VFM Report 54:  Educational Disadvantage Initiatived in the Primary Sector   Summary

Four main initiatives to address social and economic impediments to educational attainment by primary school pupils were introduced over the past two decades. Under the initiatives, resources are provided for interventions at the level of schools, pupils, families and the wider community. ?61.8m was made available for the school year 2003-2004.

Development of the Schemes

The four initiatives were gradually introduced commencing with a Disadvantaged Areas Scheme in 1984 which initially covered 33 schools in areas of high deprivation. This scheme was gradually extended as additional resources became available. To cater for liaison between the school, home and community, coordinators were appointed from 1990 onwards. A Breaking the Cycle Initiative introduced in 1996 and covering 152 schools was, in 2001, subsumed into another scheme ? Giving Children an Even Break. Finally in 2002 a cluster-based School Completion Programme was introduced designed to combat early school leaving.

Relative disadvantage is assessed by reference to certain criteria like accommodation status, medical card entitlement and parental unemployment. Different qualifying criteria were used for each scheme and by the time of this examination the picture presented was one of a patchwork of schemes each attempting to address aspects of disadvantage. The Department has begun a consolidation process with the introduction of a new Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools programme from 2006 onwards.

Examination and Scope

The examination set out to establish

  • how the specific resources were targeted, allocated and applied
  • what is being done to address the consequences of disadvantage and identify opportunities for improved practice 
  • the extent to which the effectiveness of the initiatives was being evaluated.

Allocation and Application of Resources

The examination found that disadvantage resources were spread widely. Almost three quarters of all schools benefited to some extent from scheme resources. Schools that have relative disadvantage levels of less than 30% benefited from ?7.9m of resources in the 2003-2004 school year. Any revised basis for allocating resources needs to ensure that the most disadvantaged pupils benefit proportionately from their use.

At school level, 84% of the total resources are provided in the form of teachers and home support liaison coordinators. The principal impact is on class size ? though some schools visited applied the resources to learning support. The predominant use of additional teachers provided under the schemes to reduce class sizes reflected a general view that smaller classes were an effective means of countering disadvantage. At school level only 5% of cash grants were targeted at individual disadvantaged pupils. There would appear to be scope for better targeting in this area.

Apart from the impact of using different criteria to determine eligibility for the various disadvantage initiatives concerns also arose about the reliability of data used in the allocation process. Because the information is largely based on returns from schools - who do not have access to primary sources - it is unlikely to be accurate. Alternative data collection methods need to be explored or more stringent validation put in place.

The School Completion Programme was not available to some schools with high levels of disadvantage ? 25 schools that had relative disadvantage levels over 80% were not included in the programme. Within schools that participated in the programme a quota system was used. In schools with the highest levels of relative disadvantage the proportion of students included in the programme was only in the 19%-29% range. There is a need to review the selection process applied to individual pupils under the programme.

Good Practice

Overall, schools visited were applying the resources in an innovative fashion. Individual schools had found that certain interventions were successful in promoting literacy and encouraging attendance. The report outlines these interventions. While not all interventions are likely to be applicable in all contexts, it would be beneficial to provide some forum to exchange experiences on what worked well so that the lessons learned can be shared and applied more widely.

Operational Shortcomings

The examination would suggest that there is a need for greater coordination and joined up approaches among the agencies and personnel involved in addressing disadvantage.

In particular it was noted that

  • Schools did not have dedicated lines of communication with Health Service staff, reports associated with referrals were not confidential and little feedback was received. The HSE accepts that coordination needs to be improved.
  • In the area of absenteeism, the National Educational Welfare Board was not providing a comprehensive service to schools. The Board acknowledged that it was currently only prioritising children with the most significant levels of absenteeism and that it was still in the process of developing linkages and relationships with key agencies. There is a need to find a way in which the board can intervene in a more timely fashion before absenteeism begins to impact detrimentally on the capacity of the school to educate the pupils concerned.
  • In the case of the schools visited the Home School Community Liaison service did not, in general, see itself as having a role in attendance. In addition, it found it difficult to elicit a response from some target families whether due to unavailability due to work commitments or incapacity due to substance abuse or alcohol. It also appears that, in some cases, links with other school personnel are sometimes hampered by a lack of opportunity to communicate mutual concerns. There appears to be a need to review the operation of this function in order to ensure that it works at maximum effectiveness.
  • Some School Completion Programme clusters were unhappy with the level of support received from schools. There appears to be a need for guidelines on the relationship between clusters and schools.

Evaluating Impact

The impact of the initiatives can be assessed, in part, in terms of the rate of improvement in literacy and numeracy levels and absenteeism.

A 2004 national assessment found that standards of English reading had not changed since 1998 and that overall standards had not changed since 1980. In both 1998 and 2004, pupils in designated disadvantaged schools had significantly lower average scores than pupils in other schools with a slightly bigger gap in 2004 than in 1998.

Numeracy levels in disadvantaged schools are low relative to schools generally. A review of a selected number of disadvantaged schools in 2004 found that the results of 64% of their pupils fell in the bottom one fifth of pupils generally.

Bearing in mind the resources applied through the various disadvantage initiatives and the general increase in recent years in the financial allocations to the primary sector, it is disappointing that reading standards in designated disadvantaged schools have not improved.

A 2003 survey by the National Educational Welfare Board indicated that, at primary level, absenteeism in disadvantaged areas averaged 20 days out of a total of 183 schooldays with about one in four pupils absent for 20 days or more during 2003. There were no earlier figures with which to compare these results.

In order to evaluate the effectiveness of future programmes to combat educational disadvantage it will be necessary to set targets for literacy, numeracy and attendance at both national and school level and to ensure that proper systems are put in place to collect the relevant data.