The Northern Ireland Assembly has been dissolved. The election will take place on Thursday 5 May 2016.

Session: 2012/2013

Date: 29 May 2013

Reference: NIA 116/11-15

ISBN: 978-0-339-60482-7

Mandate Number: Mandate 2011/15 Fifteenth Report

Committee: Public Accounts

nia-116-11-15-Report-on-Improving-Literacy-and-Numeracy-Achievement-in-Schools.PDF (3.87 mb)

Executive Summary


Literacy and numeracy are fundamental skills necessary for children to reach their potential at school and to live rewarding lives. As a result, a basic obligation to our children is to equip them with the reading, writing, and maths skills needed to fulfil their potential. In an increasingly competitive global economy, we also need to achieve real, sustained improvements in these core skills over time.

For many years, the Department of Education (Department) has focused on building the capacity of teachers and schools to improve levels of literacy and numeracy. While there has been progress over recent years, the pace of this has been slow. Moreover, there is a high concentration of poor outcomes in some schools and a big gap in performance that is partially linked to social deprivation. In addition, there can be a wide variation in the results achieved by schools with apparently similar intakes. Overlaying this, girls generally achieve higher standards than boys across the school sector, and among disadvantaged communities, maintained schools generally outperform schools in the controlled sector.

Overall Conclusions

The Committee concluded that the operation of a number of key elements consistently underlies the performance of schools that achieve high standards of literacy and numeracy:

  • A belief that each child can learn and build on basic literacy and numeracy skills regardless of background
  • Convincing evidence which indicates that the greatest improvements in literacy and numeracy skills will come from systematic and sustained intervention in children’s early years
  • The engagement of parents to provide educational development in the home and in local communities
  • Strong leadership and management practices, involving whole-school approaches to the teaching of literacy and numeracy
  • The provision of quality teaching and learning by teachers who have acquired, during their pre-service teacher training, and in-service professional learning, evidence-based teaching practices that are shown to be effective in meeting the developmental needs of each child
  • Effective school governance based on a balance between supporting and challenging the school leadership team

Narrowing the Gaps in literacy and numeracy attainment

Regionally, there is a large and persistent gap in literacy and numeracy attainment between pupils who receive free school meals – a proxy measure of social disadvantage - and those who do not. For example, by 2010-11, at GCSE level, the gap had risen to 33·4 per cent. There are also variations in performance between girls and boys and between children from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds, while performances generally decline after the transition from primary to post-primary school. These gaps in performance are clearly unacceptable and it is important that all partners – the Department, employing authorities and schools – give urgent attention to understand why the gaps persist and how they can be

In particular, there will be a need to improve the targeting of the large numbers of pupils who are achieving well below the expected level in literacy and numeracy. Whilst targets should be realistic, the Committee believes that high expectations drive higher performance. This is particularly important for the groups which have historically under-performed. The point is to change existing patterns and accelerate the rate of performance of the most vulnerable pupils. Towards this end, it will also be important to closely assess the performance of underperforming schools as they implement their improvement strategies, to identify whether they are on the right path to improvement and to recognise their achievements.

Early years and parental involvement

The Committee believes that every school must be appropriately resourced to support every child. At the same time, the funding system for schools must be as effective as it can be in promoting excellent outcomes, in this case literacy and numeracy attainment levels. Central to realising this goal is the need to provide children with access to high quality schooling from their early years.

Currently, proportionately more funding is targeted at the latter stages of a child’s time at school. The Committee considers there is a clear need on the part of the Department to address this mismatch and direct relatively higher levels of funding towards the development of literacy and numeracy competencies in the early years of a child’s education. This investment will be more cost-effective than paying for remediation later in life.

While opportunities to develop literacy and numeracy skills can be enhanced through early years’ provision, the engagement of parents to provide educational development in the home is also key to the development process. The Committee acknowledges that it is the responsibility of schools to teach children the basics of literacy and numeracy but considers there are many things that parents can do to assist the development of their children’s literacy and numeracy skills. It is crucial that parents are encouraged and supported in endeavours of this kind.

Supporting and encouraging good quality teaching and leadership

Teaching quality has strong effects on children’s experiences of schooling, including their attitudes, behaviours and, ultimately, their achievement outcomes. The evidence presented to the Committee showed instances of both poor quality teaching and poor pupil achievement standards. In view of this, the Committee considers that there is a need to maintain a close focus on teacher quality and building capacity in teachers towards quality, evidence-based teaching practices that can be shown to be effective in meeting the literacy and numeracy learning needs of all children. This is the case for both teacher training institutions and the ongoing professional learning provided to teachers throughout their careers. Improving the content of teacher training courses together with improvements in the personal literacy and numeracy levels of trainee teachers should all be examined to secure a firm evidence-base for teacher preparation.

Schools and school systems must identify and assist teaching staff whose performance, for whatever reason, has fallen below acceptable standards. If attempts to improve their performance fail, unsatisfactory teachers should expect to be dismissed. While termination must be justified and defensible, the Committee believes that, under existing procedures, this responsibility has not been carried out as well as it ought to have been. Difficult and painful as dismissal decisions are, the rights of pupils to a good education must take priority.

Accountability for literacy and numeracy performance and spreading good practice

An effective governing body can have a valuable impact on school improvement. In the Committee’s view, school governance is most effective when governors have a clear understanding of their role and strategic responsibilities. Critical to achieving a strategic focus is the quality of the relationship between the principal and the Chair of the Board of Governors. The Committee believes that the skills and knowledge required by governors in providing strategic challenge need to be further developed and supported at the individual school level. Only by learning how to deal with issues affecting their own school will governors be able to play their part in ensuring that their school improves attainment in areas such as literacy and numeracy.

The Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) inspects and regulates individual schools and also produces more general reports which give a regional picture of the strengths and weaknesses of particular aspects of school provision, for example on literacy and numeracy. The Committee is concerned, however, that the value of ETI’s role in providing external validation and challenge in regard to school performance may be compromised because its role is not derived from its independence from the Department.

The Committee is supportive of the move to shorten the period of notice ETI gives to schools announcing an inspection. While the Department intends to reduce the period of notice from four weeks to two weeks, the Committee also recommends that giving no notice that an inspection will take place should also form part of ETI’s armoury.

At a system level, the Committee concluded that the Department had a key role to play in catalysing and supporting innovative practices, both locally and from international experiences, to promote literacy and numeracy learning in schools and to ensure that effective solutions are identified, disseminated and taken up more widely.

Summary of Recommendations

Recommendation 1

The large and persistent gap in literacy and numeracy attainment between pupils who receive free school meals and those who do not must not be allowed to continue. We recommend that the Department addresses this gap with greater urgency. While schools that serve disadvantaged areas face considerable challenges in raising attainment, some are clearly meeting these challenges more effectively than others. The Department should identify those activities that are specifically resulting in marked improvements in the progress of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. It should support the dissemination of these effective practices to those schools which are doing less well for their pupils.

Recommendation 2

The Committee recommends that all schools should be aware of characteristics which make pupils vulnerable to underperformance and should be setting targets to increase these pupils’ rate of improvement at a faster level than the pupil population as a whole so that they can catch up with their peers. In particular, it is essential that schools increase awareness of the needs of disadvantaged children and rigorously monitor their progress, both to prevent them falling behind and to ensure they remain on track.

Recommendation 3

The evidence session explored a number of ways of tackling the declining performance of pupils as they progress through the education system, and we strongly recommend that the Department implements these as a matter of urgency:

  • Early intervention initiatives, to identify and support children who are underachieving and those with special educational needs;
  • Developing the capacity and capability of schools and teachers to be able to identify problems, such as underachievement and special educational needs, early and put appropriate measures in place;
  • Rigorous tracking and monitoring of the transition of individual pupils between primary and post primary; and
  • Setting targets at an individual pupil level and monitoring progress throughout a pupil’s time in compulsory education.

Recommendation 4

Successful learning in a child’s pre-school and early primary years is a critical first step towards realising a child’s educational potential and gaining the literacy and numeracy competencies and knowledge he or she needs to be engaged and achieve in education throughout life. It is also the most certain way to avoid the unacceptable financial and human costs of having to provide substantial numbers of people with remedial education when they are adults. 1 The Committee, therefore, strongly recommends that the Department undertakes a full review of the Common Funding Formula with a view to ensuring that funding is directed to where it is needed most, giving specific consideration to early intervention.

Recommendation 5

The Committee urges the Department not only to disseminate learning but to ensure that the additional resources available through initiatives such as Achieving Belfast and Achieving Derry Bright Futures are rolled out and shared as equitably as possible across the schools sector so that they reach all those pupils with the greatest need.

Recommendation 6

The Committee recommends that the Department should establish a clear strategy for parental engagement to ensure that all schools have clear procedures for communicating and engaging with parents and the community. Along with employing authorities and schools, the Department must also aim to increase parental confidence and access to advice, information and resources which can help parents support their children’s literacy and numeracy development. In particular, given the link between social disadvantage and low literacy and numeracy attainment levels, there is a specific need for further creative interventions that seek to genuinely engage with and value the life experiences of socially disadvantaged families. The Committee also recommends that the Department should consider building on programmes such as the Extended Schools Initiative which seek to extend the role and capacity of schools so that they work more like “community schools”, as part of a network of other schools and community agencies.

Recommendation 7

The Committee recommends that the Department must satisfy itself that local teacher training institutions are well equipped with teaching strategies based on findings from rigorous evidence-based research that are shown to be effective in enhancing the literacy and numeracy development of children.

Recommendation 8

Professional learning throughout a teacher’s career is also vital to building capacity in literacy and numeracy teaching. The Committee recommends, therefore, that schools and employing authorities, working with the General Teaching Council and the teacher training institutions, should provide all teachers with appropriate induction and mentoring throughout their careers, and with ongoing opportunities for professional learning about effective literacy and numeracy teaching.

Recommendation 9

The Committee strongly recommends that the Department considers the benefits of alternative teaching practices evident in other countries.

Recommendation 10

The Committee recommends that revised procedures for assessing teacher performance must be implemented as a matter of urgency in order to empower school principals and Boards of Governors to deal effectively with unsatisfactory performance. In the Committee’s view, the new procedures must be simple and flexible, firm but fair. A streamlined approach to performance management is needed, to help schools act more decisively in pupils’ interests. The implementation of the new procedures should be monitored closely by the Education and Training Inspectorate.

Recommendation 11

The Committee recommends that, in conjunction with the employing authorities, the Department must develop a more strategic approach to succession planning and the development of future leaders and leadership roles at all levels in schools. Teachers must be given the opportunity to develop themselves as potential leaders capable of initiating change and improvement in our schools.

Recommendation 12

The Committee recommends that the Department and employing authorities should do more to ensure that Boards of Governors are well equipped to challenge school principals and offer practical advice on initiating change within a school. Rather than providing generic training to Boards, the Committee would like to see the Department offering more guidance and support to help Boards deal with issues that are specific to their school.

Recommendation 13

The Committee considers that the ETI’s current proposal to reduce the school inspection notice period to two weeks is sensible and gives schools sufficient time to collate all the necessary evidence and to ensure attendance of key personnel. However it recommends that the option of no-notice inspections should also be available to ETI, in cases where the area inspector has registered specific concerns about a school’s performance. The Committee considers close working relationships between Area Inspectors and schools to be critical. In undertaking no-notice inspections, the Committee considers that public confidence in the integrity of the inspection process would be improved as parents and others would have greater assurance that inspection reports will present as accurate an assessment of a school’s performance as is possible.

Recommendation 14

While the Committee acknowledges the work of ETI in the dissemination of good practice on literacy and numeracy, the continuing long tail of under-performance among pupils shows that the reach of good practice could be improved. The Committee recommends that consideration is given to improving the link between the findings from school inspection and the dissemination of good practice. In the Committee’s view this would help to better equip our schools to deliver a quality service to its pupils and would add value by improving the educational outcomes of our pupils.

Recommendation 15

In the Committee’s view it is frustrating that good practice is already in operation in our schools but is not being shared for the maximum benefit of all schools and all pupils. The Committee recommends that the Department develops a more strategic, focused and coordinated approach to ensure that effective solutions are identified, disseminated and taken up more widely. In particular, it needs to do more to encourage and support local experimentation and innovation and to systematically identify and scale up effective models of teacher and school practice.

Recommendation 16

It is important that we continue to benchmark our education system against the best in the world and in doing so, the Committee recommends that the Department should seek to establish an understanding of the alternative approaches in place in the best performing countries. Clearly our education system is failing a substantial minority of pupils at post primary level and, in the view of the Committee, greater consideration must be given to the wisdom of alternative approaches and the introduction of reform in our education system.

1 See previous Committee report – Improving Adult Literacy and Numeracy, 24 March 2011, PAC 09/10/11

Download the full report here

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