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Almost 80,000 children get sub-standard education in Northern Ireland, says report

By Rebecca Black

Published 16/11/2016

Findings: Noelle Buick
Findings: Noelle Buick

One in three post-primary school students across Northern Ireland is receiving a standard of education that is "not good enough", inspectors have found.

The figure is higher than the equivalent at primary schools, where inspectors found that 20% of pupils were receiving inadequate education.

The alarming statistics came with a report published today by the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI).

ETI chief inspector Noelle Buick's 114-page investigation, which covers from 2014 until this year, also found, however, an overall improvement, including an increase in the GCSE pass rate and a narrowing of the gap between grammar schools and non-grammars.

But it also uncovered some major issues, including:

• boys still under-performing, averaging 10% below girls in terms of the GCSE pass rate percentage,

• Protestant boys continuing to fall behind their Catholic counterparts at GCSE stage;

• non-attendance rates at post-primary schools remain "too high" at 6.6% (down from 7.1%);

• 26 schools remain in formal intervention;

• a postcode lottery in which the lowest GCSE pass rates were found in the Belfast and Causeway Coast and Glens areas, while the highest were in Lisburn and Castlereagh.

Over the summer, the ETI inspected 659 educational facilities, including pre-schools, primaries, post-primaries, special schools, education other than at school centres, youth service facilities, work-based learning initiatives and educational centres in prisons.

It found that approximately 20% of children in primaries and 30% of youngsters in post-primary schools were receiving a sub-standard education.

"If this figure is translated to the early years and primary school population as a whole, 20% means that almost 35,000 children may not be getting a good enough education," the report said.

"In post-primary, it would be more than 43,000. In total, just over 78,000 children may not be getting a good enough education."

This fails the Department of Education's policy, named Every School a Good School, which aims for every school to be ranked at least 'good' or better.

However, The GCSE pass rate improved, with the number achieving at least five GCSEs at grades A* to C or equivalent (including GCSE English and mathematics, increasing by 2.5 percentage points since 2013-14 (63.5%), and by 6.9 percentage points since 2009-10 (59%).

But the gap in achievement between those who receive free school meals (FSME) and those who do not was found to be not "closing sufficiently".

It dropped from 33% in 2009-10 to 32.4% in 2014-15.

Boys are still falling behind girls, the report found. "There is a difference of around 10 percentage points between the proportion of boys leaving non-grammar schools with five or more GCSEs and equivalent, at grades A* to C, including GCSE English and mathematics, and the percentage of girls achieving at this level," it said.

In 2014‑15, 40.3% of boys leaving non-grammar schools achieved this standard, compared to 50.7% of girls. The report continued: "There has been an improvement in the percentage of FSME boys in non‑grammar schools achieving these important pathway qualifications, with an increase of over five percentage points from 2013-14 (20.7%) to 2014-15 (25.8%).

"The gap between these boys in non-grammar schools and those not entitled to free school meals is still too great. Just over 70% of FSME boys in non-grammar schools do not achieve to the expected standard. The percentage of boys in non-grammar schools not entitled to free school meals not achieving at the same standard is 57.2%."

Some 63.2% of those from minority ethnic groups achieved to the expected standard, but only 25.8% of looked-after children did, and the report noted a "persistent concern" that only 26.7% of FSME Protestant boys achieve five GCSEs at grades A* to C or equivalent, compared to 39.9% of equivalent Catholic boys.

Ms Buick said that tackling the issues would require "much more joint working across government departments".

"Too many pupils still receive an education that is not good enough," she added. "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 under-perform in exams compared to girls."

However, she emphasised the positives: "The percentage of pupils attaining three or more GCSE A levels at grades A* to C remained steady at around 65%. The proportion of school leavers, including those on free school meals, achieving at least five GCSEs at grades A* to C or equivalent, including GCSE English and mathematics, increased."

Education Minister Peter Weir said that despite financial challenges, he was committed to tackling underachievement.

He added: "It is clear from this report that there remain gaps in educational attainment for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly pupils entitled to free school meals, boys and looked-after children. While there are some improvements more needs to be done by all of us to tackle this problem."

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