Belfast Telegraph

School system slammed as it's revealed two in five pupils leave without the basics in English or maths

By Adrian Rutherford

Two in every five pupils here leave school lacking basic English and maths skills, leading to claims that our education system is failing young people.

A total of 372 school leavers did not achieve a single GCSE in just one year, a report said.

And 38% of all pupils failed five GCSEs, including English and maths, in 2012/13, Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) revealed.

Little improvement has been made since, with "a significant tail of underachievement" remaining, MLAs said.

Today's report also accuses the Department of Education of getting its sums wrong over the number of surplus school places.

The number of surplus places may be much lower than the figure reported.

It has led to fears the department is basing decisions about the future of schools on inaccurate information.

The report examines the sustainability of Northern Ireland's schools, and considers whether our education system is fit for purpose.

It also charts progress since a review of education carried out by Sir George Bain in 2006.

The Bain Review concluded there were too many schools in Northern Ireland.

In 2009 the Department of Education introduced its Policy for Sustainable Schools.

The report states that too many pupils are still underperforming and despite a "modest improvement" over the past two years, the committee said the situation still caused concern.

"It is disappointing... that in 2012-13, 38% of all school leavers failed to achieve five GCSEs including English and maths and that 372 school leavers did not achieve any GCSEs," it said.

"This level of underperformance is unacceptable - our education system is failing too many of our young people.

"There has been a steady but modest improvement in educational achievement over the last two years, but there is a long way to go to meet targets.

"A significant tail of underachievement remains and applies particularly to the most disadvantaged pupils."

Since the introduction of the Department of Education's sustainable schools policy, the department has reported a 14% reduction in the number of surplus school places - from 83,376 in 2008/09 to 71,540 in 2014/15.

Only half of this was down to the work of the department, with demographic changes accounting for the rest.

The report states: "Progress in reducing surplus places has been frustratingly slow and there is considerable scope for further improvement."

And the committee raised concerns about the reliability of the department's data.

MLAs said they were "unconvinced" that surplus places had been calculated accurately.

"The department's calculation of surplus school places is based on approved enrolments less actual enrolments," it said.

"However, the approved enrolment figure is, in many cases, based on historic data and not on current standards."

It said the calculation does not take account of pupils admitted to a school over and above the approved enrolment level.

The figure of approved enrolments also excludes pupils with special educational needs.

"As a result, the committee is of the view that the figure for total surplus school places is likely to be overstated," the report states.

"It is unacceptable that the department is not able to provide statistically accurate data on the number of surplus school places.

"As a result, the evidence base supporting the sustainable schools policy falls far short of acceptable standards and the department is basing decisions about the future of schools on inaccurate information."

Deputy chair of the PAC John Dallat said: "We are concerned by the fact that the department has failed to recognise the flaws in its own management information.

"It is concerning that the department's calculation of the actual number of surplus school places may be substantially lower than the figure reported by the department.

"This is no basis upon which to implement such an important policy."

Speaking following publication of the report, Minister O’Dowd said he would consider if any additional action needs to be taken.

He said:  “Today’s report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) follows an NIAO Report in June 2015 and a PAC evidence session in November at which the Committee acknowledged the complex and challenging environment in which the Sustainable Schools Policy and Area Planning are being taken forward.

“It is therefore all the more surprising that the PAC has failed to recognise this in its written report and indeed would appear to have completely failed to grasp the complex nature of the policy.

“The sustainable schools policy has been tested in court on several occasions and found to be a competent policy upon which to make decisions both about the future of individual schools and area planning more widely.

“I have already accepted the eight recommendations within the Northern Ireland Audit Office report and these are being progressed by my Department. Project Teams have been established and steady progress has been made.

“I will now consider what additional action, if any, needs to be taken.”

Last year the Belfast Telegraph reported on the high cost of teacher suspensions.

Today's report confirms that over the past five years, 106 teachers were suspended from their duties, but only six were subsequently dismissed.

Teachers out on suspension cost the Department of Education £4.2m during this period.

372: The number of pupils who failed to obtain a single GSCE in one year

38%: Pupils who failed to get five GCSEs, including English and maths

109: Number of teachers who have been suspended over the last five years

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