Education in Northern Ireland facts for kids

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Education in Northern Ireland
Department of Education NI Logo.png
Department for Education
Minister for Education Peter Weir (politician)
National education budget (2011–12)
Budget £1.894 billion
General details
Primary languages English, Irish
System type National
Compulsory education 1827
Literacy (2003)
Total 99%
Male 99%
Female 99%


Education in Northern Ireland differs from systems used elsewhere in the United Kingdom, although it is relatively similar to Wales. A child's age on 1 July determines the point of entry into the relevant stage of education, unlike England and Wales where it is 1 September. Northern Ireland's results at GCSE and A-Level are consistently top in the UK. At A-Level and BTEC level 3, one third of students in Northern Ireland achieved A and distinction grades in 2007, which is a higher proportion than in England and Wales.

Curriculum

The majority of examinations sat, and education plans followed, in Northern Irish schools are set by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations & Assessment (CCEA). All schools in Northern Ireland follow the Northern Ireland Curriculum which is based on the National Curriculum used in England and Wales. At age 11, on entering secondary education, all pupils study a broad base of subjects which include geography, English, mathematics, science, physical education, music and modern languages. Currently there are proposals to reform the curriculum to make its emphasis more skills-based under which, in addition to those mentioned, home economics, local and global citizenship and personal, social and health education would become compulsory subjects.

At age 14, pupils select which subjects to continue to study for General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) examinations. Currently it is compulsory to study English, mathematics and religious studies, although a full GCSE course does not have to be studied for the latter. In addition, pupils usually elect to continue with other subjects and many study for eight or nine GCSEs but possibly up to ten or eleven. GCSEs mark the end of compulsory education in Northern Ireland.

At age 16, some pupils stay at school and choose to study Advanced Level AS and A2 level subjects or more vocational qualifications such as Applied Advanced Levels. Those choosing AS and A2 levels normally pick three or four subjects and success in these can determine acceptance into higher education courses at university.

Eleven plus

Northern Ireland formerly ran a transfer test at a governmental level to decide which primary school students qualified for a place at a Grammar School. This system was abolished by Martin McGuinness during his time as Minister of Education, a decision which was confirmed by UK Government direct rule ministers. This policy was continued by subsequent ministers Caitríona Ruane and John O'Dowd. The majority of grammar schools did, however, decide to set their own entrance exams a situation which continues to this day. There are two types in Northern Ireland:– AQE and GL assessment.

Controlled schools

Controlled schools (nursery, primary, special, secondary modern and grammar schools) are under the management of the school's board of governors and the employing authority is the Education Authority (EA). Although now open to those of all faiths and none, many of these schools were originally Protestant church schools, whose control was transferred to the state in the first half of the twentieth century. The three largest Protestant churches (Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist), known as the transferors, maintain a link with the schools through church representation on controlled school boards of governors.

This statutory representational role on boards of governors is set out in schedules 4 and 5 of the Education & Library Board (Northern Ireland) Order 1986. Under this order, for example, transferor governors comprise four out of nine members on a controlled primary school. This right of representation on controlled schools is being re-examined under the Review of Public Administration (RPA).

The RPA has proposed the removal of this statutory role for transferors on the ground that it purportedly contravenes the equality requirements of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Transferors' Representative Council, speaking on behalf of the three churches, argues that this proposal will remove the Christian ethos from the controlled sector of education.

Catholic education

Lumen Christi College SMC
Lumen Christi College, Derry

There are 533 Roman Catholic-managed schools in Northern Ireland. According to figures from the Department of Education for 2009/2010, the number of pupils registered at school in Northern Ireland is 321,830. The number of pupils attending Catholic-managed schools is 163,371, approximately 51%.

The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (the CCMS) is the advocate for the Catholic maintained schools sector in Northern Ireland. The CCMS represents trustees, schools and governors on issues such as raising and maintaining standards, the school estate and teacher employment. As the largest employer of teachers in Northern Ireland (8,500 teachers), the CCMS plays a central role in supporting teachers whether through its welfare service or, for example, in working parties such as the Independent Inquiry into Teacher Pay and Conditions of Service. Exempt from fair employment legislation, it is permitted to discriminate against non-Catholic teachers.

The CCMS supports trustees in the provision of school buildings, and governors and principals in the management and control of schools. The CCMS also has a wider role within the Northern Ireland education sector and contributes to policy on a wide range of issues such as curriculum review, selection, pre-school education, pastoral care and leadership.

There are 36 council members who oversee and authorise the strategic and operational policies and practices of the CCMS. Council members are appointed for the duration of each council period for four years. Membership to the council is by appointment and recommendation. Council members receive payment for travelling and incurred costs only. There are four categories of Council members:

  • Department of Education representatives – advertised through the press for these positions.
  • Trustee representatives – recommended by Northern Ireland bishops.
  • Parents' representatives – drawn from local community on a voluntary basis.
  • Teachers' representatives – drawn from the teaching profession on a voluntary basis.

Established under the auspices of 1989 Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order, the Council’s primary purpose is the provision of an upper tier of management for the Catholic Maintained Sector with the primary objective of raising standards in Catholic maintained schools.

Irish language medium education

The Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 placed a duty on the Department of Education, similar to that already in existence in relation to integrated education through the 1989 Education Reform Order, "to encourage and facilitate the development of Irish-medium education”. Pupils are usually taught most subjects through the medium of Irish, which is the second language of most of the pupils, whilst English is taught through English. This form of education has been described as Immersion education, and is now firmly established as a successful and effective form of bilingual education. It aims to develop a high standard of language competence in the immersion language (Irish) across the curriculum, but must also, and can, ensure a similar level of achievement in the first language (in this case, usually English) as that reached by pupils attending monolingual English medium schools.

Irish-medium schools, or Gaelscoileanna, are able to achieve grant-aided status, under the same procedures as other schools, by applying for voluntary maintained status. In addition to free-standing schools, Irish language medium education can be provided through units in existing schools. Unit arrangements permit Irish-language-medium education to be supported where a free-standing school would not be viable. A unit may operate as a self-contained provision under the management of a host English-medium school and usually on the same site.

There are currently two types of Irish-medium schools in Northern Ireland. There are stand-alone schools, of which there are 27, and there are Irish-medium units attached to English-medium host schools. There are 12 of these type of school.

In addition to this, there are two independent schools teaching through the medium of Irish. These are Gaelscoil Ghleann Darach in Crumlin and Gaelscoil na Daróige in Derry City. Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta (CnaG) is the representative body for Irish-medium Education. It was set up in 2000 by the Department of Education to promote, facilitate and encourage Irish-medium Education. One of CnaG's central objectives is to seek to extend the availability of Irish-medium Education to parents who wish to avail of it for their children.

School years

  • Primary education
    • Primary school
      • Foundation Stage
        • Primary 1, age 4 to 5 (equivalent to Reception in England and Wales)
        • Primary 2, age 5 to 6
      • Key Stage 1
        • Primary 3, age 6 to 7
        • Primary 4, age 7 to 8
      • Key Stage 2
        • Primary 5, age 8 to 9
        • Primary 6, age 9 to 10
        • Primary 7, age 10 to 11

(For entry to grammar schools, entrance exams take place to determine places. The Eleven Plus no longer operates in Northern Ireland but schools still operate exams.)

  • List of primary schools in Northern Ireland
  • Secondary education
    • Secondary school or grammar school
      • Key Stage 3
        • Year 8, age 11 to 12 (equivalent to Year 7 in England and Wales)
        • Year 9, age 12 to 13
        • Year 10, age 13 to 14
      • Key Stage 4
        • Year 11, age 14 to 15
        • Year 12, age 15 to 16 (GCSE examinations)
    • Secondary school, grammar school, or further education college
      • Sixth form
        • Year 13, age 16 to 17 (AS-level examinations)
        • Year 14, age 17 to 18 (A-levels (A2))

Note that although the Department of Education uses Year 8 to Year 14 for secondary education, the traditional First-Fifth Form, Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth are still used, at least informally, by some schools.

  • List of grammar schools in Northern Ireland
  • List of secondary schools in Northern Ireland
  • List of integrated schools in Northern Ireland

School holidays

School holidays in Northern Ireland are considerably different from those of Great Britain, and are more similar to those in the Republic of Ireland. Northern Irish schools often do not take a full week for half-term holidays, and the summer term does not usually have a half-term holiday at all. Christmas holidays sometimes consist of less than two weeks. The same applies to the Easter holiday. This does, however, vary considerably between schools. The major difference, however, is that summer holidays are considerably longer with the entirety of July and August off, giving a two-month summer holiday.


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