The draft Programme for Government and education
Putting together this Programme for Government is a complicated procedure.
In May the Executive brought forward its draft PfG Framework – essentially a sketch of what was to come later.
At the end of last month a draft PfG itself was put out for consultation. At first thought this might seem like a convolution, even a parody of bureaucratic officiousness. It is not.
The new outcomes-based approach that was agreed before the election requires more work ahead of time but, done correctly, there is evidence to show it can improve the lot of local society.
None of this guarantees that the Executive will get the PfG right but, on the other hand, the iterative approach and according long timescale are not in any way causes for alarm. And, if this outcomes-based approach proves successful (which, done correctly, it may very well), we should all get used to this way of working because it will be here to stay.
The focus of this article will be what the draft PfG has in store for education in Northern Ireland.
The draft document has 14 high-level strategic outcomes it seeks to address, some of which relate to education. The outcomes are that, as a society, we:
- prosper through a strong, competitive, regionally balanced economy
- live and work sustainably – protecting the environment
- have a more equal society
- enjoy long, healthy, active lives
- are an innovative, creative society where people can fulfil their potential
- have more people working in better jobs
- have a safe community where we respect the law and each other
- care for others and we help those in need
- are a shared society that respects diversity
- are a confident, welcoming, outward-looking society
- have high quality public services
- have created a place where people want to live and work, to visit and invest
- connect people and opportunities through our infrastructure
- give our children and young people the best start in life
Written down, this could almost seem ridiculous. It is a significant change of tack from previous, action-driven PfGs that are defined by a long list of things the government promises to do. However, the evidence behind outcomes-based working cannot easily be dismissed.
Moreover, these outcomes will be measured by a total of 48 indicators – some of which are directly linked to education, including:
Under outcome 3, one indicator is the gap between the percentage of school leavers not eligible for free school meals (FSM) achieving at level 2 or above (including English and maths) and those who are eligible for FSM. This gap will need to close.
The percentage of school leavers achieving at least level 2 in English and maths is another indicator, this time under outcome 5. Outcome 6 also has an indicator that relates to education, namely that there should be an increase in the “proportion of the workforce in employment qualified to level 1 and above, level 2 and above, level 3 and above, and level 4 and above”.
One of the indicators for outcome 10 is the percentage of care leavers who, aged 19 and above, are in education, training and employment, while one of those under outcome 11 is the percentage of schools found to be good or better.
Outcome 14 – specifically about giving children better prospects – will be measured by most of the outcomes mentioned already, and also the percentage of children “at appropriate stage of development in their immediate pre-school year”.
When you go through the Programme for Government in these terms it starts to make a lot more sense.
Close the gap in attainment between those eligible for FSM and those not; simultaneously increase overall attainment; up the average level of qualifications among the workforce in general; get more care leavers into further or higher education; increase the quality of our schools; and improve pre-school development – if we can do all that then it seems inarguable that education in Northern Ireland will not have improved to some significant degree.
Perhaps the only ingredient specifically missing is one that caters for children with disabilities (see yesterday’s Debate of the Week for one area where this is relevant) but there are also indicators that seek to improve the lives of people with disabilities generally that might cover this area.
The educational aspects of this will not happen in isolation – for instance, there are several health-related indicators, many of which relate to wellbeing and development in children and young people, and improvements in this area should have knock-on positives in education.
The idea is that by making these final outcomes, via their indicators, the ultimate measure of success or failures of this Programme for Government (rather than a list of tasks to be facilitated by the Executive), departments and other agencies will be forced away from silo working and budget protectionism and instead have to work together, which might mean more risks but should also be mutually beneficial.
Politicians everywhere – and in Northern Ireland especially – have a long track record of achievement in deflecting blame.
There is no guarantee this PfG will lead to big improvements in the local economy and society, but it does give us a chance.
By focusing on outcomes, it is no surprise, outcomes might improve.
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