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Should pupils stay in primary school until they can read, write and count?

By Kathryn Torney

Serious consideration should be given to holding children back in primary school until they master basic literacy and numeracy skills, the new Minister for Employment and Learning said yesterday.

The call from Danny Kennedy comes as it emerged that tens of thousands of teenagers are leaving school in Northern Ireland every year and heading straight into remedial reading and maths classes.

Shocking figures provided by Mr Kennedy’s department show that 60% of the 168,177 people who signed up for Essential Skills literacy and numeracy courses over the last eight |years were aged between 16 and 19 years old. ICT was added as a third essential skill last year.

Around 184,000 children left school during the eight years between 2002 and 2010 and, during this period, a total of 101,290 16 to 19-year-olds enrolled on the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) courses.

The reading and maths |abilities of the teenagers taking part in the courses varies greatly. Some have just missed the grades they needed for college but for others the learning deficiency is more extreme.

And the figures do not show the full extent of the problem, as many young people struggling with basic skills will not seek help.

Mr Kennedy said there is a pressing need to address “the conveyor belt of educational underachievement” and he called for radical action from the next Executive to address the situation.

“The suggestion that children should not transfer from primary to post-primary until the basics of literacy and numeracy have been mastered must be taken seriously,” he said.

“If my department is to have the resources necessary to invest in skills and improve Northern Ireland’s competitiveness, the next Executive must commit to radical action to address this situation.”

\[Clare Palmer\]Just before leaving the post, he told the Belfast Telegraph: “I think it is a national scandal that so many young people are leaving school with poor reading and maths skills.

“What are we doing that we are allowing so many young people to be in school for 12 years and come out with that?

“Currently, our system is not delivering on the basics for many thousands of young people. That cannot be right.”

Mark Langhammer, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Northern Ireland, said: “These statistics demonstrate what we already know — that our education system is far from ‘world class’ and tolerates a long tail of under-achievement.

“More than 40% of our workforce have no qualifications, compared to a UK average of 18.9%.

“There are strong arguments not to hothouse children or to force numeracy and literacy too early. There can be irreparable detriment to children finding themselves in early intervention or catch up programmes.

“But clearly we need to frontload investment in pupils within the primary phase.”

He continued: “DEL’s focus within the Skills Strategy on literacy, numeracy and essential skills up to Level 2 is misguided in that qualifications at or below Level 2 are rewarded with no wage premium whatsoever in the Labour market.

“It’s economic demand that drives skills, not the other way about.”

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane said recently that it was “unacceptable” to her that so many young people leave school without basic literacy and numeracy skills and she said that she has made tackling underachievement and raising standards a priority.

She added that she will shortly publish a revised literacy and numeracy strategy.

For more information on Essential Skills classes near you, go to www.knowhowNi.info

Analysis: A sad indictment of our education system

The figures reported on today shatter the stereotype that essential skills classes are taken mainly by elderly people let down by an education system of bygone days.

The reality is that 60% of people signing up for courses in the last eight years to try and achieve basic qualifications in reading and maths — and more recently ICT — were aged between 16 and 19. This shows there is a real and serious problem with our current education system.

Over 70% of the 168,177 people who enrolled on the literacy and numeracy courses between 2002 and 2010 were aged between 16 and 25 — while less than 4% were aged 56 or over.

We already know that the number of pupils leaving school in 2008/09 without the basic target of five good GCSEs (grades A* to C) including English and maths was 9,500 — a shocking 41.6% of the children leaving school that year. And an even more depressing statistic is that 662 students left school in 2008/09 with no GCSEs.

Many of these young people will go on to join the statistic of being among the 25% of adults with poor literacy and numeracy skills. Early intervention is crucial to address this issue — rather than allowing it to fester.

Belfast Telegraph

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