Thank you very much and good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.
I am delighted to be here today to help launch the ‘Ready to Learn’ programme and I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved at Barnardo’s for organising this event and for inviting me along to speak.
Children of today will be our doctors, teachers, scientists, bankers, skilled workers…. and, dare I say it, even our politicians of tomorrow! But no matter what our children aspire to be, they must be given the opportunity, support and encouragement to get there.
This is all our jobs - as parents, grandparents, policy makers and educators we all have a role to play and our efforts can be maximised by working together and supporting children at the earliest possible stage. In the words of Barack Obama: "You will be tested. You won't always succeed. But know that you have it within your power to try."
Indeed it is now widely recognised that the early years of a child’s life are crucial to his or her future development. It is in these years that children learn the core skills which will support them through life and help them to reach their full potential.
We fully appreciate that this extends much wider than in the school setting but evidence now suggests that early and timely investment during the initial years of a child’s education can greatly improve their potential to do well later on in life.
Formal school education plays such an important part in a child’s development and we must ensure that it supports all children, and not just some of them.
Research clearly demonstrates underachievement amongst children from disadvantaged communities here.
Despite significant investment by government over many years, there has previously been insufficient progress made to improve the lives of our most disadvantaged children. If we can provide additional support for those pupils and help to close the gap in attainment we will be making a real difference to their lives.
We are carrying out a lot of work in regard to child poverty here has been carried out by our department and we have recently published a draft child poverty strategy, which is currently out for consultation.
The core aims and potential benefits of the ‘Ready to Learn’ programme are very relevant to the aims and goals of our children and young people’s policies.
Whilst we appreciate that the schooling of our children is primarily the responsibility of the Department of Education, we were keen to be involved by providing funding for the research and evaluation element so we can evidence the outcomes associated with such an intervention and use these to inform future work across government.
The educational achievement of young people is such a critical factor in some many other outcomes including in relation to poverty, health and enjoyment of life experiences.
It is so important to get this right at this stage in a person’s development. That is why programmes like this are fundamental if we are to create a better and brighter future for all in Northern Ireland.
We know that it is often not easy for children from disadvantaged communities access the same opportunities as those from more affluent ones. It can be a real challenge to bridge the gaps that exist and to address the issues that can result in their underachievement.
Parents play a key role in the educational achievement and aspirations of their children.
Most parents want their children to succeed at school and beyond but that sometimes they may not be so fortunate to possess the knowledge, the skills, or indeed the resources, to make this happen. Some parent’s negative personal experiences of school and education can also influence attitudes and engagement. I welcome that this programme integrates both the child and the parents within the project.
Participating in the programme offers you as parents the opportunity to get involved in your child’s education and to better understand your important role as a co-educator.
This programme will help to address barriers to your children achieving and make higher achievement a very real possibility for them.
I hope that you and all the other parents who take part in the programme find the learning experience, both for you and your children, to be a very positive and meaningful one.
I am reminded of a quote by J.K. Rowling, author of the famous Harry Potter novels: "We do not need magic to transform the world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already. We have power to imagine better."
And having the power to imagine it better means having the vision to develop this programme and we pay tribute to not only the commitment of the team behind it but also to the parents and children who get involved.
I’m going to be passing over to Professor Tim Shanahan who is one of the members of the International Advisory Committee.
On closing, I would like to wish everyone who will be involved in the ‘Ready to Learn’ programme during the next three years every success with it and we look forward to receiving future feedback as it progresses.