The Benefits to Northern Ireland of Inclusion and Supporting Learning

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 26 March 2018
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

The EASNIE report commissioned by the European Parliament in 2017   to examine the issue of inclusive education for learners with disabilities highlights the imperative for educational systems to provide high-quality education for all children. The study found that those with disabilities or social disadvantage are much more likely to be disenfranchised from the mainstream education system. They make the important point that these inequalities affect children profoundly from an early age, with lasting personal and societal consequences. Consequently, early childhood education and care (ECEC) should be provided by the state to tackle it. For countries that adopt this type of approach there are significant long-term returns on investment, thus one of the major aims of the EU Europe 2020 strategy is to aim to lift 20 million people out of poverty and social exclusion through these strategies.

The 2015 PISA report on Northern Ireland Education gives local context, in that approximately half (48 per cent) of low-achievers seem to be clustered together in schools with a high proportion of pupils from a low socio-economic background. The PISA test scores of 15-year-olds in Northern Ireland illustrate the challenge we face both in narrowing educational inequalities by family background and disability and promoting maximum inclusivity.

We have excellent research evidence looking specifically at how Northern Ireland is addressing the issue. The Effective Pre-School Provision in Northern Ireland (EPPNI) Project shows that children who have a high-quality pre-school experience are better prepared for primary school, learn more quickly and are more sociable, confident and independent than those who have not.  The study found that at every stage from the start of primary school up until the end of Key Stage 1, children who have been at formal nursery school or nursery class consistently show the best cognitive, social and behavioural outcomes in the sector. They are followed in terms of achievement by children from playgroups and lastly from private day nurseries, reception classes and reception groups.  Access to these first two types of provision should, therefore, be expanded.  It seems that governmental expenditure would achieve more for the children of Northern Ireland if resources were redirected to the provision of nursery school, nursery class or playgroup provision for all. The formal training of the staff in nursery school settings is clearly a key differentiating factor.

In addition to the benefits to cognitive and social development, the report also draws attention to the reduction of ‘at risk’ status of developing Special Educational Needs that is associated with good quality pre-school provision.  This strengthens the economic case for good quality pre-school provision for all children as SEN is expensive in terms of individuals’ development and public finances.

Recognition of the importance of tackling these issues is reflected in the fact that the Department of Education has been given a statutory regulation, which requires nurseries and pre-schools to give preference to children from socially- disadvantaged backgrounds i.e. a child whose parent receives income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance.  Equally, the 2005 SENDO legislation and the anticipated Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (Northern Ireland)  places duties on Boards of Governors, the Education Authority (EA) and health and social services authorities, to maximise opportunity for pupils with disability.

On the ground, however, this policy on addressing social disadvantage can impact adversely on the efforts of lower-income working parents to secure a vital funded placement for their children where funded nursery school places do not meet demand.

The Northern Ireland Day Nurseries Newsletter reported in 2016 that some working parents in Northern Ireland have voiced anger that their children are missing out on nursery places because they are not ‘socially disadvantaged’.

"Parents claim that there are deficiencies in the current system of allocating funded, pre-school places, where children of parents who both work are placed secondary to those who parents are considered disadvantaged, even though, economically their situation may be similar.

While abiding by the Department of Education’s ‘socially disadvantaged’ rule, it is individual nurseries and schools who set their own admissions policies which consider other factors such as the proximity of a child’s home address to nursery and whether they already have siblings in attendance.”

The Department of Education said in response that since 2012/13 admissions, each year at least 99.8 per cent of children whose parents stayed with the admissions process received the offer of a funded pre-school place. It is clear however that some parents are struggling to find funded places for children in some areas.

As far back as April 2006 a Review of Pre School Education by The Department of Education recommended that:

Facilities and accommodation and funding should improve; staffing ratios should rise; early identification and support is needed for children with Special Educational Needs and high-quality training for pre-school providers should be made mandatory.

Now the potential role of parents in addressing this underachievement issue is also coming to the fore.

It is recognised that efforts should be made to increase the take-up of pre-school places by parents who would not usually send their children to pre-school particularly in specific minority ethnic groups. This would provide vulnerable groups of children with a better start to school and reduce their risk of developing SEN. 

A key element in promoting early years achievement in children involves increasing active parental engagement with children. Involvement in play activities that promote children’s language, spatial skills and creativity in particular, are likely to benefit children’s subsequent attainment at school.

It is therefore timely that the Department of Education has launched a new media campaign 'Give your child a helping hand’ in January 2018. The campaign aims to highlight the essential role that parents and carers can play in helping their children do well at school and improve their life chances. It is planned to run the campaign until the end of March 2018.

Parents and carers are to be encouraged to support their children’s education by giving them ‘a helping hand’ – read and count with them from an early age; show an interest in their day at school and talk to them about their homework.

Information is available on the

Awareness among parents, better-funded nursery school places, quality staff training and early intervention and support for special needs and disabilities are clearly the way forward if we are to live up to our inclusion responsibilities for all our children.


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This article is correct at 26/03/2018

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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