Committee of Public Accounts: Press Notices

2nd PAC Report 2006-07

Improving literacy and numeracy in schools

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

“Children only get one chance at a good education.  While the Committee recognises the achievements of many children in Northern Ireland which compare very favourably with the brightest in the rest of the United Kingdom, the school system in Northern Ireland has tolerated, for too long, a situation where a significant proportion of children are underachieving and leaving school without basic skills in literacy and numeracy. 

“For example, at Key Stage 2 nearly a quarter of children - around 2,000 girls and 3,000 boys - left primary school in 2004-05 with literacy skills below the standard level, while at Key Stage 3, in secondary schools, almost 7,000 of the pupils tested (41 per cent) failed to reach the standard expected of their age.  Among children from socially deprived areas in Belfast, the problem is particularly worrying.  Data provided by the Department showed that only 4.4 per cent of children who entered for GCSE Mathematics in Protestant secondary schools achieved an A*- C2 grade - this is an appalling position.

 “The excuses for this long tail of underachievement do not stand up to scrutiny.  Since the introduction of the Department of Education’s Strategy for the promotion of literacy and numeracy in 1998, it has invested £40 million on specific programmes, in addition to normal spending on the school curriculum.  However, the Strategy has failed to address this pattern of underachievement, depriving many children of future prospects and opportunities.  Lifting achievement in basic literacy and numeracy, therefore, has to be the Department’s top priority in the coming period.  Improving standards is a considerable challenge that will require sustained effort and collaboration by the Department, the Education and Library Boards and the school community.  My Committee wants to know what the Department intends to do to address the problems, particularly in the Belfast area.  We expect the Department’ reply to this report to clearly set out how the matter will be addressed.”

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 2nd Report of this Session, which, on the basis of evidence from the Department of Education Northern Ireland, examined the progress made in improving the literacy and numeracy attainment levels of school children in Northern Ireland.

There are a number of other worrying features of educational attainment in Northern Ireland.  Boys consistently have a lower level of achievement in English and mathematics than girls at both Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3.  This has been attributed to the problems some boys experience with engagement and experience of schooling.  In the Belfast area, there are disturbing differences in achievement between pupils of different religious backgrounds.  The evidence shows that among non-grammar schools in Belfast, children in Roman Catholic maintained schools achieve, on average, at a higher level than pupils in Protestant controlled schools.  Comparative data on the performance of Roman Catholic and non-Catholic schools in Glasgow shows a closer fit in performance between the two types of school and that pupils in the latter perform much better than pupils in Protestant controlled schools in Belfast.  These sort of differences between genders and religious groupings are cause for concern because they suggest that pupils within them are facing additional barriers that prevent them fulfilling their potential.

Since the introduction of the Strategy in 1998, progress in literacy and numeracy attainment levels has been manifestly unsatisfactory and the Department has failed to show sufficient leadership in driving things forward.  For example, when targets have not been met, they have, too often, simply been relaxed.   To address the lack of progress and to move literacy and numeracy up its agenda, the Department has now embarked on a comprehensive review of the Strategy which will look at a range of issues around literacy and numeracy.  The Department also believes that improvements in literacy and numeracy levels will come as a result of current plans to restructure and reorganize the education system in Northern Ireland with the introduction of a new curriculum and the ending of the current system of selection at 11 years of age.

Notes for Editors

1.Contact details for requests for further comment from Mr Edward Leigh are provided below. ISDN facilities are available for broadcasting purposes.

2.The full text of the Report is attached to this press notice.

3.This report can be accessed via the internet from around 00.01 am on the day of publication.

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