Work still to be done to address educational attainment inequalities, finds report

The report found over £900M of funding has not made any demonstrable difference in narrowing the educational attainment gap. Credit: UTV

Over £900 million of funding has not made any demonstrable difference in narrowing the educational attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent counterparts.This is among the conclusions of a report published today by Northern Ireland’s Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr Kieran Donnelly CB.

Mr Donnelly’s 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, the two interventions accounted for £102M of annual funding to schools in 2019- 20 - that accounts to 74% of the Department's annual funding targeting at children from socially deprived backgrounds.

The report finds that funding for children with free school meals has not helped improved the performance of pupils.

That is despite £913M of Targeting Social Need funding having been provided since March 2005.

It also found that educational achievement of school leavers has improved.

However, progress to close the attainment gap between pupils who do and do not receive free school meals 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, with the long-term trend being a gap of approximately 30 percentage points.

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

Today’s report found that the Department has 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 Department advised that uptake was impacted by the timing of the introduction of the Targeting Social Need Planner during teachers’ action short of strike. Mr Donnelly commented:

“I understand that improving educational attainment is more than a matter of providing funding and that a broad range of factors contribute, including school leadership, classroom teaching, and parental and community involvement," Mr Donnelly said.

"However, for over 15 years, targeted funding totaling hundreds of millions of pounds has been provided to support disadvantaged pupils and close the attainment gap.

“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," Mr Donnelly added.

"The issues raised in my report must be addressed urgently in order to maximise outcomes for pupils, and value for money for taxpayers.”