Since the mid-1990s, the Department of Education has invested almost £40 million on literacy and numeracy programmes, in addition to normal spending on the school curriculum. However, according to a report published today by John Dowdall CB, Comptroller and Auditor General, improving literacy and numeracy standards continues to be a major challenge for schools in Northern Ireland. Pupils’ literacy and numeracy proficiency levels compare very favourably at an international level, and also with England. Nonetheless despite the introduction of the Department’s Strategy for the Promotion of Literacy and Numeracy in Primary and Secondary Schools in 1998 the report found that:
The performance of boys continues to lag significantly behind that of girls (paragraph 3)
None of the targets originally set by the Department in 1998 have been met and the situation has been further complicated by the decision to lower some targets and extend the timescale for their achievement. The decision was taken when firmer data had become available (paragraph 4.1)
Significant numbers of children, particularly in secondary schools, fail to reach the appropriate level of attainment, demonstrating that tackling inequality among pupils becomes more challenging as they progress through the school system (paragraph 4.1).
Primary School: Key Stage 1 – Pupils aged 8
The Strategy’s target of all children, excluding those with severe Special Educational Needs, meeting the standard level in literacy and numeracy by 2002 remains unfilled. Around five per cent or 1,200 pupils fail to achieve the level 2 standard in both English and mathematics every year (paragraph 2.5).
Primary School: Key Stage 2 – Pupils aged 11
While the revised literacy target has now been achieved, nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of children – around 2,000 girls and 3,500 boys – still leave the primary sector with under-developed skills and are therefore likely to struggle with the literacy demands of the post-primary curriculum. At this stage, across all the Education and Library Boards, girls consistently perform at around ten percentage points better than boys (paragraphs 2.6 and 2.8).
In mathematics, some 79 per cent of children reached the standard level 4 by 2004 compared with the target of 80 per cent. Nonetheless, this still means that 2,840 boys and 2,154 girls failed to achieve the standard level in 2004-05. The divergence in performance between boys and girls is not as marked as the gap in literacy performance, however, boys tend to perform around five percentage points less well than girls (paragraphs 3.4 and 3.5).
Post-Primary School: Key Stage 3 – Pupils aged 14
The revised target that, by 2005-06, 73 per cent of all pupils in grammar and secondary schools would achieve the level 5 standard or above in English was achieved a year early (paragraph 2.9). In mathematics, the revised target of 72 per cent of all children achieving the level 5 standard or above was achieved in 2003-04, however, performance fell back in 2004-05 (paragraph 3.6).
Behind these figures, the report found that there is considerable scope for improvement in the secondary school sector. There remain around 6,000 pupils at risk of leaving secondary school at 16 years of age with a level of literacy below the standard level 5, while in mathematics almost 7,000 of the pupils tested (41 per cent) failed to achieve the standard level 5 (paragraphs 2.12 and 3.7).
In particular, across all Boards, boys in secondary schools are consistently an alarming 24 percentage points behind girls in English. The Department is aware of the gap in performance – a problem shared with the rest of the United Kingdom and internationally - and is particularly concerned with the lower performance levels of both boys and girls in the Belfast Board and the fact that the gender gap is 29 percentage points (paragraph 2.12).
The Way Forward
The Department is planning to review its overall approach to literacy and numeracy in 2006 as part of a wider review of school improvement. Against this background, the report calls on it to increase the momentum of change which will make teaching practices and approaches more responsive to the needs of pupils and begin to address the long-standing challenges facing schools in terms of literacy and numeracy attainment levels; reducing the disparity between higher and lower achieving pupils; between grammar and secondary school pupils; and ensuring equitable progress for both genders (paragraph 4.16).