By Noel McAdam
Ulster Unionist leader Mike NesbittThe foremost issue for voters in the Assembly election is education - pushing ahead of health for the first time, a poll has shown.
A 'tracker' exercise by polling firm LucidTalk revealed most people put education on top of health, which usually tends to be the main concern.
It comes after the DUP dropped a strong hint it could take up the Education Ministry for the first time following the May 5 poll.
Usually the party gives first preference to the Department of Finance - controlling the Stormont purse strings - but leader Arlene Foster indicated this time could be different. In the UTV leaders' debate broadcast on Wednesday she said she was "listening very carefully" to what her candidates and party activists are being told on the doorsteps.
And Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has also reiterated his party's interest in taking the education portfolio, although he admitted the UUP might "reluctantly" go into opposition. The emphasis on education is now reaffirmed in the Lucidtalk survey, which concluded: "Whether it's the thorny issue of the future of grammar schools and selection tests, tuition fees or integration, what is happening in the classroom and the lecture hall is now at the top of the agenda."
The key research - commissioned by the firm Chambre Public Affairs - asked those surveyed to list their four top issues and education came first with others including the economy, the environment and abortion also featuring.
Coming in just behind these are marriage equality, the environment, abortion, and infrastructure "in that order," Chambre managing director Will Chambre said.
Sam Fitzsimmons, communications director of the Integrated Education Fund (IEF), said the result was not surprising.
"We regularly liaise with local communities across Northern Ireland regarding education issues," he said.
"Through our community engagement projects the IEF are increasingly finding that more and more people are becoming involved with education issues in their local areas.
"There are also many local developments currently happening in education that are engaging people, like school merger plans."
Bill White of LucidTalk added the polls are also researching political party preference, party leader ratings, EU referendum views and other issues.