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Alarming gap in literacy at Northern Ireland schools widens further

By Lindsay Fergus

The literacy gulf between grammar and non-grammar schools in Northern Ireland has widened despite government efforts to raise standards.

Almost 32,000 pupils across the province are deciding their next step after opening their GCSE results yesterday morning.

Northern Ireland students bucked the national trend of falling GCSE grades and instead recorded a slight improvement in their results.

A* to C grades have gone up by a small margin to 75.6% — compared to the national UK average which has fallen to 68.4%.

Despite the welcome rise in standards here, concerns have been raised about falling standards in the key subject of English.

Damning new figures from Thursday's Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) English GCSE results show a widening gap between the grammar and non-grammar sectors. They show:

  • Some 3,463 non-grammar students failed to achieve the government benchmark of a grade C or higher — compared to 237 grammar pupils
  • Standards have risen in the grammar sector (up from 95.2% to 96.9% of pupils) but dipped in the non-grammar sector (down from 49.6% to 49.2%) compared to 2011
  • More than half (50.8%) of non-grammar pupils did not get a grade C or above

This amounts to a total of 7,419 grammar students gaining C or above, compared to only 3,354 non-grammar pupils.

Stormont’s Education Committee Chairman Mervyn Storey said Northern Ireland’s main exam body statistics for the single subject were a “shameful” indictment on the Education Minister’s literacy and numeracy policies.

The CBI, a leading employers’ organisation, called on the Department of Education for a “renewed focus” on English and maths. Statistics from the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) - all five exam bodies — show the Northern Ireland average to be 68.2% — down from 68.5% in 2011 — meaning that 7,062 pupils here failed to get a grade C or higher in English this year.

Mr Storey said: “The Department has always said that these policies they were putting in place would improve literacy and

numeracy, especially in the non-selective sector. Clearly it is not working.

“A newly qualified teachers’ taskforce needs to be put in place to go into these schools on a year’s secondment to specifically address the issues of numeracy and literacy. It’s shameful for a minister who claims to be minister for all, clearly not delivering in every sector of education.”

However, Minister John O’Dowd blamed the disparity on the process of academic selection.

“I am committed to tackling educational underachievement wherever it exists — whether in the grammar or non-grammar sector,” said the Minister.

“The impact of selection, which lowers expectations and outcomes for pupils from age 11, is an obstacle in doing this,” he insisted.

Although standards have improved in the non-grammar sector in maths, like English, more than half of pupils failed to get a grade C or higher.

CCEA’s results indicate that 51.1% of non-grammar pupils got a D or lower compared to 2.9% in the grammar sector. That equates to 2,675 pupils and 232 respectively. The Northern Ireland results for all exam bodies also show an improvement in maths up from 60.9% of pupils attaining an A* to C to 62.9%. But that means more than one-third of all pupils (9,089) here are not getting at least a C in maths.

Minister John O’Dowd said: “The Count, Read: Succeed strategy is designed to raise standards in both literacy and numeracy.

“This builds on the Every School A Good School raising standards policy, and both policies prioritise high-quality teaching in well-led schools.

“The evidence is that these are working.

“Thee number of pupils leaving schools with five good GCSEs including English and maths has been rising steadily, from 52.6% in 2006 to 59.5% in 2011. “

The Governing Bodies Association (GBA), which represents voluntary grammar schools accused the department of losing “sight of the need to target remedial policy at the points where it is required”.

Director John Hart said: “It is encouraging to see such a strong performance from the grammar sector, however the gap with other sectors should be a matter of concern for all of us.”

Belfast Telegraph


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