Belfast Telegraph

Lessons to learn

Our students may be outperforming their English and Welsh counterparts, but our education system is still failing thousands every year. Kathryn Torney investigates

Northern Ireland is a country of contrasts and contradictions - especially so when it comes to academic achievement.

Students here once again outperformed their counterparts in England and Wales in this year's A-Level and GCSE exams, and this is something of which our schools are rightly proud.

Just over 98% of candidates achieved grades A* to E last month, compared to a UK-wide pass rate of 97.6%. And 84.5% of this year's entries in Northern Ireland achieved grades A* to C.

At GCSE level, 76.3% of entries here gained grades A* to C, which is significantly higher than the UK average of 69.1%.

But what these impressive figures don't take account of is the students who sit none or very few GCSEs.

The most up-to-date school-leaver statistics produced by the Department of Education make very uncomfortable reading.

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 a shocking 9,500 - 41.6% of the children leaving school that year.

This is a substantial drop from 12,000 pupils in 2005/06 - more than 47% of the leavers that year - but it's still nothing to be proud of.

An even more depressing statistic is that 662 students (2.9%) left school in 2008/09 with no GCSEs. More than 400 of those were boys.

When we look specifically at the school-leavers from low- income families - those entitled to free school meals (FSM) - only 29.7% achieved five GCSEs at A*-C, including English and Maths. The Department of Education's meagre goal is for this to reach just 30% by 2011.

And religion also makes a difference. Only 19% of Protestant boys entitled to FSMs achieved at least five good GCSEs (including English and Maths) compared with almost 30% of Catholic boys on free meals.

This year's school-leaver statistics won't be available until later this year.

It also should be noted that the Programme for International Student Achievement, which compares our performance in reading, maths, and science with 56 other nations at the age of 15, shows that our international ranking has slipped in recent years. We're not as good - overall - as many people think we are.

There is little doubt that the young people who fail to achieve any GCSEs at school are likely to join the 25% of adults here with poor literacy and numeracy skills.

To put this in context, these adults may not be able to read the instructions on a medicine bottle, may have difficulties with simple maths, and are probably unable to help their children with reading. It must have an enormous impact on their daily lives.

The Department of Employment and Learning has spent millions of pounds on its essential skills programme for adults and DEL minister Sir Reg Empey has even questioned whether children should be allowed to move into secondary level schools if they do not have basic reading and writing skills.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education published its new school improvement policy - aspirationally named Every School a Good School (ESaGS) - in April 2009.

The policy admits it is "perhaps surprising" that education law does not place a clear responsibility for raising standards and tackling educational underachievement on boards of governors or education organisations. "Consequently, there can, at times, be confusion in relation to accountability," it continues.

ESaGS places much of the responsibility for school improvement on the Education and Skills Authority (ESA) - which had been due to be set up by January of this year.

However, political wrangling over its formation continues, and there is currently no target date for it to be established.

It's hard to see how the policy's ambitious aims can be implemented without the new single education authority in place.

We currently have many fantastic schools, but in some areas dramatic improvements are needed.

The Chief Inspector's report for 2006-2008 found that in a third of the primary schools inspected, the quality of provision was not good enough. In just over a quarter of the post-primaries inspected, leadership and management also needed to improve. In spite of this, only 18 schools have so far been subject to formal intervention by the department following critical inspection reports.

Many of the inequalities when it comes to attainment start before children even step through the school gates for the first time.

Family background, housing, health, and the academic ability of parents all play a crucial role in children's early learning.

Some children start school unable to hold a pencil, while others are turning the pages of books, writing their names, and even recognising some words.

ESaGS states that schools serving disadvantaged communities and areas where the value placed on education may not be as high as it might be will need much greater levels of support.

In more basic terms, this surely means they will need more money. But in these tight financial times, where is that going to come from?

Early intervention is crucial if problems arise with children's learning, and it has been claimed that £1 spent on a child in their early years could save the Government £17 in the future, including reduced crime rates among young adults.

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane must think about the long-term financial gains and not just the short-term costs when considering how she will spend her stretched budget in the future.

Leaving very young children's problems to fester, as is often the case now, could prove to be much more costly for everyone in the long run.

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