Northern Ireland

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Northern Ireland is one of the four home nations of the United Kingdom:

  1. England
  2. Wales
  3. Scotland
  4. Northern Ireland

For general information see United Kingdom.

However, education is devolved by the UK government to the four home nations so that many details are specific to the home nation involved.

For enttities in Northern Ireland see Category:Northern Ireland

by Paul Bacsich, Sero

This version already contains all material from the former Re.ViCa entry. For that entry see Northern Ireland from Re.ViCa


Partners and Experts in Northern Ireland


Northern Ireland in a nutshell

(sourced from

Northern Ireland (Irish: Tuaisceart Éireann, Ulster Scots: Norlin Airlann or Norlin Airlan) is one of the four " home nations" (countries) of the United Kingdom. Situated in the north-east of the island of Ireland, it shares a border with the Republic of Ireland to the south and west.

At the time of the 2001 UK Census, its population was 1,685,000, constituting about 30% of the island's total population and about 3% of the population of the United Kingdom.

Its capital (and largest city) is Belfast.

Northern Ireland consists of six of the nine counties of the Irish province of Ulster. It was created as a distinct division of the United Kingdom in 1921 though its constitutional roots lie in the 1800 Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland. For over 50 years it had its own devolved government and parliament. These institutions were suspended in 1972 and abolished in 1973. Repeated attempts to restore self-government finally resulted in the establishment in 1998 of the present-day Northern Ireland Executive and Northern Ireland Assembly. The Assembly operates on consociational democracy principles requiring cross-community support.

Northern Ireland was for many years the site of a violent and bitter ethno-political conflict - the Troubles - which was caused by divisions between nationalists, who are predominantly Roman Catholic, and unionists, who are predominantly Protestant, which has been the most prevalent religion. Since the signing of the "Good Friday Agreement" in 1998, most of the paramilitary groups involved in the Troubles have ceased their armed campaigns.

Owing to its unique history, the issue of the symbolism, name and description of Northern Ireland is complex, as is the issue of citizenship and identity. In general, unionists consider themselves British and nationalists see themselves as Irish, though these identities are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Education in Northern Ireland

(Overview sourced from Education section in and

Education in Northern Ireland differs slightly from systems used elsewhere in the United Kingdom, though it is more similar to that used in England and Wales than it is to Scotland. In particular school children take GCSE and A-levels as in England and Wales. In fact Northern Ireland's results at GCSE and A-Level are consistently top in the UK. At A-Level, one third of students in Northern Ireland achieved A grades in 2007, high compared with England and Wales.

Unlike most areas of the United Kingdom, in the last year of primary school children sit the eleven plus transfer test, and the results determine whether they attend grammar schools or secondary schools. This system was due to be changed in 2008 amidst some controversy, with the exception of north Armagh where the Dickson Plan is in effect. The eleven plus has since been abolished with the majority of Grammar schools now holding their own entry test, Secondary pupils are not required to take such a test for entry.

Another interesting but minor variant is that 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 the 1 September.

Northern Ireland's results at GCSE and A-Level are consistently top in the UK. At A-Level, one third of students in Northern Ireland achieved A grades in 2007, compared with England and Wales

Northern Ireland's state (controlled) schools are open to all children in Northern Ireland, although in practice are mainly attended by those from Protestant or non-religious backgrounds.

There is a separate publicly funded school system provided for Roman Catholics, although Roman Catholics are free to attend state schools (and some non-Roman Catholics attend Roman Catholic schools).

Integrated schools, which attempt to ensure a balance in enrolment between pupils of Protestant, Roman Catholic and other faiths (or none) are becoming increasingly popular, although Northern Ireland still has a primarily de facto religiously segregated education system. In the primary school sector, forty schools (8.9% of the total number) are Integrated Schools and thirty two (7.2% of the total number) are Gaelscoileanna.

The universities are similar in approach to those in other home nations of the United Kingdom. There are two universities and a number of university colleges.

Colleges are larger and more multi-campus than elsewhere in the UK.

The Department of Education Northern Ireland (DENI - but locally called DOE) is responsible for the country's education policy except for the higher and further education sector for which the Department for Employment and Learning Northern Ireland (DELNI) retains responsibility.

The Department of Education's main areas of responsibility cover pre-school, primary, post-primary and special education; the youth service; the promotion of community relations within and between schools; and teacher education and salaries. Its primary statutory duty is to promote the education of the people of Northern Ireland and to ensure the effective implementation of education policy.

Schools in Northern Ireland

Regional organisation

Education at a local level in Northern Ireland is administered by five education and library boards covering different geographical areas. The role of the boards is to ensure that high quality education, youth and library support services exist throughout their areas. Each board is allocated resources by the Department of Education.

Classroom 2000 (C2k), on behalf of the five boards, is responsible for the provision of information and communications technology managed services to all schools in Northern Ireland.

These boards are as follows:

  • Belfast Education and Library Board
  • North Eastern Education and Library Board
  • South Eastern Education and Library Board
  • Southern Education and Library Board
  • Western Education and Library Board


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. As in these home nations, 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.

Selection for secondary school

Northern Ireland remains the largest area in the UK which still operates grammar schools. In the last year of primary school, children sit the eleven plus transfer test, and the results determine which school they will go to. In 2001, a decision was made to abolish the system, and to replace it with separate exams each grammar school will set prospective primary students. Northern Ireland ministers of education have chosen not to turn grammar schools into comprehensive schools, as once thought, due to other UK government systems failing to meet expectations with their decision of comprehensive schools.

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 authorities are the five education and library boards. Although open to those of all faiths and none, many of these schools were originally church schools, whose control was transferred to the state in the first half of the twentieth century. The three largest Protestant churches, known as the transferors, maintain a link with the schools through church representation on controlled school boards of governors.

Catholic education

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% of children in Northern Ireland are educated in Catholic-managed schools.

The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) is the advocate for the Catholic maintained schools sector in Northern Ireland. 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 (8500 teachers), 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. CCMS supports trustees in the provision of school buildings and governors and principals in the effective management and control of schools. CCMS also has a wider role within the Northern Ireland education sector and contributes with education partners to policy on a wide range of issues such as curriculum review, selection, pre-school education, pastoral care and leadership.

Integrated education

Although integrated education is expanding, Northern Ireland has a highly-segregated education system, with 95% of pupils attending either a maintained (Catholic) school or a controlled school (mostly Protestant). Controlled schools are open to children of all faiths and none, as are Catholic schools (Catholic describes the way the school is run but the students do not have to be Roman Catholic to attend). Teaching a balanced view of some subjects (especially regional history) is difficult in these conditions. The churches in Northern Ireland have not been involved in the development of integrated schools. The schools have been established by the voluntary efforts of parents. The Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE), a voluntary organisation, promotes, develops and supports integrated education in Northern Ireland.

The Integrated Education Fund (IEF) is a financial foundation for the development and growth of integrated education in Northern Ireland in response to parental demand. The IEF seeks to bridge the financial gap between starting integrated schools and securing full government funding and support. It was established in 1992 with money from EU Structural Funds, the Department of Education NI, and Foundations, as a financial foundation for the development and growth of Integrated Education. The Fund financially supports the establishment of new schools, the growth of existing schools and those schools seeking to become integrated through the transformation process. Funding is generally seed corn and projects are ‘pump primed’ with the objective of eventually securing full government funding and support.

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”. Irish language medium schools 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.

School holidays

School holidays in Northern Ireland are considerably different from those of Great Britain, and are more similar to those in the rest 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 end of June and the entirety of July and August off, giving a nine-to-ten-week summer holiday.

Specific schools

The Wikipedia article has useful links to lists of schools in the various categories -]

Further and Higher education

Higher Education in Northern Ireland is overseen by DELNI, the Department for Employment and Learning. Its role is to formulate policy and administer funding to support education, research and related activities in the Northern Ireland higher education sector.

Post-secondary (Further and Higher) Education in Northern Ireland is delivered through the following means:

  • Universities:
    1. The Queen’s University of Belfast
    2. University of Ulster
    3. The Open University in Ireland
  • University colleges:
    1. St. Mary’s University College
    2. Stranmillis University College
  • Institutes of Further and Higher Education (6 in number)

For the official list see

Universities in Northern Ireland

There are just two universities headquartered in Northern Ireland:

The Open University also operates throughout Northern Ireland.

Polytechnics in Northern Ireland

As in the rest of the UK, the designator "polytechnic" is not now used, but the nearest equivalent is the university colleges:

  • St Mary's University College
  • Stranmillis University College

These are not autonomous institutions, being part of Queens University Belfast.

Colleges in Northern Ireland

There are six colleges in Northern Ireland designated as further education colleges - all offer higher education also in a way similar to community colleges in the US and colleges in Scotland. All are large, some very large by UK standards.

  1. Belfast Metropolitan College (53,000 students at 1 campus - Belfast)
  2. Northern Regional College (35,000 students at 7 campuses - Antrim, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Coleraine, Larne, Magherafelt, Newtownabbey)
  3. North West Regional College (24,000 students at 3 campuses - Derry, Limavady, Strabane)
  4. Southern Regional College ( 50,000 students at 6 campuses - Armagh, Banbridge, Kilkeel, Lurgan, Newry, Portadown)
  5. South Eastern Regional College (30,000 students at 6 campuses - Ballynahinch, Bangor, Downpatrick, Lisburn, Newcastle, Newtownards)
  6. South West College (18,500 students at 4 campuses)

There is also one specialist college, CAFRE, the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise - - with three campuses at Greenmount, Enniskillen and Loughry

Education reform




There have been no recent reforms.


The main recent reform has been the grouping of colleges into very large multi-campus colleges.

Administration and finance




This is out of scope for VISCED


No information.

Quality assurance, inspection and accreditation



As in other home nations of the UK, the overarching body is the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).

Details are out of scope for VISCED but similar to the rest of the UK.

Information society

ICT in education initiatives

Virtual initiatives in schools

Classroom 2000 (C2k)

The C2k project provides the infrastructure and services to support the enhanced use of ICT in schools in Northern Ireland.

C2k is managed by the Western Education and Library Board on behalf of the other education and library boards and the Department of Education. C2k is part financed by the EU Building Sustainable Prosperity structural fund.

For more details see

Northern Ireland Virtual School

This initiative seems never to have started but considerable planning work was done in the 2001-04 period.

For more details see Northern Ireland Virtual School and

Virtual initiatives in post-secondary education


Campus One

The University of Ulster has a large virtual campus operation called Campus One. It currently provides distance learning programmes for more than 10,000 students, including over 1,500 fully online postgraduate level students. Its web site is

Benchmarking ICT and e-learning

Queens University Belfast took part in the HE Academy/JISC Benchmarking e-Learning Exercise - see


Virtual Women's Further Education College

The setting up of a Virtual Women's Further Education College was the subject of an extensive Feasibility Study done by BDO Stoy Hayward for the Further Education Division of the Department of Education and Learning Northern Ireland (DELNI) in 2008. This arose from a meeting of representatives from organisations engaged in women’s training and education with the then DELNI Minister in 2006 to discuss sustaining community-based work in a virtual way. A proposal was put to the Minister for a Virtual Women’s College. This was the context for the feasibility study.

A very thorough piece of work was done, resulting in a long report (80 pages) and an extensive set of conclusions. In a nutshell, the consultants found the case for such a college not convincing.

In summary, there would not appear to be a market driven need for a Virtual Women’s FE College. DELNI's remit for achieving its high level objectives can be met by the FE colleges, whose increasing focus is on employability and enterprise.
The above addresses the issue of the Virtual Women’s FE college. It is however noted that whilst there is no specific need identifiable, there are barriers, perceived or real to women’s participation in Further Education.

The Report is an excellent example of how an initially attractive idea for virtual provision may not be borne out by market research and the views of the existing stakeholders. Technical issues appear to be secondary.

ILT Health Check

The JISC Regional Support Centre in Northern Ireland - RSCni - has carried out a number of ILT Health Check activities with colleges, using the same approach as Becta.

This Health Check is available, free of charge, to all Northern Ireland’s Further and Higher Education colleges. RSCni claims that it:

"is designed to allow RSCni and colleges working together, to identify how far they have developed with the implementation and use of ILT within Teaching and Learning.
The outcomes of this health check, whether it is a few tweaks to your ILT strategy or a radical ILT fitness plan, will help your college stay in ILT shape."

Lessons learnt

Information confirms that the only extant operational Virtual Campus initiative in Northern Ireland is:

General lessons

Northern Ireland seems to have had in 2004 or so all the components that could have led to a successful virtual school: pervasive network (C2k), enthusiastic and knowledgeable senior people, good research ( - yet it never happened. What went wrong? Was it just the external politics or were there issues within the educational system? The most obvious answer is the period of direct rule, but is that the real answer?

Notable practices

The approach taken in Campus One may well have lessons for colleges and schools also.


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> Scotland
> Wales

> Countries

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