Department must close gap in educational achievement says Committee

Synopsis: The large and persistent gap in literacy and numeracy between pupils who are entitled to free school meals and those who are not must not be allowed to continue. That is the key message in the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee report launched today entitled Improving Literacy and Numeracy Achievement in Schools.

Session: 2012/2013

Date: 26 June 2013

Reference: PAC 06/12/13

The large and persistent gap in literacy and numeracy between pupils who are entitled to free school meals and those who are not must not be allowed to continue. That is the key message in the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee report launched today entitled Improving Literacy and Numeracy Achievement in Schools.

Speaking at the launch of the report, the Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee, Michaela Boyle MLA said: "This gap needs to be addressed 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 needs to identify what activities improve pupil performance and ensure that all schools use these effective practices."

Trends relating to underachievement in numeracy and literacy were identified in the Report which showed that a high concentration of underperformance and gap in achievement were partially linked to social deprivation. In addition, the Report showed that girls generally achieved higher standards than boys and, in disadvantaged communities, maintained schools performed better than schools in the controlled sector. However, the Report also showed that there was wide variation in the results achieved by schools with similar intakes, suggesting that social background was not an insurmountable barrier to educational achievement.

The Report also found that though improvements have been made in recent years, more than one in six pupils are still leaving primary school without essential literacy and numeracy skills, and two in five young people do not attain the expected standard by age 16.

The Chairperson continued: "The Committee is deeply concerned that so many children are not attaining the necessary skills. It is unsatisfactory that £370 million will have been spent on those 9,000 pupils who leave full-time education without achieving the expected standard. This is clearly unacceptable and needs to be addressed through a number of interventions which we explored in our discussions with the Department.

"One of the issues that the Committee is very keen to highlight is the impact that early intervention can make in improving children's achievement in both literacy and numeracy skills. Because of this, we strongly recommended that the Department should undertake 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."

Another issue highlighted in the Report is the need to ensure that teachers are able to take advantage of professional learning throughout their career and for schools to identify and assist those teaching staff whose performance falls below acceptable standards. The Report also states that schools and Boards of Governors must be prepared to dismiss those teachers who fail to improve their performance and that the Department must offer help which is specific to individual schools.

In concluding her remarks on the Report, Mrs Boyle said: "Underachievement in literacy and numeracy is one of the major challenges the Assembly wants to overcome. While there has been progress over recent years, the pace of this has been too slow. What we now need is a major change in mindset. If we are to succeed, we need to create an ethos of joined-up working between the children, their parents, the teachers, the principals, the governors, the Department and the community.

"The findings of the Audit Office report and the Committee's inquiry have identified very good practice, but this is not shared across the schools sector. The Committee also visited the literacy and numeracy programme in Magilligan Prison, which achieves transformative results via small class size, specialist teachers, mentoring and teaching by peers. This programme gives valuable insights into how boys, in particular, approach learning. The Committee commends the vocational energy of those delivering the programme and proposes that the Department promote learning from this source of good practice as well as from those highlighted in the Committee's report.

"We urge the Department to implement our recommendations to improve the outcomes for all our children and communities."

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