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Last Updated: Monday, 22 October 2007, 16:21 GMT 17:21 UK
The schools system in Northern Ireland

School children (generic)
Lots of Northern Ireland's schools are run by the voluntary sector
Northern Ireland's education system has a complex structure. There are several official bodies involved in the management and administration of the system as well as a number of voluntary bodies that play a significant role.

Secondary education is largely selective with pupils going to grammar schools or secondary schools according to academic ability. There is also a large voluntary school sector and Catholic maintained schools.

There has been significant growth in the development and provision of integrated education throughout Northern Ireland. Integrated education is the initiative to bring together in one school pupils, teachers and governors from Catholic and Protestant traditions.

Following two reports into post-primary education, the Burns Report in 2001 and the Costello Report in 2003, the government took the decision to end academic selection in Northern Ireland.

The final 11-plus transfer test will take place in 2008, after which a choice of post-primary schools will be available to parents and pupils. The Northern Ireland Assembly is still to vote on whether schools will be allowed to use other selection criteria and what they will be.

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Educational reform
In December 2006 the Bain Review was published, as Schools for the future, with recommendations for changes to the schools system. The independent report was commissioned by the government to look into the funding and planning of education.

The government has accepted the findings of the report which recommends an increase in sharing and collaboration between schools. Currently each area is provided with a range of smaller schools including Catholic, State, Integrated and Irish Language.

Under the new rules these schools will be expected to share lessons with each other, and some will become specialist schools offering expert tuition in a particular part of the curriculum. These specialist schools are intended as an alternative to the grammar school system.

At the same time, small schools are likely to be reviewed and could even be closed if the pupil numbers are too low. Any new schools will be planned to cover the needs of a geographical area rather than cater for an individual section of the local community.

The rest of this guide explains the current education system.

Government departments
The Department of Education in Northern Ireland oversees the central administration of education in Northern Ireland. It is responsible for:

  • The strategic planning and management of education.
  • Curriculum content and delivery.
  • Allocating funding to the Education and Library Boards.
  • Covering capital costs for most schools.
Education and Library Boards
There are five Education and Library Boards, which are the local education authorities and library authorities for their areas. They ensure that there are enough schools of all types to meet the needs of their area. They fund controlled schools and meet the running costs of maintained schools.

Other responsibilities include:

  • Providing milk and meals, free books and pupil transport.
  • Enforcing school attendance.
  • Advising on school curriculum.
  • Providing recreational services.
  • Employing teachers in controlled schools.
  • Employing non-teaching staff in controlled and maintained schools.
Council for Catholic Maintained Schools
school pupils generic
Education and library boards decide how much money schools receive
The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools promotes and co-ordinates Catholic education in Northern Ireland. It is responsible for the employment of teachers in Catholic maintained schools and for a number of other, mainly advisory, functions. It is funded by the Department of Education in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education
This body promotes integrated education and facilitates the establishment of integrated schools. These bring together in one school, children, parents, teachers and governors from Catholic, Protestant and other traditions. The schools are all-ability and follow the statutory curriculum. The council negotiates with education department to facilitate the creation of new schools and to assist existing schools that wish to transform to integrated status. It is funded by the education department and the Integrated Education Fund.

Funding for individual schools
Grants can be distributed to equip schools. Funding and decision-making is given to schools under a Local Management of Schools scheme. The funding formula, set by the Department of Education, is based on factors such as pupil numbers, size of school and social and educational needs.

The Education and Library Boards will also distribute specific grants to schools like those required under the School Improvement Programme. There are a small number of Irish Medium schools which may receive grant aid from the Department of Education if they meet certain criteria.

Board of governors
Where funding and decision-making is delegated to schools, the board of governors have an important role to play. Parent representatives sit on the board. The board is responsible for the main policy decisions within schools including:

  • Ensuring the education provided meets legal requirements.
  • Approving school development plans including performance aims and targets.
  • Supporting schools' policies.
  • Managing financial plans.

In addition, governors are involved in the appointments of staff, disciplinary procedures and setting school standards.

School inspections
Teacher and class - generic
In Northern Ireland schools are regularly monitored by inspectors
School inspections in Northern Ireland are carried out by the Education and Training Inspectorate. This independent body monitors, inspects and reports on standards of learning and teaching. They then report to the Department of Education and publish reports for parents with recommendations for improvement.

League tables
After consultation with teachers, schools, parents and unions the Department of Education decided to drop league tables in 2001. Instead, schools publish results and achievements in their individual prospectuses in the hope that this will give a better overall picture of the school.

A revised curriculum is being introduced in 2007, which will include annual assessment, and will be phased in over two years. The Department of Education has set up a website with more information about the new curriculum and assessment.

Key stages
Compulsory education in Northern Ireland lasts from ages four to 16. It is divided into five stages:

Foundation stage - four to six
Key stage 1 - ages six to eight
Key stage 2 - ages eight to 11
Key stage 3 - ages 11 to 14
Key stage 4 - ages 14 to 16

The Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment
The curriculum in Northern Ireland is set by the Northern Ireland Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessments. It is responsible for:

  • The assessment of pupils at Key Stages 1, 2 and 3.
  • Conducting public examinations such as GCSE, GCE, the Certificate of Education.
  • Achievement and Graded Objectives in Modern Languages for students between 16 and 19.
  • The regulation of GNVQs in Northern Ireland.
  • Administering the Transfer Tests (11+ tests).
Religious education is required for all pupils as part of the basic curriculum. They must have the opportunity to take part in daily collective worship, but parents can withdraw their children from both of these, if they wish.

Pre-school education
Walking to school
The government aims for every pre-school child to have a nursery place
Nursery education is provided in nursery schools and in nursery classes attached to primary schools. Northern Ireland has received extra money from the European Union Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation to increase pre-school education. Eventually the government wants all nursery-age children in Northern Ireland to have a place in a pre-school.

Primary education
Pupils are assessed at key stages 1 and 2 (ages eight and 11). The 11+ examination has been retained in Northern Ireland, and on the basis of two set tests, children are selected for grammar or non-grammar secondary schools. However, the 11-plus transfer tests are to end in 2008 as the Northern Ireland Executive look to phase out academic selection.

Secondary education
Admissions to secondary schools are controlled by the individual schools, which have their own criteria. Parents can appeal to the education and library board or to the Department of Education but this is not a formal procedure.

Although most boards run selective school entry, the Southern Education and Library Board provides a comprehensive two-tier non-selective system for secondary entry at 11 and 14 years of age.

Controlled schools are owned and funded by the Education and Library Boards although boards of governors are increasingly taking control. The education board employs teaching and non-teaching staff but here too they are relinquishing responsibility to governors. The role of the board is to plan provisions for schools, employ teachers and meet recurrent costs. These are mainly Protestant schools and the church is represented on the board of governors.

Catholic Maintained
These schools are owned by the Catholic church through a system of trustees. They are managed by a board of governors. Regular costs are met by the Education and Library Boards and they are responsible for employing non-teaching staff. Teachers are employed by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.

Other Maintained
These are owned by the Protestant church through a system of trustees and they are managed by a board of governors. Regular costs are met by the Education and Library Board who also employ the non-teaching staff.

Voluntary Grammar
These are owned by the school trustees and are managed by a board of governors, who employ all the staff. Regular costs are funded by the Department of Education.

Grant Maintained Integrated
These are usually partially owned by trustees and managed by a board of governors who employ all staff. Regular costs are met by the Department of Education.

Special Needs
Under the 1986 Education and Libraries (NI) Order, Education and Library Boards have to provide education for pupils with special educational needs up to the age of 19. They can be taught in mainstream primary and secondary schools but there are also separate special units for some students.

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