A key focus of the Government's education policy is to prioritise investment in favour of those most at risk and to optimise access, participation and educational outcomes at every level of the system for disadvantaged groups. The Government's commitment to achieving the highest possible standards of literacy both for those in school and for adults of all ages is set in the context of the Programme for Government, the National Action Plans against Poverty and Social Exclusion, and social partnership agreements. Measures include systematically monitoring literacy attainment levels both in schools and among adults; ensuring that pupils with serious literacy difficulties in schools serving disadvantaged communities are supported in improving their attainment levels and providing opportunities for adult learners, particularly in the area of literacy.
PISA, the Programme of International Student Assessment, provides detailed information on the standards of reading literacy among Irish 15-year-olds. The results of the third cycle of PISA which was conducted in schools in Ireland in March this year will be published by the OECD in December 2007. In the second cycle of PISA, which was carried out in 2003, Ireland ranked 6th in reading out of the 29 OECD countries for which results were analysed. Just three countries (Finland, Korea and Canada) had significantly higher scores than Ireland.
The results of the PISA reading survey are reported according to five levels of proficiency. In the 2003 survey, the percentage of Irish students whose performance was at or below Level 1, the lowest level of proficiency, was 11%. The corresponding OECD average was 19.1%. The results of the first cycle of PISA which took place in 2000 displayed similar differences in favour of Ireland. These outcomes provide strong evidence that, with regard to reading, there are proportionately fewer low achieving students in Ireland compared to the OECD.
Closer examination of the category of low achievement referred to above reveals that 2.7% of Irish students performed below Level 1 compared with the OECD average of 6.7%. This indicates that the proportion of students with serious reading difficulties in Ireland is less than half that of the OECD average. The results of PISA 2000 provide similar evidence with regard to the prevalence of reading difficulties of this nature among Irish 15-year-olds.
Notwithstanding the above, poor levels of literacy among second level students are a source of concern for my Department. To address their needs, learning support teacher services are available to all second level schools. Currently, there are 533 whole-time teacher equivalent posts for learning support. In addition, a total of 1,654 whole-time teacher posts are provided at second level to cater for students with special educational needs. All of these teachers prioritise the development of literacy skills. There are also a number of initiatives at post-primary level that have students with literacy difficulties as their target group. The Junior Certificate School Programme which is currently offered in 140 post-primary schools focuses specifically on developing literacy skills. Also, schools participating in the School Completion Programme are given considerable financial resources to provide targeted students with opportunities to improve their literacy skills in accordance with their identified needs.
DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity In Schools), the new action plan for educational inclusion launched last year, includes the expansion of a number of measures designed to improve literacy levels among pupils in disadvantaged communities. These measures include increased funding for the School Books Grant Scheme and the extension of the Demonstration Library Project under the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) on a phased basis to additional second-level schools. This will support the implementation of whole school literacy strategies in the schools concerned. Roll out of Phase 1 measures under the action plan is underway. The reduction of the numbers of students with literacy difficulties continues to be a key priority for my Department.