ESRI research on education systems North and South to be discussed at Belfast event

Report examined educational systems and outcomes from primary to third level

Recent research, published by the ESRI and produced in partnership with the Shared Island unit, Department of the Taoiseach, will be discussed by teachers, academics and education experts at an event in Belfast on Wednesday (12 October 2022).

The report - A North-South comparison of education and training systems: lessons for policy - highlighted the differences and similarities in the education systems of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The event, co-hosted with Ulster University and taking place at Belfast Metropolitan College, will feature a presentation of the report findings by ESRI researchers, followed by a panel discussion and Q&A session.

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.

The main findings include:

  • Numeracy and literary skill levels at school going ages are very similar in the two settings yet the attainment of qualifications is significantly lower in Northern Ireland. Early school leaving is two to three times higher in Northern Ireland, and this gap has widened over time.
  • Both systems face challenges in tackling educational disadvantage. Stakeholders across the island spoke of the benefits of the DEIS programme in Ireland and those in Northern Ireland felt that such a programme could be useful for dealing with educational inequality in the North.
  • Students from disadvantaged backgrounds in both Northern Ireland and Ireland achieve lower grades than their peers from more affluent backgrounds. This effect is larger in Ireland, especially at upper secondary level (Leaving Certificate). However, this is reflective of the differences in early school leaving. In Northern Ireland, those who are more socially disadvantaged are more inclined to leave school after lower secondary, while in Ireland most disadvantaged students continue in school following the end of compulsory education but then receive lower exam grades on average.
  • Academic selection in Northern Ireland, 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 the North compared to the South. 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 Protestant boys, was reiterated as an issue by stakeholders in Northern Ireland.
  • The proportion of graduates is the same in both jurisdictions. However, Northern Ireland has a smaller 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 Northern Ireland have a further level 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 Northern Ireland.[1] Higher returns to education can incentivise individuals to invest in their education and may in part be driving the low levels of attainment in the North. Lower returns to education in NI may also be reflective of lower productivity levels in Northern Ireland.
  • While differences were found, there were also commonalities between the systems. Many stakeholders discussed curriculum reform in both jurisdictions and raised concerns around the secondary system preparing students for exams rather than for the world of work and adult life. It was felt that the current systems of high-stakes exams have negative effects on student development and broader learning. Stakeholders in both jurisdictions also 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.
  • The stakeholders interviewed reported relatively little structured cooperation between NI and Ireland despite the geographic proximity. A few examples of good practice were mentioned: SCoTENS,[2] strong links between the Inspectorates, the Middleton Centre for Autism (a joint North-South initiative) and the Joint Peace Fund. Aside from this, North-South links were seen as being ad-hoc, dependent on available funding, and driven by particular individuals rather than any systematic cooperation.

Anne Devlin, one of the report authors, said “Surprisingly, this is the first comprehensive comparison of the education systems in Northern Ireland and Ireland. Despite very different structures, the two systems also 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.”

[1] After adjusting for purchasing power differences.

[2] Standing Conference on Teacher Education, North and South. For more info see: