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  • Evidence Summary

    Leanne Henderson, Jonathan Harris, Noel Purdy and Glenda Walsh

    January 2020

    Educational Underachievement in Northern Ireland

  • Cite this publication as: Henderson, L., Harris, J., Purdy, N., and Walsh, G. (2020) Educational Underachievement in Northern Ireland: Evidence Summary. Stranmillis University College, Belfast: Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement

    @strancreu

    Contact: Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU) Stranmillis University College, Belfast, BT9 5DY Web: www.stran.ac.uk/research/creu Email: creu@stran.ac.uk

  • 1. Executive Summary

    Addressing educational underachievement is a significant and complex challenge

    (CREU, 2018). This paper aims to provide an overview of current knowledge related

    to educational underachievement in Northern Ireland. It focuses on the significant

    relationship between underachievement, social disadvantage and the myriad of in-

    school and out-of-school factors which are associated with student achievement.

    The report of the Chief Inspector of Schools for Northern Ireland (ETI, 2018)

    provides numerous insights into factors associated with pupil achievement across

    the various sectors and phases. A key theme is the need for education provision to

    address the educational needs of every child across all phases and sectors, and

    multiple studies considered in this review highlight the priority given to inclusion as a

    strength of education policy provision in Northern Ireland.

    This evidence summary brings together research published since 2000 relating to

    educational underachievement in the context of Northern Ireland. The main aim is to

    establish what is currently known about underachievement and its implications for

    children and young people, and make recommendations for future research.

    1.1. Summary of key findings and recommendations

    1. Research on educational underachievement in Northern Ireland since 2000 has

    not been comprehensive, with only one substantial academic research project

    (Leitch et al., 2017) fully focused on this issue, despite policymakers’ repeated calls

    for progress in this area.

    2. Internationally, a long tail of underachievement belies Northern Ireland’s

    reputation for producing academically high-achieving pupils, indicating a country-

    level problem requiring a Northern Ireland-specific focus.

    3. Following the application of the Foundation Stage Curriculum in 2007, which

    integrated a play-based learning approach prior to Key Stage 1 (KS1), no systematic

    evaluation has taken place on its effects for literacy and numeracy into Key Stage 2

    (KS2) and beyond.

    4. A broad range of research linked to inclusion shares a concern with empowering

    learners, whether through literacy interventions in mainstream education or through

    alternative provision.

    5. A shift in policy regarding schools and communities has seen numerous studies of

    the impacts of Shared Education and Extended Schools Provision, but academic

    selection remains a largely untouched element of education policy in Northern

    Ireland since Gallagher and Smith (2000), despite its determinant effects on pupils’

    attainment.

    6. Research considering school level decisions about assessment, which have

    significant impacts on young people and implications for their future education and

    employment, merits further attention.

  • 2

    Table of Contents

    1. Executive Summary ............................................................................................. 0

    1.1. Summary of key findings and recommendations ........................................... 1

    2. Introduction .......................................................................................................... 3

    2.1. Defining educational underachievement ....................................................... 3

    2.2. The measurement of achievement gaps ....................................................... 4

    2.3. Policy context: Education in Northern Ireland................................................ 5

    2.4. Research aims and questions ....................................................................... 6

    3. Methodology ........................................................................................................ 7

    3.1. Inclusion criteria ............................................................................................ 7

    3.2. Searching and screening .............................................................................. 8

    3.3. PRISMA chart of rapid review ....................................................................... 8

    4. Narrative Review of literature ............................................................................ 10

    4.1. International comparisons: large-scale assessment studies ....................... 10

    4.1.1. Northern Ireland comparative performance .......................................... 10

    4.1.2. A long tail of underachievement ........................................................... 11

    4.2. Curriculum Innovation and Continuity ......................................................... 12

    4.2.1. Early years and primary education ....................................................... 12

    4.2.2. Skills-based and knowledge-based curricula ........................................ 13

    4.2.3. Gender, literacy and STEM .................................................................. 14

    4.3. Inclusion in policy and practice .................................................................... 15

    4.3.1. Additional learning needs: policy .......................................................... 15

    4.3.2. Identifying and assessing specific learning needs ................................ 16

    4.3.3. Empowering children with literacy difficulties ........................................ 16

    4.3.4. School exclusion ................................................................................... 18

    4.4. Schools and Communities .......................................................................... 19

    4.4.1. Multiple socio-political influences on achievement ............................... 19

    4.4.2. Identity and community factors ............................................................. 20

    4.4.3. Community-collaboration initiatives ...................................................... 22

    4.5. Assessment................................................................................................. 23

    4.5.1. Examinations: Reform, choice and young people’s agency.................. 23

    4.5.2. Understanding attainment data: the impact of age ............................... 25

    4.5.3. Higher education and career trajectories: Access and completion ....... 25

    5. Conclusions and recommendations ................................................................... 27

    6. References ........................................................................................................ 30

  • 3

    2. Introduction

    Addressing educational underachievement is a significant and complex challenge

    (CREU, 2018). This paper aims to provide an overview of current knowledge related

    to educational underachievement in Northern Ireland. It focuses on the significant

    relationship between underachievement and social disadvantage and the myriad of

    in-school and out-of-school factors which are associated with student achievement.

    The paper begins with this introduction which defines educational underachievement

    and gives an overview of how this issue has been addressed in education policy.

    The main focus of the paper is a rapid review of the research literature which

    considers educational underachievement in its broadest sense in the context of

    Northern Ireland. The overarching purpose is to identify gaps in the existing literature

    and to make recommendations for future research.

    2.1. Defining educational underachievement

    The uses of the term educational underachievement vary across disciplines (Plewis,

    1991), making it a unifying concept that nonetheless requires careful definition and

    contextualisation. Psychologists generally apply the term underachievement to

    differences between actual and predicted attainment (examination grades, typically)

    for individuals or groups, with predictions of potential attainment generally based on

    IQ scores or other prior summative assessment. Sociologists are more likely to

    consider the relative performance of groups of pupils, known as differential

    attainment, one common example being a gender attainment gap with boys

    ‘underachieving’ when compared with girls (Connolly, 2008). Both the psychological

    and sociological definitions of underachievement are of interest in this research,

    since the intention is to understand the factors which promote and limit individual and

    groups of children to fulfil their educational potential.

    The term ‘educational underachievement’ remains a useful concept, although it is

    perceived to be an ‘imperfect descriptor’ by some (Gorard & Smith, 2004), b

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