Room for improvement

The education system is failing too many children in Northern Ireland. That is the analysis contained within a biennial report compiled by the Chief Inspector of schools.

The theme of the most recent Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) report is Working as One… with Success for Everyone. The report is underpinned by over 11,000 lesson observations over a two-year period and across a range of sectors including: early years, primary; post-primary; special schools; EOTAS; and further education.

While acknowledging excellence and exceptional leadership among educators, ETI Chief Inspector Noelle Buick notes: “This is not universally, nor even consistently, evident.” Inspection is regarded as an important component in the process of improving standards. However, the report for 2014-16 concludes that almost 20 per cent (35,000) of children in early years and primary and 30 per cent (43,000) of post-primary learners are “accessing education that is not good enough”.

Within the reporting period, 79 per cent of those organisations inspected exhibited a high level of capacity/a capacity to identify and bring about improvement. The remaining 21 per cent of those inspected had important areas for improvement/needed to address significant areas for improvement as a matter of urgency.

Variable factors listed in the report include inconsistency in “standards across individual subjects, low teacher expectations and uninspiring teaching”. The report contends that while standards and academic achievement are good or better in most inspected post-primary schools, this masks underachievement elsewhere.

The attainment gap between those entitled to free school meals (FSME) and those who are not is identified as a significant challenge. In 2015/16, 44.8 per cent of FSME school leavers achieved at least five GCSEs (or equivalent) including maths and English at grades A*-C, compared with 75.8 per cent of their non-FSME counterparts. This gap is not closing at a sufficient pace and a 49 per cent target for FSME school leavers established under the previous Programme for Government (2011-15) was missed by some 7.7 per cent.

Likewise, the gap between male and female learners is also significant at GCSE level. In 2015/16, 72.2 per cent of female school leavers attained a minimum of five GCSEs (or equivalent) including maths and English at grades A*-C, compared with 63.3 of male school leavers. When additional variables are introduced, the picture can become much starker. For instance, only 34 per cent of Protestant FSME boys reached this benchmark achievement.

The Chief Inspector’s third report has concluded that since the previous report (2012-14), key challenges for education and training remain.
Specifically, Buick identified the following requirements:

  • an improvement of achievement and standards for learners from socio-economic disadvantage, boys and Looked After Children;
  • an increased effectiveness in identification and intervention for pupils with learning challenges;
  • a collaborative effort to ensure a broad and balanced curriculum which is better adapted to the needs of all learners;
  • a provision of education which strengthens the resilience of pupils without inhibiting initiative and independence;
  • a continuation of efforts to ensure the capacity of teachers as leaders of learning and to be more effective in reflection and improvement of practice; and
  • an enhanced level of support and swift resolution of issues for schools in challenging contexts.

Launching the report in late 2016, the Chief Inspector asserted: “Too many pupils still receive an education that is not good enough. While more pupils are achieving overall, the gap between those entitled to free school meals and those not, remains an issue. It is unacceptable that boys continue to underperform in exams compared to girls, with this trend most marked in non-grammar schools.”

Speaking at the ETI’s recent biennial conference, Buick stated: “I wish to pay tribute to the work you do as the leaders of education and training… You make a positive difference to the lives of young people and learners across Northern Ireland.

“But not all learners have access to high quality education and training and that matters to their success and life opportunities. To address these challenges and to use the excellent capacity that we already have in the system, we need to get better at working and collaborating together at all levels to drive forward improvement.”

Currently, short of strike action, all major teaching unions are refusing to cooperate with the Education and Training Inspectorate. The non-participation of teachers and principals in the inspection process means that no key findings can be reported. As such, there are now over 160 reports which remain incomplete this year. Schools, however, are still attending ETI events and engaging in professional interaction with district inspectors.

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