Northern Ireland news

Little evidence that money for 'poorer' children helps close performance gap

Several government initiatives have shared hundreds of millions of pounds since 2005

MORE than £900 million funding has made little difference in narrowing the educational attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers.

Several government initiatives have shared hundreds of millions of pounds since 2005, according to Comptroller and Auditor General, Kieran Donnelly.

His latest report - Closing the Gap: Social deprivation and links to educational attainment - focuses on two Department of Education interventions, Targeting Social Need (TSN) and Sure Start.

Collectively, these accounted for £102 million to schools in 2019/20 and 74 per cent of the department's £138m of annual funding directed at children from socially deprived backgrounds.

Mr Donnelly found that, despite £913m of TSN funding since April 2005, the department does not have any data to clearly demonstrate if it has improved the performance of pupils entitled to free school meals.

While the educational attainment of all school leavers is improving, progress to close the gap between FSME and non-FSME pupils has been slow.

The gap in achievement of at least five GCSEs including English and maths has not changed significantly in the last 15 years.

There has been a long-term gap of approximately 30 percentage points.

In 2018/19, 50 per cent of FSME schools leavers achieved at least five GCSEs including English and maths, against a departmental target of 60 per cent. In the same year, 79 per cent of non-FSME school leavers achieved the same standard.

There has also been a persistent performance gap between FSME and non-FSME pupils in Key Stages 1, 2 and 3 in communication, using mathematics and using ICT.

There is no requirement for schools to spend TSN funding solely on supporting pupils from socially deprived backgrounds.

The report found that the department had not collated information on the use and impact of TSN funds. A new TSN Planner, designed to capture such information, has had very low uptake, with only six per cent of schools providing a return for the 2018/19 academic year.

The Sure Start programme started in 2000 targeted at parents and children under the age of four living in the most disadvantaged areas. The projects deliver a wide variety of services designed to support children's learning skills, health and well-being, and social and emotional development.

A review in 2015 concluded that information collected on Sure Start projects' outputs and activities did not provide the data needed to assess the effectiveness of the support provided. Projects now use several recognised measurement tools to assess and record the development of parents and children involved.

Mr Donnelly said he understood that improving educational attainment was more than a matter of providing funding and that a broad range of factors contributed, including school leadership, classroom teaching, and parental and community involvement.

"However, for over 15 years, targeted funding totalling hundreds of millions of pounds has been provided to support disadvantaged pupils and close the attainment gap. It is simply unacceptable that the department does not have adequate information to establish how these funds have been targeted by schools, or the effectiveness of the interventions used," he said.

"The improved performance of all school leavers is to be welcomed. However, there is clearly still work to be done to address educational attainment inequalities, and these are likely to have been exacerbated by the disruption to schools as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic."

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