Is education performing?

agendaNi looks at efforts to tackle the gap between the province’s highest and lowest achievers, and compares exam performance in Northern Ireland with other parts of the UK.

Educational underachievement is a cause for concern, despite Northern Ireland pupils consistently out-performing their peers across the water in A*-C grades at GCSE and at A-level.

Underachievement is generally classified as those pupils who leave education with less than five or no GCSE qualifications. And in Northern Ireland, a greater percentage of local pupils have left education with less than five or no GCSE qualifications when compared to their English counterparts, in each of the last

three academic years. The Department of Education is concerned that in 2007-2008, 43.7 per cent of school leavers left education “without five good GCSEs including literacy and maths.”

Last year, the Assembly resolved to “recognise the threat to future prosperity and well-being posed by educational underachievement in many communities.” The Minister was called upon “to produce a cross-cutting departmental action programme to tackle educational underachievement.”

The result was Caitriona Ruane’s promise to make “every school a good school.” The April 2009 policy document conceded that “there is considerable room for improvement particularly in relation to the gap which currently exists between the highest and lowest achievers.”

The Every School a Good School document aims to:

· Create an ethos of aspiration and high achievement;

· Tackle the barriers to learning that young people may face;

· Embed a culture of self-evaluation and self-assessment;

· Put in place formal intervention if a school is not providing a high quality of education;

· Increase engagement between schools, parents and families to recognise that local communities exercise a powerful influence on educational outcomes; and

· By 2011, reduce the percentage of year 12 pupils with no qualification at GSCE A*-G level or equivalent from 3.6 per cent to 1.5 per cent.

The document also urges caution against the fact that Northern Ireland results are compared with England and Wales, “partly because they have similar school systems.” It states: “Such comparisons certainly show our education system in a generally positive light – but there is an argument that we should be benchmarking ourselves rather more ambitiously and in an international context.”

Progress on this policy is currently being monitored by the Department of Education’s board and its audit and risk management committee.

In addition, work is ongoing on an all- island joint publication on best practice in the teaching of literacy and numeracy in schools in disadvantaged areas. A children’s book week, which is to be held later this year, will focus primarily on children who have little or no tradition of reading at home.

During the Assembly debate on educational underachievement, the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell remarked that “huge swathes of our children and young people are living in disadvantaged areas in predominantly, but not exclusively, loyalist working-class areas.” He said that children as young as seven told him they want to be like former paramilitaries or drug dealers “because when they look around them they see that those who are living on the edges of crime have a lot of money and drive big cars.”

Ulster Unionist Fred Cobain has commented on the problem, pointing out that “in North Belfast 70 per cent of Protestant boys and 60 per cent of Catholic boys who receive [free] school meals leave school with five GCSEs or less.”

In England, the education remit goes to the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Its Schools Minister, Vernon Coaker, has overseen a number of projects aimed at improving educational performance.

These include legislation which ensures a place in education, training or apprenticeships for anybody who wants to stay on after GCSE; a new post- primary curriculum where coursework is replaced with a new controlled assessment; and GCSEs in English, maths and ICT now incorporating functional skills – whereby effective communication, presentation, team working, and problem-solving are taught to ensure that students can use the three subjects in everyday situations.

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