Committee Finds Few Outcomes from £913m of Targeting Social Need Funds

Session: Session currently unavailable

Date: 10 February 2022

Reference: PAC 04/21/22

The Northern Ireland Assembly Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has published a report, entitled Closing the Gap – Social Deprivation and Links to Educational Attainment, which looks at the long-standing problems improving the educational achievement of children from socially deprived backgrounds.

The report focused on the £913 million that the Department of Education has provided since 2005 to schools, firstly through the Targeting Social Need (TSN) and secondly through Sure Start programmes and the impact that this funding has had on narrowing the gap in educational outcomes.

The report recommends that a collaborative/cross cutting approach is taken to addressing all the issues identified in this important report, ensuring the recommendations will be delivered. Also required is a commitment from a new Executive for a cross-cutting approach to make available funding and resources that will seriously address social deprivation and educational attainment issues.

The report also looked at whether it was suitable to use Free School Meal Entitlement as the appropriate measure of social disadvantage, given that PAC had raised concerns about this as early as 2013.

Chairman of the Committee, William Humphrey MBE MLA said: “When we looked at whether the funds provided to schools have made an impact on raising achievement for young people, we were surprised to learn that only 60% of schools provided information on how they have used the funding available in 2019-20. We accept that this was a significant improvement from the previous year when only 6% returned this information. However, without this crucial information it is difficult to ensure that schools are making the best use of the funding and actually achieving better outcomes for young people.

“We believe that the Department of Education and the Education Authority need to do much more to ensure that the remaining 40% of schools provide this important information.

“We were astonished to learn that the Department only began collecting data on the Sure Start programme in 2015, even though the programme has been in place for more than 20 years. As a consequence, the Department is only beginning to understand the effectiveness of this important early years programme.

Mr Humphrey added: “It is concerning that there is no requirement for schools that receive TSN funding to spend it solely on supporting pupils from socially deprived backgrounds. At the moment, a school may use these funds to ‘top up’ the general school budget. This is clearly inappropriate and is inconsistent with the proscribed rules around other specialist funds such as Special Educational Needs (SEN).”

The Committee also heard from an Expert Panel which was set up as a priority in New Decade, New Approach to examine the links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background. In its Final Report and Action Plan, it estimated the cost of implementing its recommendations at £11 million in the first year, rising to more than £73 million per year from year five.

Chairman Humphrey concluded: “As part of our inquiry, we visited a school that receives TSN and SEN funding - the Boy’s Model in North Belfast. The school provided us with an example of the right way to use the funds available to address the issues of social deprivation. Not only has the school implemented targeted strategies to address the deficits in support and resources, they have included health and wellbeing classes as part of the normal timetable.

“We believe it is vital that the Department and indeed all schools should put into place mechanisms to both identify and disseminate best practice so that all children benefit from the TSN and Sure Start funding.

“We look forward to the Department and a future Executive implementing the recommendations in our report and believe that they will contribute to a significant impact on improving the outcomes of children from our most socially deprived backgrounds.”



Notes to Editors


The Committee’s recommendations from the Report are:

Recommendation 1

The Committee is unconvinced how the current funding mechanism will address the attainment gap (given the limited impact to date) and deliver value for money.

The Committee recommends that the Department reviews how funds to target social need and address educational underachievement are provided to schools. The review should assess the current funding mechanism, how funding is used by schools to target those most in need and the impact of the funded interventions


Recommendation 2

Although the Committee had raised concerns about the use of FSME as a measure of social disadvantage in 2013, the Department is still using this measure to allocate TSN funds. 

The Committee recommends that the Department completes its review of the suitability of the Free School Meal Entitlement as the measure of social disadvantage as soon as possible to ensure that the most appropriate measure is being used and support is provided to those pupils who need it most.


Recommendation 3

Only 6 per cent of schools provided the Department with information on their use of TSN funds for the 2018-19 academic year. In addition, only 15 per cent of schools provided Key Stage (KS) data for the 2018-19 academic year.

The Committee recommends that the Department ensures that all schools provide information on the use of TSN funding and Key Stage assessment data to enable the Department to develop effective guidance and policies and allocate resources to those areas that will lead to better outcomes for pupils. This should include consideration of what action needs to be taken to ensure schools comply.


Recommendation 4

Actual performance was below the targets for all KS 2 and 3 milestones set by the Department for the 2018-19 academic year. The KS 4 target for school leavers with FSME was also not achieved.

The Committee recommends that the Department identifies what actions are required to achieve existing Key Stage targets and ensures that these actions are implemented and targets are achieved.


Recommendation 5

The Department and the EA have not set a target or series of targets to address the attainment gap.

The Committee recommends that the Department and the EA put in place a measurable, time-bound target to address the attainment gap and ensure that challenging targets to address the attainment gap are included in each school’s development plan. 


Recommendation 6

The Department only started to collect Sure Start attendance information in the 2015-16 school census. Consequently, the Department is only at the early stages of understanding how to demonstrate the long-term benefit of the Sure Start programme which has been in place for over 20 years.

The Committee recommends that the Department establishes a methodology to clearly demonstrate how Sure Start and other early interventions funded by the Department contribute to closing of the attainment gap and provide value for money.


Recommendation 7

The Committee was left unclear about what the Department and the EA do when good practice is identified, how it is shared, communicated and implemented. It was also unclear what direct support the Department or the Education Authority provided to school leaders to help them identify and implement known best practice.

The Committee recommends that the Department and the EA put in place appropriate mechanisms for the identification and dissemination of current educational best practice, including international best practice, and that support is provided for school leaders to implement appropriate initiatives. 


Recommendation 8

The Committee heard of some shocking rates of school attendance in Northern Ireland and is concerned that tackling absenteeism is not seen as a priority issue.

The Committee recommends that the Department and the EA consider what additional support they can provide to schools to improve attendance rates to ensure pupils from socially deprived backgrounds benefit from the funding provided to close the attainment gap.


Recommendation 9

There is a need to ensure that teachers and leaders with suitable skills and experience are placed in schools where pupils’ need is greatest and that teaching quality is developed and maintained through appropriate interventions.

The Committee recommends that the Department ensures that there is appropriate investment in the training and development of teaching staff, especially those in socially deprived areas, to address academic underachievement.


Recommendation 10

More needs to be done to ensure that people with the right skills are recruited as School Governors to meet the particular needs and circumstances of each school.

The Committee recommends that the Department and the EA ensure that Principals and Governors are supported and developed to be more effective in their leadership roles, especially in relation to the management of school finances and the attainment of required outcomes.


Recommendation 11

Considerable reliance is placed on the work of the EA’s School Improvement Team regarding the scrutiny of school development plans and the work of the Education Training Inspectorate (ETI) regarding the use of TSN funds, improvement and the identification of best practice.

The Committee recommends that the Department and the EA review the current impact of the ETI and the School Improvement Team on improving educational attainment and how this impact can be maximised to contribute to closing the attainment gap.


Recommendation 12

The Committee heard evidence from and welcomed the findings of the Expert Panel’s Final Report and Action Plan, ‘A Fair Start’, to address links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background.

The Committee recommends that funding is provided to implement the Expert Panel’s recommendations in full and that appropriate mechanisms are put in place to monitor and report on the efficiency and effectiveness of the funding. In addition, the Department should clearly define the role to be played by the Expert Panel in supporting the implementation of the Action Plan to ensure it achieves the outcomes envisaged.


Recommendation 13

Collaboration across Government Departments is required to address social deprivation and educational attainment issues.

The Committee recommends that mechanisms are established to ensure a collaborative approach is taken to address the issues identified in this report and deliver its recommendations. This activity should be led by the Department of Education and the Education Authority, and should ensure appropriate joint working with schools, other departments, community groups, local government and other organisations as required.


For any media enquiries, please contact:

Debra Savage

Communications Officer

Northern Ireland Assembly

Mobile: 07920 864221


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