that one of these nine issues was ‘Educating children of all communities within one common school system‘, and this overwhelmingly was viewed by everyone, including both Protestants and Catholics as a grade 1 ‘very important’ issue.

A follow-on question covered the religious education curriculum and asked “…should the teaching of religious education in schools be broadened to focus on the teaching of the wider subject area of “Religion, Philosophy and Ethics?”. This produced a result of 70% Yes, with significant support from the 18-24, and 25-44 year-old age-groups. Interestingly there was also high support for this from all urban and rural areas including the west of NI.

Another question asked ‘Would you like to see an independent non-political review of the current NI education system’?, and this produced a result overall of over 60% Yes. Interestingly, younger people and those in the east of NI were more likely to answer “Yes” to this question, but this doesn’t negate the overall results that there is sound support for the proposition of an independent review of the education system from all sectors of NI society.

One issue that Protestants, Catholics, rural, urban, indeed everyone is very united on, is the importance of ‘… that the business community should have a role in helping schools identify skills which could best prepare our young people for the future.” This produced a huge 85% Yes right across the board, showing that parents still view getting their children the right skills for a job, and a good career, as paramount.      

You can read a detailed summary of the research here: IEFAutumn15AttPoll March 16 publish

 Background Information

Polling was carried out by Belfast based polling and market research company LucidTalk, over a period from the 19th October 2015  – 20th November 2015. A  representative sample of 1,094 NI residents, aged 18+, were interviewed. The sample of 1,094 was carefully selected to be demographically representative of NI residents within the targeted geographic area of NI.   Results presented are weighted, were applicable, to match the Northern Ireland (NI) demographics. This demographic analysis ensured the final results represented an accurate view of current opinion within NI. All data results produced are accurate to a margin of error of +/-2.6%, at 95% confidence

The project used a set of questions agreed with the IEF.  All poll questions were agreed to British Polling Council (BPC) professional market research standards, to ensure neutrality and balance.


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31 Mar

Education reform must be at the heart of the campaign

by Baroness May Blood, IEF Campaign Chair

After years of complacency it’s time to challenge the notion that the Northern Ireland education system is world-class.  As the Assembly election approaches, it’s a challenge politicians must not ignore. The recent survey by independent research company LucidTalk, shows clear evidence of frustration with the schools system in Northern Ireland, in the face of sluggish progress at Stormont in improving processes and structures.  When participants were asked what three words or expressions came to mind to describe the NI education system, responses included: “entrenching sectarianism”; “divisive”;  wasteful; and “a rudderless, vision-less political football.”

A glance at the education landscape reveals what is prompting these opinions. The NI schools system has long been in a fragile state with financial pressures, continuing changes to the curriculum and increased workloads.

We have not seen effective action to address the gulf between our “winners” in the exam stakes and those left behind.  Yes, we have a percentage of high-achieving students but we also have a serious “tail” of underachievement.

And even after years of uncertainty and stress for teachers, pupils and parents, Stormont has failed to properly address the selection issue.

Moreover, the segregated nature of education provision means that the majority of our children and young people of school age continue to be educated in a single-identity setting.

Repeated polls, of parents, business leaders and the wider public, show a common view that the NI education system is uneconomical and dysfunctional. Stormont’s own Public Accounts Committee has questioned the Department of Education’s planning system and its use of unreliable data.  It seems we don’t know how many surplus places there are in NI schools but there are certainly plenty, spread across multiple school sectors.

Duplicating provision represents a glaring failure to address reality and adjust the service to get best value for our young people.  Remember that this divided structure brings additional costs in areas such as school transport and teacher training.  It’s time to question the returns on that expenditure.

A failure to address this issue by extension fails the taxpayers who fund the system, the schools struggling to function within it and, most crucially, the young people whose future will be shaped by it.  If political leaders cannot address the problems then it will surely be time to take politics out of education and turn to an independent commission.

This would please the majority of those questioned by LucidTalk who have sent a clear message that the public would like to see politics and vested interests taken out of the education system.  More than two thirds of respondents think that there should be an independent planning authority for education similar to the Housing Executive, and nearly two thirds of those questioned said they would like to see an independent review of the current education system in Northern Ireland.

The health service in Northern Ireland has been reviewed by an objective expert.   Now a cross-party body is working to put political difference aside and agree proposals to improve the service and benefit all users – a development which is to be commended and welcomed.

So if we have looked to outside advisors to assess our health service (and in the past to reform policing here)  – surely the education of our children deserves the same level of scrutiny and the same vision of a service which offers the best deal for everyone?



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2 Feb

Integrated schools prove there is an alternative to division….

By Trevor Ringland

For some time, opinion polls have shown a desire from people in Northern Ireland that our children should learn together.  Despite overwhelming support for the idea, there is no clear strategy to end segregation in our education system and only 7% of pupils attend ‘integrated’ schools.  We have a ‘Shared Schools Strategy’, but there are justifiable concerns that, while it pays lip service to sharing, it is chiefly a way of avoiding genuine integration, devised by politicians who are suspicious of the concept. (more…)

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28 Jan

Our past should not stop us planning for a united future

By Baroness May Blood, IEF Campaign Chair

A new year is a traditional time for a new beginning.   The media is full of features on new starts and resolutions.  Many of those resolutions will be abandoned by now, as we head into February, but it remains a good opportunity for reflection and planning on the way we move forward as a society.   And of course the start of 2016 is an especially good time to examine the prospects for Northern Ireland, opening as it does an election year for the Assembly. (more…)

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21 Jan

Our politicians need to be business-like

A blog post by Tony Carson, businessman and supporter of the Integrated Education Fund.

I was born and began school life in Belfast, though the family moved on as my father Frank’s career took off beyond Northern Ireland. I took a degree in business before moving into the food services sector and later gradually diversifying my activities. I have always maintained an interest in social issues – actively supporting integrated education, for example, whilst keeping a distance from politics. But my frustration with the Stormont parties is mounting. I want to see Northern Ireland flourish; and I realise that we need a genuinely business-like approach to politics and government.

I have frequently set out the economic arguments for a system of integrated schools in NI –rationalisation in the face of budget cuts and over-supply, of places and the improvement to the NI “brand” if we present a cohesive, progressive aspect to the international business community.

But beyond this, applying business sense to the way the Executive and Assembly work would bring dividends for everyone. (more…)

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