Northern Ireland

Sigrid Boyd
Helen Burgess
National Foundation for Educational Research

Overview of Education System

The Department of Education (DE) has statutory responsibility for the provision of preprimary, primary, secondary, and special education in Northern Ireland. Further education (FE), employment and skills programs, and higher education are the responsibility of the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL). Following political agreement to the devolution of certain policy and legislative powers from the UK government at Westminster and the establishment of the locally elected Northern Ireland Assembly in 1999, the Department of Education is accountable to the Assembly through the Minister for Education. The Minister is responsible for establishing the Department’s policy priorities, managing the education budget and the allocation of resources, setting targets for the system, and reporting outcomes to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations, and Assessment (CCEA), an arm’s length body, advises the Department of Education on school curriculum, assessment, and qualifications including qualification regulation. The General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland (GTCNI) is a statutory body with responsibility for the registration of teachers and the regulation of the profession. Operational responsibilities for ensuring that efficient and effective primary and secondary education are available lie with the Education Authority (EA), which was established in April 2015 to replace the five regional Education and Library Boards. One of the aims of establishing the EA was to streamline the delivery of education services.

There are four main types of grant-aided (publicly funded) schools in Northern Ireland:

  • Controlled schools are managed and funded by the Education Authority through Boards of Governors. The controlled sector includes a small number of controlled integrated and controlled Irish-medium schools. The Education Authority is the employing authority for teachers in controlled schools.
  • Maintained schools, mostly Catholic Maintained schools, are managed by Boards of Governors, which consist of members nominated by trustees, along with representatives of parents, teachers, and the Education Authority. Maintained schools are funded by the Education Authority for running costs, and by the Department of Education directly for capital building works. The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) provides an upper tier of management and is the employing authority for teachers in Catholic Maintained schools.
  • Voluntary schools, mostly Voluntary Grammar schools, are managed by Boards of Governors, which consist of appointed individuals (usually trustees or foundation governors), along with representatives of parents and teachers and, in most cases, members appointed by the Department of Education or the Education Authority. Currently, Voluntary Grammar schools are funded directly by the Department of Education.
  • Grant-Maintained Integrated (GMI) schools also are managed by Boards of Governors and funded directly by the Department of Education.

Schools have a high level of autonomy. Overall responsibility for strategic matters lies with each school’s Board of Governors, leaving the principal responsible and accountable for the day-to-day operation of the school. The Board of Governors is responsible for the delivery of curricula; admission of students; and, in schools with delegated budgets, the management of financial affairs, including staffing matters. Although all grant aided schools are required to follow the Northern Ireland Curriculum, the curriculum does not prescribe teaching hours by subject, and schools are responsible for implementing the curriculum according to their students’ particular needs and circumstances.

School autonomy is counterbalanced by a system of accountability that includes school inspections and external examinations taken at the secondary level at ages 16 (General Certificate of Secondary Education, GCSEs) and 18 (General Certificate of Education Advanced Levels, or GCE A levels). Schools are required by legislation to set their own targets for improvement, including targets for literacy and numeracy, and include these in the School Development Plan. Schools are inspected by the Department of Education’s Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI). Inspection results are published.

Compulsory education spans 12 years from ages 4 to 16. Children start primary school in the September following their fourth birthday, as long as they turned 4 by July 1. Secondary education is provided in secondary schools and grammar schools, known collectively as post-primary schools. Northern Ireland has a selective system of secondary education. Since 2009, the Department of Education has recommended that schools should not select students using academic criteria. However, while it remains Ministerial policy that school transfer at this stage should be based on nonacademic criteria, the law does not prohibit post-primary schools from admitting students based on academic performance, and the majority of grammar schools continue to do so.

Full time education is compulsory to age 16. The great majority of young people continue with full time education after age 16. Although noncompulsory, full time education is free up to age 19 and is provided by post-primary schools and further education colleges.

Exhibit 1 shows how the curriculum for the 12 years of compulsory education is organized into four key stages. It also shows how school years map onto the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED).

Exhibit 1: Key Stages of Curriculum in Northern Irelanda

Stages ISCED Years Ages
Primary Education
Foundation Stage ISCED 1 Years 1–2 Ages 4–5
Key Stage 1 ISCED 1 Years 3–4 Ages 6–7
Key Stage 2 ISCED 1 Years 5–7 Ages 8–10
Post-Primary (Secondary) Education
Key Stage 3 ISCED 2 Years 8–10 Ages 11–13
Key Stage 4 ISCED 3 Years 11–12 Ages 14–15

Languages of Instruction

The language of Northern Ireland through custom and practice is English, while Irish and Ulster Scots are recognized officially as minority languages.

Instruction in mathematics and science is conducted in English in the vast majority of schools. In Irish-medium schools (providing for 1.4 percent of students), instruction is provided in Irish with English as a separate subject.1

  • a In Northern Ireland, TIMSS Grade 4 is equivalent to Year 6 (age 9), and TIMSS Grade 8 is equivalent to Year 10 (age 13). In 2015, Northern Ireland participated in Grade 4 (Year 6) testing only.