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Non-grammar pupils three years behind peers in top schools in Northern Ireland

By Rebecca Black

Teenagers who attend non-selective secondary schools can be up to three years behind their grammar school counterparts, an international survey of educational achievement has found.

Around 45% of children in Northern Ireland attend a grammar.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) - which is co-ordinated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) - surveyed 15-year-olds across the world in mathematics, reading, literacy and science.

And while the performance of pupils here remains stable, there is a serious divide in attainment.

Pupils who attend a grammar in Northern Ireland scored, on average, 553 in PISA science, 539 in mathematics and 544 in reading.

This is around 100 test points -more than three years of schooling - above non-grammar school pupils in each subject area.

It also found a division in terms of income.

The average PISA science score of 15-year-olds in schools with a high proportion of free school meals (FSM) pupils is 446. This compares to a mean score of 560 for 15-year-olds in schools with the lowest proportion of FSM pupils.

In schools with a high proportion of FSM pupils, 35% of 15-year-olds lack basic skills in science. This compares to less than 2% of 15-year-olds in schools with a low proportion of FSM pupils.

Just 1% of pupils in high FSM schools reach the top two PISA levels. This compares to 15% of pupils in low FSM schools.

The key findings for Northern Ireland include:

  • Pupils perform above the OECD average in science.
  • Pupils are at the OECD average in mathematics and reading.
  • The proportion of 15-year-olds who aspire to a career in science is greater in Northern Ireland than the average across OECD members.
  • Extensive quality assurance processes are already in place within the Northern Ireland education system.

Barry McElduff, who chairs Stormont's education committee, pressed Education Minister Peter Weir to continue to tackle disadvantage in order to improve educational attainment.

"The report shows the difference between the results of the most disadvantaged and those who are better off is the equivalent of missing two and two-thirds years of schooling," he said. "It is clear that we still have a way to go to achieve a world-class education system."

Mr Weir responded to the report, saying he will examine it carefully to see what lessons could be learned.

"The PISA report shows our pupils perform at or just above the OECD average in maths, science and reading. While this is to be commended, our performance has not shown significant improvement," he said.

Mr Weir pointed to a recent report that highlighted the excellent performance of local primary school pupils.

He said he wanted to tackle the dip in performance between primary and post-primary schools.

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