Dáil debates

Tuesday, 24 October 2006

3:00 pm

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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Question 96: To ask the Minister for Education and Science the measures that will be put in place to improve literacy levels in disadvantaged areas in view of the failure to reach the target of halving the number of primary pupils with literacy difficulties by 2006; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34297/06]

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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This Government is committed to doing everything it can to improve literacy levels in disadvantaged areas. We are conscious of the fact that good levels of literacy and numeracy are fundamental prerequisites for full educational and social participation, and we are redoubling our efforts to promote these.

A key underlying principle of DEIS, the action plan for educational inclusion, is that of early intervention. It focuses on identifying and assisting children who are having difficulty with reading and writing at an early stage with the aim of preventing literacy difficulties from becoming entrenched. Children in DEIS schools that are identified as having major reading difficulties will be targeted early to benefit from intensive, individualised literacy tuition through the reading recovery programme. This programme, under which each child can be provided with 2.5 hours of extra reading tuition a week, has been extremely positively received since its introduction a few years ago. The number of schools participating in the programme has already been doubled from 66 in 2004 to 136 in 2006. Access to reading recovery is being rolled out to all the more than 330 urban primary schools participating in DEIS.

Children with writing difficulties in these schools will also be targeted for extra support through the roll-out of the first steps programme to all urban primary DEIS schools.

Taken together, the expansion of these two programmes, will significantly improve the service available to children with literacy difficulties in disadvantaged areas. These measures will also be augmented by other extra supports being put in place under DEIS, such as smaller classes at primary level, an expansion of the home school community liaison scheme, a new initiative on pre-service and in-service professional development for teachers and more school libraries at second level.

There will be a much greater focus on target setting and planning under DEIS to ensure that the substantial extra resources being provided will lead to better outcomes for children. As well as improving the supports we provide in our schools, initiatives that help parents with any literacy problems they may have themselves can have a hugely positive effect on their children's achievement. For this reason, the establishment of a new family literacy project is also a key priority under the DEIS programme. The project will build on previous experience in this area and will be based on a partnership approach involving the VEC adult literacy services, home school community liaison teachers and the National Adult Literacy Agency.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

In this context, the Government has dramatically improved the level of provision for adult literacy training in recent years. Indeed, expenditure on adult literacy has increased more than twentyfold since we came into office, from €1 million in 1997 to €23 million in 2006. As a result of this dramatic increase in funding, we have been able to expand the number of people receiving adult literacy training, to the point where 35,000 people will receive a service in 2006.

I believe this unprecedented level of investment in adult literacy services will not only bring major benefits for the adults but will make a positive difference to their children's lives. Helping a parent to be able to read to their child could be one of the best things that we, as a Government, can do for both parent and child.

As I have outlined, not only has the Government done a great deal in recent years to improve the literacy levels of children and adults from disadvantaged areas but we are currently redoubling our efforts so that further progress can be made. I am confident that, taken together, the initiatives I have outlined will ensure a much greater level of support for children with literacy difficulties and that achievement will improve considerably as a result.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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The report last September of the Comptroller and Auditor General on educational disadvantage shows that from 1998 to 2004 the gap in literacy levels between children in disadvantaged schools and those in ordinary schools widened. Children in disadvantaged schools are, therefore, having greater difficulty with literacy. The Minister has introduced DEIS since then but one of the points made by the Comptroller and Auditor General referred to the need to monitor and measure to ensure the programmes are working. What does the Minister have in place to ensure that what is being put into the system will improve standards?

The weighted model was introduced at the same time as DEIS. The weighted model system is, in effect, removing with one hand what DEIS is providing with the other. Has the Minister evaluated the effect of the weighted model on the most disadvantaged schools and what these schools have lost as a result of providing special needs support on the basis of the number of students in the school rather than the need?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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The Comptroller and Auditor General, in his statement, welcomed DEIS and the fact that it will co-ordinate the resources and services that are available. Although this country has a high standard of literacy, there is no doubt that those at the bottom are not doing well. It is significant that in surveys carried out by the Department on literacy levels in disadvantaged schools the findings were very poor. At the same time, many of those children were in small classes of 15:1. Some of them were even as low as 11:1, yet the literacy levels were not good.

This only proves that the problem cannot be tackled in isolation within the classroom. It must be done in the context of supporting the family and through the targeted initiatives. With initiatives such as reading recovery, mathematics recovery, the first steps writing programme and the family literacy programme, we will tackle this in a holistic way, using all the expertise within and outside the schools.

The Deputy is correct to ask about targeting and getting results. One of the criteria for inclusion in the DEIS scheme was that schools had to sign up to planning and targeting.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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What about measuring?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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We have a team with that specific task. A national literacy tutor has been appointed to ensure that the targets are being met. When we are spending €640 million on disadvantage, we must ensure we are getting the best value for money and that we are targeting those children.

The general allocation model was bedded down before DEIS commenced. DEIS is only being implemented this year whereas the general allocation model was implemented last year.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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Schools lost teachers.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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Schools have not lost anything under the general allocation model.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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They have.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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For the first time every school in the country has an allocation of teachers to deal with children with learning difficulties. DEIS ensures that the schools get even more to add to what they already have.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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There are schools with high numbers of children with special needs who have lost teachers under the weighted model. Previously, they were allocated teachers on the basis of an assessed need but now teachers are allocated on the basis of the overall number of children in the school so they have lost. With regard to measuring, is there somebody who will report back to the Minister at a specified time on what progress has been made on literacy in disadvantaged schools? Is there a specific measurement target whereby the Minister can assess the progress being made and whether the programmes are working?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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With regard to literacy and numeracy, a new advisory service has been established. A deputy national co-ordinator has been appointed as well as five additional cuiditheoirí tutors to deal with literacy and numeracy throughout the country. The schools have already signed up so it is compulsory that they do standardised testing. The results of those tests must be made available.