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Addressing the problem of underachievement among disadvantaged children in Northern Ireland: what the dogs in the street know.

Direct  Instruction


Our MLAs have made much of their determination to enhance the academic attainment of those children in Northern Ireland who live in disadvantaged circumstances.  Our universities have been given large sums of money over the years, and have developed a succession of failed progressive teaching models.  Public money has been squandered in looking to higher education to identify the most effective teaching method for levering up the life chances of the poor.  What should be shocking to the general public is that this problem has already been solved in one of the most sophisticated experimental studies in the history of education.  We know precisely how to raise the academic performance of poor children to middle class standards.  Furthermore, this highly effective teaching method is the very antithesis of the progressive methods advocated by CCEA and DENI.


This approach to the classroom – called “Direct Instruction” – is entirely at odds with the teaching methods currently advocated by the Department of Education and CCEA.  It takes a simple traditional approach to teaching and learning and would have none of the costs involved in Northern Ireland’s Revised Curriculum.  It is an evidence-based teaching method with proven efficacy in enhancing the examination grades of disadvantaged children.


Where is the evidence that this teaching approach will work, and how can we be sure that our current approach is failing children from poor backgrounds?  Quite simply the evidence comes from the largest and most carefully-constructed educational investigation ever carried out. Its aim was to find out, once and for all, how best to teach disadvantaged children.  The unequivocal message of the research was that curricula of type currently advocated by CCEA, DENI and researchers in education in fact damages the life chances and social mobility of disadvantaged children and that no methodology better assists the poor than traditional direct instruction.


“Project Follow Through” studied the achievement gains of 75,000 low income children (across 170 communities) in the USA following a range of curricula.  The study lasted for 30 years at a cost of about one billion dollars and monitored the reading, spelling, language and mathematical skills of deprived children.  The study also examined the impact of certain teaching methods on pupil self-esteem.  The findings of the project couldn’t have been clearer: (i) schools which teach by direct instruction offer their pupils the best route out of poverty; curriculum models of the type currently endorsed in Northern Ireland have the potential to damage profoundly the basic skills and self-esteem of disadvantaged children; and (iii) children following progressive curricula score much lower than they would have had they been taught by direct instruction.

Jean Chall

In her 1990 book The Academic Achievement Challenge, the distinguished Harvard reading expert Jean Chall conducted a detailed survey of a century of research on the effective teaching of disadvantaged children, finding no evidence of the efficacy of methods which depart from traditional teacher-centred methods.  Her study offers a damning indictment of the curriculum followed by disadvantaged children in Northern Ireland.

Academic Ach Chall

Abandoning the Revised Curriculum for more structured and traditional approaches could only help these children.  Anyone who needs convincing should glance at the Queen’s School of Psychology’s analysis of the Enriched Curriculum.  Children in the Greater Shankill who experienced traditional teaching, outperformed their peers following the Enriched Curriculum in both English and mathematics.  The researches had to conclude that the “rich were getting richer while the poor were getting poorer.”  This was the only formal investigation of the efficacy of the CCEA/DENI approach to the education of disadvantaged children and it failed spectacularly.  Nevertheless the Revised Curriculum proceeded unmodified.  The central difficulty in respect of the teaching of this important of poor children is that individuals such as Gavin Boyd, Carmel Gallagher and Will Haire were free to ignore powerful evidence which contradicted their worldview, a wordview roundly condemned in a recent General Teaching survey.

Gavin Boyd

Gallagher Trojan

If one carries out a simple Google search on the most effective teaching methods for addressing underachievement among poor children, one will quickly come upon the results of Project Follow Through investigation.  However, one is unlikely to find advocates for direct instruction given that those who pushed for a curriculum whose “scientific” merit now lies in tatters (with the identification of widespread “double-dipping” in neuroscience research) now lead the new Education Authority and the GTC(NI).  As ever, our dysfunctional system rewards those who pressed for the type of curriculum likely to maximally damage the life chances of the very children it was designed to help.