During Oral Questions to John O’Dowd, Minister of Education, Patsy McGlone enquired about any plans for the introduction of baseline assessment between nursery and primary school. After the difficulties experienced with computer based assessment in October 2012, the Minister declared his belief that the technical issues could be resolved and “lessons will continue to be learned” in the pursuit of a rigorous assessment system. However, in terms of making baseline assessment statutory, he revealed that he has no such plans and believes that the current system (of leaving it to the professional judgement of teachers) “is capable of delivering the requirements to the benefit of the child”.
The controversial issue of using free school meals entitlement as an accurate (and the only) measure of social deprivation was again discussed. It was previously debated during a question discussing it’s prevalence in school funding plans. Sydney Anderson asked the Minister what alternative indicators have been investigated by the Department. Mr O’Dowd remained resolute that “free school meals entitlement has a number of characteristics that make it the most reliable indicator for identifying social deprivation” and there has been no investigation into alternatives. Various reports have concluded that a child on free school meals is half as likely to do well in education as any other child - a problem that we as a society cannot ignore. As yet no one has been able to offer a better measure of social deprivation than free school meal entitlement.
During Topical Questions, Chris Hazzard asked the Minister for an update on his recent visit to Ontario, Canada. Mr O’Dowd said that “it was a very useful and informative visit” particularly as the problems faced in Ontario ten years ago are similar to those currently faced in our own education system today. They directed more funds towards social deprivation which has seen the education gap close rapidly. He praised the extensive data that is collected on students in Canada saying, “if you have the evidence to resolve an issue, you should use that evidence to resolve the issue”.
The Minister also answered Members questions on school attendance, integrated schools and his response to the Public Accounts Committee report on improving literacy and numeracy achievements in schools.