Qualifications and education in Northern Ireland

The education system in Northern Ireland differs from other systems that are available in the UK, but is most similar to the Welsh system.

Qualifications and education in Northern Ireland
The Department of Education (DE) is responsible for Northern Ireland’s education policy, with the exception of higher and further education, which is governed by the Department for the Economy (DfE).

What is the curriculum in Northern Ireland?

The Foundation Stage includes Years 1 and 2, Key Stage 1 includes Years 3 and 4, Key Stage 2 includes Years 5–7, Key Stage 3 includes Years 8–10 and Key Stage 4 is for children in Years 11 and 12.The Foundation Stage encourages good early years practice and provides teachers with the flexibility to follow the children’s interests and teach positive attitudes to school and learning.Children in Key Stages 1 and 2 are provided with the opportunity to explore and develop their interests and study language and literacy; mathematics and numeracy; the arts; the world around us; personal development; and physical education.There are nine areas of learning in Key Stage 3: language and literacy; mathematics and numeracy; modern languages; the arts; environment and society; science and technology; learning for life and work; physical education; and religious education. The curriculum must provide some provision from all nine areas.The Key Stage 4 curriculum follows the same nine areas of learning but must also adhere to the Key Stage 4 Entitlement Framework designed to ensure that pupils have access to a broad, balanced and relevant curriculum.

School starting age in Northern Ireland

Children who have turned four by 1 July begin school in the following September; this is one of the lowest compulsory school starting ages in Europe.The school year runs from 1 September until 1 July.
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How are pupils assessed in Northern Ireland?

Children are assessed every year through teacher assessments, and formal results are reported to parents at the end of Years 4 and 7.Northern Irish schools are inspected by the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) and rated Outstanding, Very Good, Good, Satisfactory, Inadequate or Unsatisfactory. Schools that are underperforming are inspected more regularly than those performing well.

Types of schools in Northern Ireland

All children are entitled to a free school place between the ages of four and 16. The majority of schools are grand-aided, although there are around ten independent schools in Northern Ireland.Controlled schools are managed and funded by the Education Authority (EA) through school boards of governors. Although they are now open to all faiths, many were originally Protestant church schools and the Protestant church still maintains a link with the schools through representatives on the boards of governors.Voluntary maintained schools are managed by boards of governors nominated by trustees (mainly Roman Catholic), along with parents, teachers and EA representatives.Voluntary non-maintained schools are mainly grammar schools managed by boards of governors. There are still around 70 grammar schools in Northern Ireland, however the system works slightly differently to England. Rather than a state-run entrance test, such as the 11-plus, grammar schools in Northern Ireland set their own entrance exams.There is a large amount of Roman Catholic schools in Northern Ireland. The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) supports Catholic schools through boards of governors and is the largest employer of teachers in Northern Ireland.Integrated schools encourage Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils to come together to improve their understanding of one another and their own cultures and values.Irish-medium education is also provided in Irish-speaking schools. Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta was established by the DE to encourage Irish-medium education.

Qualifications in Northern Ireland

The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) is the regulator of qualifications in Northern Ireland and advises the government on what should be taught in schools and colleges. The CCEA monitors the standards of all qualifications in Northern Ireland and also offers its own qualifications, such as GCSEs, AS and A Levels, Entry Level Qualifications and Online Language Assessment. In 2014, the CCEA was the awarding body for around 75 per cent of A Levels in Northern Ireland.As in Wales, the AS will remain part of the A Level, as so the AS will contribute to the final A Level grade. However, the weighting of the AS will change, with revised AS qualifications to contribute 40 per cent towards the final A Level grade.Revised GCSEs will be taught from September 2017 and the changes will largely reflect the content of the syllabus.

Further education in Northern Ireland

Higher education in Northern Ireland relates to levels 4–8 of the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ). This applies to degrees, diplomas, and other certificates and awards granted by university or colleges.There are three universities, two university colleges, six further education colleges and an agricultural college in Northern Ireland. Many of these rank highly at the international level, and the country is a popular destination for international students.As with Scotland, Wales and England, UCAS is the UK admissions body through which pupils apply for places at university or college.This article was originally published in August 2016.

Relocate Global’s new annual Guide to International Education & Schools provides a wealth of advice to anyone searching for a new school in the UK and in an international setting, and offers insights into what it takes to make the right school choice. 

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