Delaying the bad news?

The long awaited Programme for Government was announced at Stormont

The long awaited Programme for Government was announced at Stormont

AS many eyes were focused on the long awaited Programme for Government announcement at Stormont, the final report of a taskforce set up to examine poor reading and maths levels in our schools was launched.

The Literacy and Numeracy Taskforce document was finally made public yesterday morning (November 17th) – six months after it was written and handed over to the Department of Education.

When asked to explain this timescale, a spokesman for the department said the delay in arranging a launch event was down to the difficulties involved in getting a date and location that suited all participants.

The new taskforce report calls for stronger action to be taken against consistently underperforming schools, better provision for pupils with special educational needs and an increase in trainee teachers’ entrance requirements.

The government’s handling of this important issue has been dogged by delays.

A report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in December 2006 castigated the department over faltering efforts to improve reading and writing skills among pupils. The MPs voiced particular concern over the underperformance of Protestant children in deprived parts of Belfast.

The PAC said a strategy on numeracy and literacy launched in 1998 had failed to narrow the “long standing gap” between the best and lowest achievers, despite the expenditure of £40m. And the committee alleged that a flawed Government approach “appears to set up a significant number of children for failure”.

In 2008, the department was criticised after public consultation of its draft new literacy and numeracy strategy was delayed for two months because the document had to be translated into Irish.

And it was 15 months after the consultation closed in November 2008 before the analysis of responses were released by the department.

The strategy – ‘Count, Read: Succeed – A strategy for improving outcomes in Literacy & Numeracy’ – was eventually unveiled by then Education Minister Caitriona Ruane in March of this year. Ms Ruane said then that £1m would be provided to help school principals implement the strategy.

The current situation is serious. A quarter of adults in Northern Ireland lack basic literacy and numeracy skills – but it’s not just a problem for older members of our community.

The reality is that thousands of children are continuing to leave our schools every year with poor qualifications. Around 9,500 young people (42%) finished school in 2009 without five or more good GCSEs (grades A*-C), including English and Maths. Only 30% of the school leavers entitled to free school meals achieved this.

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

Internationally, Northern Ireland’s performance in reading and maths lags behind that of the highest performing systems. In fact, the 2006 and 2009 results for Northern Ireland in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – which compared the skills of 15-year-old students – showed a decline in our performance.

The latest report by the Literacy and Numeracy Taskforce warns that much more needs to be done. The advisory group – chaired by Sir Robert Salisbury – was set up in 2008 and includes a team of experienced educationalists.

In a news release issued yesterday morning, Education Minister John O’Dowd played down concerns which continue to be raised by the taskforce.

Instead, the Minister said that the taskforce recognised his department’s “firm commitment” to raising standards and tackling underachievement.

He said the report also highlighted the importance of high quality teaching, strong leadership, high expectations, sharing good practice, the effective use of data and early intervention as important factors in raising standards – but failed to say that the taskforce was critical of the lack of improvement in most of these areas since their last report.

Mr O’Dowd said that these issues were “embedded within the school improvement policy and literacy and numeracy strategy”.

Sir Robert states in his foreword to the report: “It is becoming more widely acknowledged that there are serious failings in our current education system and that there are still far too many children who struggle with reading, writing and mathematics and who leave school without the fundamental skills which will equip them for life in the 21st Century.”

And he welcomed the revised strategy which he said was more practical and contained more concrete targets than its predecessor.

Sir Robert said the taskforce had met school leaders who are making great strides forward, including in some of the most disadvantaged areas.

However, he continued: “There are schools where this is not so and where a degree of complacency or lack of rigour still hinders progress and where good opportunities to move children forward are being missed.”

And: “In the view of the taskforce, the level of challenge to these schools has to be raised if overall standards are to be improved; a more streamlined system is also needed to address and support teachers whose work is unsatisfactory.”

The taskforce chair also said that the abolition of the 11-plus and the establishment of the single education authority are issues which “generate confusion and uncertainty for teachers and which ultimately distract them from fulfilling their core purpose”.

The taskforce report states that there still exists a marked gap between the achievements in the highest and lowest performing schools. It said the long-awaited Education and Skills Authority – which is now due to be operational by 2013 – is a vital ingredient in the literacy and numeracy strategy.

The taskforce members also said that a clear resolution on what should replace the 11-plus test would greatly assist schools in establishing common assessment strategies.

Other issues raised in the report include:

• Not enough has yet been done to identify good practice and to share this with other schools.

• There must be much greater accountability and challenge for schools consistently underperforming in terms of literacy and numeracy.

• A common baseline data system, which would inform the development of a ‘value-added’ measure and allow benchmarking against schools with similar characteristics and the setting of realistic targets, has not yet been implemented.

• Greater efforts need to be concentrated on highlighting the role that parents can play in developing their child’s literacy and numeracy skills.

• The delay in creating a single education authority (it was announced this week that it will be operational by 2013) has delayed much needed work to establish a more coherent, high quality and cost effective support service for schools that has the necessary focus on raising standards and tackling underachievement.

• Better provision is needed for pupils with special educational needs (SEN). Classroom assistants and teachers are not adequately trained to meet the specific needs of statemented pupils, which impacts greatly on achievement in literacy and numeracy for pupils with SEN.

• It is likely that a substantial percercentage of D grades achieved at GCSE are a result of pupil disengagement, rather than low ability.

• It must become a priority to ensure that trainee teachers have a more than satisfactory grasp of numeracy and literacy skills. The current entrance requirements (grade C in GCSE maths and English) are too low and this may impact on the effectiveness of the teaching profession.

• The taskforce is concerned that the latest chief inspector’s report continued to identify poor quality teaching as an area for improvement in one fifth of primary schools and in more than a quarter of post-primary lessons. Swift action must be taken to improve poor teaching.

• The most cost-effective form of intervention is early intervention.

Commenting on the report yesterday, Sir Robert said: “As a society, we must make sure all of our young people, regardless of background or ability, are fully equipped with the qualifications and skills they will need to succeed in the future. This must be our absolute priority.

The final report identifies the key issues which the team felt ought to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

We asked the Department of Education to comment on the delay in publishing the taskforce’s report.

A department spokesman said: "The final report of the Literacy and Numeracy Taskforce was received in May 2011, around the time of the Assembly elections, and was forwarded to the Minister when he came into office.

“The Minister took the time to consider the report, and the Department’s response to the issues it raises, and felt it was of such importance he wanted to participate in a launch event to raise its profile and provide an opportunity to stimulate debate on the value and role of education in our society.

“The delay in arranging a launch event was down to the difficulties involved in getting a date and location that suited all participants.

“The Minister is committed to addressing the issues highlighted in the report by implementing a range of policies aimed at raising standards, policies that have already led to the proportion of school leavers achieving the important benchmark of 5 or more GCSEs at A*-C including GCSE English and maths increasing from 53% in 2006 to 59% in 2010."

To see the report and policy actions being taken by the Government click here