Press Release: Value for Money Report on educational disadvantage initiatives in the primary sector

The Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr John Purcell, has today ( 6 September 2006) published a report on a value for money examination on educational disadvantage initiatives in the primary school sector.

Background to the Examination

Educational disadvantage arises where there are impediments to education arising from social or economic disadvantage which prevents pupils from deriving appropriate benefit from education in schools.  Some of the principal symptoms of educational disadvantage include early school leaving, absenteeism, poor academic performance and behavioural difficulties.

Over the past two decades the Department of Education and Science has introduced a range of specific measures to counter educational disadvantage.  There were four main schemes implemented.  Under these schemes, resources are provided for interventions at the level of schools, pupils, families and the wider community.  In addition, as part of their ongoing educational effort, schools attempt to address the effects of disadvantage using their mainline resources and budgets.  This report examines the utilisation of the specific funds devoted to combating educational disadvantage in primary schools.  ?61.8 million was spent to this end in the school year 2003-2004.

Allocation and application of resources

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, at the time this examination was being carried out, the picture presented was one of a patchwork of schemes each attempting to address aspects of disadvantage.  However, by the time the examination was completed, the Department had begun a consolidation process with the introduction of a new Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools Programme from 2006 onwards incorporating many of the recommendations contained in the report.

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 ?7.9 million 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.  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.     

Good Practice and Opportunities for Improvement

The report outlines innovative interventions in the schools visited in promoting literacy and encouraging attendance that were deemed successful.  It would be beneficial to provide a forum to exchange such experiences so that lessons learnt can be more widely shared.

The examination also identified a number of opportunities for improvement in the administration of the schemes.

  • In identifying disadvantage, alternative data collection methods should be explored or a more stringent validation put in place to alleviate concerns over the reliability of data used in the allocation process.
  • A revised basis for allocating and applying resources needs to ensure that the most disadvantaged pupils are better targeted.  Schools with low levels of disadvantage benefited from additional resources and in schools with the highest levels of disadvantage only 19% to 29% of students were included in the School Completion Programme.
  • Because the bulk of resources are provided in the form of teaching staff, initial training of teachers and subsequent in-service training needs to be enhanced to include modules on teaching disadvantaged pupils.
  • There is a need to review whether and how the Home School Community Liaison function can achieve higher contact levels with targeted families and what their role might be in the area of attendance.
  • There is a need to examine how the National Educational Welfare Board can intervene before absenteeism impacts on the capacity to educate the pupils concerned ? the Board is not currently providing a comprehensive service to schools and only deals with children with significant absenteeism levels.  
  • There is a need for greater coordination and joined up approaches among the agencies and personnel involved in addressing disadvantage. 

Impact of the Measures

The systems in place to evaluate the impact of the initiatives are underdeveloped.  Targets for literacy, numeracy and attendance at both national and school level should be established and systems developed to collect the necessary data.

The evidence available at the time of the examination indicates that the initiatives are having little impact on improving literacy standards.  Surveys in 1998 and 2004 showed that pupils in designated disadvantaged schools had significantly lower average scores than the national average with a slightly bigger gap in 2004 than in 1998. Given the level of resources applied through the various initiatives and the increase in financial allocations to the primary sector, it is disappointing that the reading standards have not improved in designated schools.

Numeracy levels in disadvantaged schools are low relative to schools generally ? a review carried out by the Inspectorate in a selected number of schools in 2004 showed that 64% of pupils fell in the bottom one fifth of pupils generally. 

Notes for Editors

The Comptroller and Auditor General is an independent constitutional officer with responsibility for the audit of public funds.  He reports to Dáil ?reann. 

The full text of the report is available on the website of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (go to www.audgen.gov.ie)
For further information about the report, please contact:
Richard Rapple at (01) 6031000 or (01) 6031038 or at richard_rapple@audgen.irlgov.ie