ESRI research examines educational systems and outcomes in Ireland and Northern Ireland from primary to third level

Scope for greater cooperation on tackling educational disadvantage and on special educational needs highlighted.

New research, published by the ESRI as part of a research partnership with the Shared Island Unit in the Department of the Taoiseach, has found that the education systems in Ireland and Northern Ireland face similar challenges, including countering educational disadvantage, supporting students with special educational needs, and approaches to promoting skills development, which could be furthered through North South cooperation.

The report is the first study to systematically compare systems and outcomes in the two jurisdictions from primary to third level.

It explores a range of issues including educational attainment, educational inequalities, skill development and labour market outcomes in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The report - A North-South Comparison of Education and Training Systems: Lessons for Policy - explores the potential for policy learning, looking at the ways in which different educational systems reflect different historic and societal factors but can provide insights into potential policy directions, and collaborative opportunities.

The research draws on international and national survey data, administrative data, 31 interviews with 35 policy stakeholders and input from a consultation with stakeholders to examine commonalities and differences between the education systems in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Launching the report at an online ESRI event, Taoiseach Micheál Martin TD said:

“I warmly welcome this ground-breaking report by the Economic and Social Research Institute on education systems and outcomes on the island of Ireland, commissioned under the research partnership with my Department’s Shared Island unit. Today’s ESRI research adds significantly to the evidence and understanding we have on how our education systems serve students, families and communities on this island; how we could learn from each other North and South on education delivery and reform; and how we can do more together to enhance educational experience and outcomes for all. I believe these need to be central concerns for how we work through the Good Friday Agreement in the time ahead.”

Dr Anne Devlin, one of the report authors said:

“Significantly, this is the first comprehensive comparison of the education systems in Northern Ireland and Ireland. While there are different structures and approaches, the two systems also have similarities and face many common challenges. Greater cooperation across the island would be beneficial in a range of areas but particularly in tackling educational disadvantage and promoting the inclusion of students with special educational needs.”

Notes to Editors:

Main findings of the ESRI research include:

  • There are marked differences in educational attainment between Ireland and Northern Ireland, with a lower proportion of the population in Ireland having the lowest levels of educational attainment.
  • Ireland and Northern Ireland perform well in international comparisons of skill development at primary and secondary levels. The two jurisdictions have broadly comparable patterns of skill development and similar patterns are evident by social background, indicating comparable levels of inequality in skill development.
  • Early school leaving is two to three times higher in Northern Ireland compared to Ireland and this gap has widened over time. The proportion of 16-24-year-olds who leave school with at most a lower secondary qualification is 14 per cent in NI compared to 6 per cent in Ireland [1]. This is concerning as early school leavers are more likely to be non-employed or work in low wage and potentially insecure jobs later in life.  Furthermore, students from more disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be early school leavers in Northern Ireland than in Ireland. This highlights an important difference between the two systems, and it is likely that academic selection in Northern Ireland and the success of the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) programme in Ireland in retaining students in education are strong contributory factors.
  • The proportion of graduates is the same in both jurisdictions. However, NI has only a very small proportion who complete a post-secondary, non-third level qualification compared to Ireland where Post Leaving Certificate (PLC) courses have become very popular. Ten per cent of the population in NI have this level of qualification compared to 30% in Ireland. This is an area where cooperation across the island of Ireland may be useful.
  • At all levels of qualification, wages are significantly higher in Ireland than in NI [2]Higher returns to education can incentivise individuals to invest in their education and may in part be driving the low levels of attainment in NI. Lower returns to education in NI may also be reflective of lower productivity levels in NI.
  • Both systems face challenges in tackling educational disadvantage. Stakeholders across the island spoke of the benefits of the DEIS [3] programme in Ireland and those in NI felt that such a programme could be useful for dealing with educational inequality in NI. Academic selection in NI [4], whereby students take selection tests at age 11 with those deemed as high performers continuing education in grammar schools and others in secondary schools, has significant consequences for the social and ability profile of schools and for young people’s post-school choices and aspirations. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be clustered in certain schools in NI compared with Ireland. Being channelled into non-grammar schools leads to low educational expectations relative to those who attend a grammar school, particularly for boys from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This lack of aspirations, particularly amongst disadvantaged boys, was reiterated as an issue by stakeholders in NI.
  • Existing research studies and stakeholder interviews have highlighted the ‘high stakes’ nature of the assessment systems in both jurisdictions. Stakeholders raised concerns around the secondary system preparing students for exams rather than for the world of work and adult life.
  • Stakeholders in both jurisdictions felt that further education is perceived as ‘second-best’ relative to higher education which may be detrimental in the long run in terms of the opportunities open to young people. However, important differences occur across the two jurisdictions in terms of the configuration of post-school opportunities within the broader educational landscape. Stakeholders highlighted recent policy developments in Ireland they feel will help improve the perceived status of further education. Stakeholders in Northern Ireland emphasised the challenges of having a multiplicity of providers and duplication of courses.
  • In terms of North–South contact and co-operation, many stakeholders highlighted a few examples of very good practice. Across the stakeholder interviews, common examples included the areas of teacher education through SCoTENs (Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South), strong links between the Inspectorates, the Middletown Centre for Autism, which is a joint North–South initiative, and the Joint Peace Fund. However, more generally, stakeholders highlighted that in many areas North– South links are ad hoc in nature and based on individual relationships or specific projects and initiatives, thus making sustained co-operation more challenging. Nonetheless, stakeholders reported a willingness to engage in cooperation around substantive issues.
  • The fact that both jurisdictions face similar challenges in, among other factors, trying to counter educational disadvantage and create an inclusive educational system for students with special educational needs could provide a starting point for shared dialogue and learning.

[1] Using the OECD definition of early school leaving.

[2] After adjusting for purchasing power differences.

[3] The Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools programme in Ireland targets additional resources and supports for those schools which serve socio-economically disadvantaged communities.

[4] Academic selection in the rest of the UK began to decline in the 1960s due to concerns with the performance of the majority of students, those who did not gain entry to a grammar school