CHILDREN in primary schools in disadvantaged areas are performing better in maths and reading than they did six years ago, but they still lag behind other pupils of their age.
There has been a significant improvement in their achievement levels in these core skills since 2007, although it varies between schools, according to a new report.
The positive findings are being linked to the Department of Education's DEIS support programme for schools in disadvantaged areas, but further analysis is needed to confirm that.
DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) was introduced in 2006-07 and last year spent almost €100m in providing extra supports, including teachers and grants, to schools.
The new report, by the Educational Research Centre (ERC), also found that absenteeism in DEIS schools fell over the same period, which is likely to be a factor in the improved educational performances.
The evaluation by the ERC covered 17,000 pupils in 119 urban primary schools in the DEIS School Support Programme (SSP).
The children involved were in second, third, fifth and sixth classes and it found that, between 2007 and 2013, test scores at all grade levels had increased significantly.
Improvements were initially recorded between 2007 and 2010 and outcomes from the most recent round of testing, in spring 2013, indicated further gains.
The improved performances were particularly evident among pupils in second and third classes and in schools with the highest levels of disadvantage.
The ERC also found a striking reduction -- a halving -- in pupils with the lowest levels of proficiency in both reading and maths, while the percentage of high achievers in both areas has been maintained or increased.
However, while pupils in DEIS schools are closing the achievement gap with other schools in reading and maths, their scores remain below that of national pupil samples.
While the findings are encouraging, according to the ERC, a limitation of the study is the absence of comparison with pupils in other schools.
Without that, the ERC said it "cannot be certain that the improvements are due to participation" in the SSP rather than reflecting a general improvement nationally.
"More information on whether this could be the case will emerge from the national assessments of reading and mathematics due to take place in 2014," the report says.
The ERC is also investigating why some schools in the SSP have made large gains while others have not, with a focus on schools' use of the resources made available to them and levels of implementation of elements of the programme.
According to the report, levels of pupil absence in the schools covered by the evaluation has fallen from 10.8pc in 2007 to 7.1pc in 2013.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn described the results as "very encouraging".
He said they showed that the significant investment made in DEIS schools was paying off and pupils' reading and mathematics test scores were consistently improving.
The ERC will publish further reports on DEIS in the near future, including a report on developments at post-primary level.