It is rare that opportunities like this arise in education.
Today is an opportunity to bring all partners together in education, and to acknowledge that key national targets which have been set in an area, have been exceeded.
I am very pleased to see that overall performance on reading and maths was significantly higher in 2014 than in 2009, at both Second and Sixth classes.
And today, I want to celebrate the success that teachers, parents and students have had in improving the literacy and numeracy levels in our primary schools.
I know that children’s education is about much more than reading and maths.
I know, too, that results on one set of tests must always be treated with caution.
But I am delighted to see such a positive change in this latest set of assessment information.
Today, we are seeing the first statistically significant improvement in literacy and numeracy scores since 1980 – that is a wonderful development.
I welcome this report from the ERC and I want to thank Peter, Gerry and Lauren for the presentation that they have given to us.
Literacy and Numeracy Strategy
The 2014 National Assessments are the first to be conducted since the publication of the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy.
That strategy was put in place by my predecessor, Ruairi Quinn, in July 2011.
It outlines a comprehensive set of targets and actions covering teaching, learning and assessment from early childhood to the end of schooling.
It is based on the belief that we can only improve learning in schools through the implementation of a cohesive range of initiatives.
These initiatives include changes to teacher education, curriculum reform, better evaluation and assessment, better early childhood education and greater parental involvement in education.
This Government has strongly backed the implementation of the actions in the Literacy and Numeracy strategy.
In Budget 2015, an additional €6 million has been provided for the implementation of the Strategy, bringing the annual budget to €13.8 million.
Implementation of many elements of the Strategy and other reforms have advanced well over the last three years.
A renewed emphasis has been placed on the importance of literacy and numeracy within a balanced curriculum in our schools.
Significant reforms have begun in teacher education and increased opportunities for continuing professional development have been made available for teachers.
Revised curriculums are being developed for both primary and post-primary levels.
We have improved assessment at primary level and avoided the hazards of league tables of schools.
Since this time last year, only qualified teachers can be employed in our classrooms – the impact of which should not be underestimated.
And we have improved school inspection and evaluation and are introducing school self-evaluation, too.
Organisations like NALA have supported these reforms by undertaking important work in adult literacy promotion – helping parents to be in a position to help their own children.
I want to acknowledge the incredible work that has been done to achieve these reforms.
School leaders, teachers, teacher educators and parents have all worked together to make this welcome announcement a reality.
There is a lot more to be done over the lifetime of the Literacy and Numeracy Strategy – I know that we can provide even better outcomes for all children by maintaining the momentum that has been developed over recent years.
This report shows us that literacy and numeracy standards have improved across the system – in both DEIS and non-DEIS schools.
It’s worth remembering that we have seen both reductions in the proportion of lower-achieving pupils, and also increases in the number of higher achieving students, in both English reading and Maths.
As Gerry and Lauren have pointed out, the overall targets for attainment at primary level, as set out in 2011, have already been reached.
That means that the progress we had hoped to make over 9 years, has been achieved over the last 3 years.
This is a very significant achievement for all involved in primary education, and one that I hope we can all take great inspiration from.
Of course, one of the most valuable elements in this ERC research is that it gets beyond the headline figures and shows to us where some challenges remain.
It is clear that we must continue to build on the improvements shown in these assessments so that every child in our primary schools can reach his or her full potential.
There is still scope for further improving our learners’ achievement in maths, particularly their ability to apply their learning and to problem solve.
There have been improvements in reading in DEIS schools since 2009, but the gap between the performance of pupils in DEIS Band 1 schools when compared to other schools has not reduced.
And performance in maths in DEIS schools is still below national standards.
As ever in education, we have achieved a great deal, but there are still areas for further improvement.
We must build on the initial success that we have achieved, sustain it and address the gaps that remain, including those for pupils in DEIS schools.
We also have to build on this success at primary level and extend it into junior and senior cycle at post-primary level.
That is why I am bringing forward the interim review of the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy.
This was originally scheduled for 2016, but I have already asked my officials to initiate a review of progress on the strategy in the current year.
The 2015 interim review of the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy will provide an opportunity to establish new attainment targets – so that we can increase our ambitions between now and 2020.
It will also allow us to focus on particular groups of pupils and aspects of literacy and numeracy where further improvement is warranted.
This will include looking at how we can support the teaching of maths even more intensively, and examining how best to support the school communities in DEIS Band 1 schools.
Overall, the results of the 2014 National Assessments are to be celebrated.
These results complement the recent PISA results at post-primary level.
The trends are all moving in the right direction, but we must not sit on our laurels.
We must raise our expectations and aspirations, and strive to ensure that every child experiences an education that enables them to realise their full potential.
Finally today, I would like to thank the many pupils and teachers who took part in the study.
I want to acknowledge the work of the Educational Research Centre, its Director Peter Archer and in particular, Gerry Shiel, Lauren Kavanagh and David Millar who carried out this valuable research.
I look forward to joining with you all again later in the year, when the ERC will publish the accompanying “context” detail of these findings.
I also want to acknowledge the role played by the Inspectorate in supporting and quality assuring the administration of the assessments in schools.
The results being published today certainly provide some welcome good news, as well as a vindication of the work done by the entire education sector.
Congratulations to you all!