CAIN: Issues - Education. Education in Ireland by Dominic Murray, Alan Smith and Ursula Birthistle, 1997

CAIN Web Service

Education in Ireland, by Dominic Murray, Alan Smith and Ursula Birthistle

[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]

Text: Dominic Murray, Alan Smith and Ursula Birthistle ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
Material is added to this site on a regular basis - information on this page may change




The nature of adult education in Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland has changed dramatically in recent years, moving from a mixture of liberal arts programmes and basic literacy schemes, to a stage where there is a growing demand for career-related, accredited education and training programmes. In addition, changes in job conditions and job security have increased the need for access to re-training programmes or top-up qualifications. Earlier retirement and increased longevity are also factors which have increased the demand for adult education. The trend therefore is towards a vision of education as a life-long process.

Recognition of the link between low educational achievement and long-term unemployment has resulted in increased importance being attached to the area of continuing education. Hitchens, Birnie & Wagner (1995) comment that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland suffer from "a worse case of the 'British disease', with a long-standing failure to provide technical and vocational education to a standard comparable to that achieved in other industrial economies." They pinpoint poverty and social exclusion as part of the reason for low levels of participation in life-long learning in Northern Ireland.

Provision of continuing education has previously been concentrated in the formal educational sectors, the Vocational Education Committees in the Republic of Ireland and the Further Education sector in Northern Ireland. However, over the last number of years, there has been considerable growth in the number of other agencies making such provision. In the Republic of Ireland, Community and Comprehensive schools are now substantial providers. Others include daytime education groups, womens groups, universities, regional technical colleges, private institutions, health boards, community-based groups, libraries, youth organisations, churches, and the Open University. These provide a wide variety of courses of both a liberal and a continuing education nature.[1] Aontas, the National Association of Adult Education which was set up in 1970, receives core funding from the Department of Education. Its membership consists of representatives of the statutory and voluntary bodies, third level institutions and individuals. Its remit is to provide a support network for adult education which will lobby, advise and provide information.[2]

In Northern Ireland, the main providers of both liberal and continuing education are increasingly the universities, including the Open University, Further Education Colleges, the Workers Educational Association (WEA), womens Groups, community and neighbourhood groups. The universities and Further Education Colleges have set up out-centres e.g. Queens University in Armagh, The University of Ulster in Enniskillen and the Further Education Colleges have established centres in some Secondary schools. Many of the womens groups and the community and neighbourhood groups liaise with the universities, the WEA or Further Education Colleges.[3]

Originally, in Northern Ireland, adult education courses were expected to be self-funding or even revenue-generating. More recently, the concept of 'socially purposeful' courses has developed which has resulted in funding or part-funding of courses so designated. In the University sector these include access or foundation courses and community development courses aimed at those wishing to get back into the educational system. In the community sector there is also funding for socially purposeful courses. These tend to be of an introductory or remedial nature. The funding comes from a variety of sources e.g. European Social Fund and Health and Social Services.

Field (1995) argues that the formal adult education sector remains relatively underfunded by United Kingdom standards while the voluntary community groups in Northern Ireland have been relatively well funded.

For the most part, adult education in the Republic of Ireland is expected to be self-financing, especially those courses of a liberal nature. In the community sector some courses were seed-funded by the Department of Social Welfare but they were then regarded as not being the responsibility of the Department of Education.[4] As in Northern Ireland, European Union funding is available, but there is a problem with its short-term nature. Some courses targeting the disadvantaged are also funded e.g. VTOS aimed at those over 21 and unemployed and FÁS. There were 5,000 enrolled on VTOS courses in 1994-95. The Department of Social Welfare has a third level allowance scheme aimed at the long-term unemployed. This allows retention of benefits including weekly unemployment benefit and medical card in addition to getting the Higher Education Grant.

It still remains the case that many are not able to take up the option of adult education due to lack of resources. This applies especially to low-income women and to those students who need to enrol part-time and for whom no grants are available. It has been argued that with the exception of the Adult Literacy and Community Education (ALCE) budget, other sources of funding to adult education are sporadic and varying in size.[5] The 1994 report on the National Education Convention criticised the self-financing requirement in the statutory sector and stressed that there should be distinctive and separate funding by the State for the development of adult education within an overall structure.

A further area of concern in both jurisdictions is lack of accreditation and of a progression route to further and higher education. There are however strategies underway to redress this. In Northern Ireland, the University of Ulster has established an accreditation programme for community based learning at the more advanced level. The Open College Network, a federation of statutory and voluntary organisations co-ordinated by the Belfast Education and Library Board was set up as a validating body for a wider and more flexible range of courses than the traditional. These include tailor-made courses and informal learning courses.[6]

In the Republic of Ireland, the NCVA and NCEA (under the umbrella of Teastas) have introduced new forms of certification which allow progression through the educational system. The National Council for Vocational Awards has introduced a Foundation Certificate in more than 100 adult education centres. The Foundation Certificate is available to participants in a wide variety of courses including Youthreach, Traveller education, prison-based courses and the highly regarded VTOS (Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme).

The National Council for Educational Awards has introduced an innovative scheme ACCS (the Accumulation of Credits and Certification of Subjects). This allows part-time and mature students to accumulate credits for third level courses (certificates, diplomas, degrees) in the Regional Training Colleges, the DIT, and some private colleges. These credits are fully transferable between institutions accredited by the NCEA in the Republic of Ireland and in third level institutions in other European Union states, thus allowing a high degree of mobility.[7] The NCEA intends to introduce a scheme to grant exemptions to people on the basis of experience gained during their working life.

Another area of mutual concern is that of adult education guidance and counselling. Although Northern Ireland has had an independent Adult Guidance Service for 26 years, the rapid growth in the voluntary sector has increased the need for a major expansion of the Service. There is no similar Service in the Republic of Ireland, although Aontas provides information and some advice, but sees the need for a specialised Guidance and Counselling Service and has applied to the Department of Education for funding to set up a service. A Further Education Authority is to be established in the Republic of Ireland to co-ordinate all national vocational education and training and adult and continuing education.

Significant developments have taken place in the voluntary/community sector in Northern Ireland. In this context, the Corrymeela Community and the Ulster Peoples' College are involved in the development of cross-community adult education. The latter has links with the University of Ulster for certification of some of its courses in community relations and community development. The Workers Educational Association (WEA), one of the main voluntary organisations, operates in the five Education Board areas and has been a very important provider of adult education, especially in relation to the disadvantaged. Enrolments have increased by 65% in five years and 60% of these students were in receipt of State benefits.[8]

Table 3.1: Adult and Continuing Education in Northern Ireland

Year1981/82 1986/871990/91 1993/94
No. of Students11,157 30,73432,793 39,543
Source: Compendium of N. I. Education Statistics 1981/82 to 1993/94, DENI

The Open University, which is now active in both jurisdictions since 1990, is an important provider of adult and continuing education offering places to 99% of those who apply.

Table 3.2: Open University enrolment

Students1991 19921994 1995
N. Ireland2362 24202823 3027
Rep. of Ireland467 7791794 2157
Total28293199 46175184
Source: Open University

In the Republic of Ireland, the numbers in adult education have been estimated at one quarter million per year attending some 8,000 courses of all kinds. Women outnumber men by two to one.[9]

The Report of the National Education Convention (1994) considered that the biggest problem in the area of adult education in the Republic of Ireland was the lack of a coherent policy. It claimed that a policy framework for adult education was essential and that adult, community and continuing education will be further disadvantaged unless it is brought into the mainstream. There was consensus in the Report that this sector had great potential for redressing educational disadvantage. The subsequent 1995 White Paper further stressed the role of adult education in redressing inequality and disadvantage. Its recommendations include:

  • recognition of the central importance of adult education for personal development, for updating knowledge and skills and for overcoming disadvantage suffered in initial education
  • improving co-ordination between providers
  • improving access to mainstream education
  • providing flexible structures e.g. modular courses and distance learning
  • developing a comprehensive system of certification and validation.

Trends in Adult Education
The general trend in adult education in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is for women to predominate in the liberal studies areas including self-development courses and for men to predominate in the vocational, technological and managerial courses.[10] In 1996 the Open University breakdown was 55.33% male to 44.67% female.

In Northern Ireland there has been a significant growth in adult education among working class Catholics and especially among women since the 1970s.[11] Interestingly, in the Republic of Ireland, the Report of the Commission on Adult Education (1983) concluded that there was a disproportionate number of better-off and better-educated students participating in adult education. This was reiterated in the Green and White Papers which emphasised the need to encourage participation of the poorer socio-economic groups and the unemployed.

Special Needs Education
In both jurisdictions there is a debate about mainstream as opposed to special provision. The general preference appears to be for mainstream provision. In the Republic of Ireland, the White Paper (1995) has made a commitment to the provision of a flexible system with the possibility of movement between mainstream and special schools or units as appropriate. The Education Bill (1997) demands that schools and education boards will be required by law to ensure that the needs of students with special needs are provided for. In Northern Ireland, a system of 'statementing' exists wherein pupils are assessed by the Education and Library Boards in their area and a statement of special educational needs is drawn up. Parents have a right to make representations and appeal to this process.[12] Not all children with special needs are statemented. These may be catered for by the appointment of peripatetic teachers or classroom assistants by the Boards. At present there is a view that there are insufficient numbers of teachers with specialised training. However, an optional module is now available during initial teacher training and DENI is considering increasing facilities.13 The White Paper (1995) has proposed a similar system of statementing in the Republic of Ireland which is to be implemented by the proposed Regional Education Boards.

In Northern Ireland, the Education and Library Boards have a statutory responsibility to provide for children and young people with special needs up to 19 years of age. This includes physical disability, visual and hearing impairment, speech and language difficulties, and moderate to severe learning difficulties. The total number of pupils in Special Schools in Northern Ireland in 1993-94 was 4,400.[14] Figures from the Department of Education give an indication of the range of provision for special needs education.

Table 3.3: Special needs provision in Northern Ireland 1994/95

CategoryPrimary Secondary
Pupils in special units in schools886 677
Pupils statemented in mainstream classes892 836
Pupils in special schools4562
Source: DENI 1996

In the Republic of Ireland, special need is defined as covering a wide range of disabilities, physical, mental, emotional, behavioural and specific learning difficulties including speech and language problems. It is estimated that 8,000 such pupils attend normal classes in Primary schools. There are also 10,200 pupils in Special schools and special classes of which approximately 80% are in classes for mild to severe mental disabilities, 13% are in special schools/classes for visual, aural, physical disability and 7% are in schools for emotional, behavioural and other disorders.

The Special Review Committee estimates that there are approximately 2,000 school age children in the Republic of Ireland with severe mental disabilities and that currently only 207 of these are receiving appropriate educational provision within 16 pilot projects. This suggests that a large number of children with severe mental disabilities receive no educational provision whatsoever.[15] The Government White Paper (1995) gives a commitment that this area will receive special attention involving flexible provision in 'mainstream' schooling, special schools or a combination of both, and an expanded psychological service. As in Northern Ireland, it is estimated that large numbers of trained Special Education teachers are required at primary level.

Some criticism has been expressed by teachers in Northern Ireland about 'statementing'. It is felt that there is inadequate follow-up advice to teachers on the actual delivery of the recommendations of the statement. Lack of financing has also been criticised in both jurisdictions. In the Republic of Ireland for example, the Special Education Review Committee has estimated that £40 million per year will be required to ensure the effective implementation of the new proposals. It has been claimed that special education in the North may be falling victim to market forces since the introduction of LMS and that there was a danger that special needs budgets might be diverted to other areas in order to raise school results in any proposed league tables. Recently an umbrella group, the Whole Ireland Institute of Special Education (WISE), was formed to co-ordinate four Southern and two Northern bodies which cover the whole range of special needs from remedial to gifted.[16]


Northern Ireland
The 1993 Department of the Environment (DOE) census indicates that the total travelling population in Northern Ireland consists of 239 families with a total of 1,115 individuals. These are located on 26 sites (both official and unofficial) throughout the State.

In 1989 a resolution by the European Council of Education Ministers gave recognition to the educational and cultural needs of gypsy and travelling peoples. In 1990, budgetary provision was made by the European Parliament for inter-cultural education, with a specific allocation for gypsy and traveller children.[17] In 1989 the Prohibition of Incitement to Racial, Religious and National Hatred Bill gave travellers legal protection in the Republic of Ireland. Following an Appeal Court ruling in 1988, the Commission for Racial Equality in England recognised travellers as an ethnic minority. However, in Northern Ireland this does not apply and they have not been recognised as having special status.[18]

It is anticipated that a Race Relations Act for Northern Ireland will be introduced in the near future. It appears that in this travellers may not be regarded as an ethnic minority, but rather be recognised as a special group, which will give them protection against discrimination. In the past, this lack of special status has resulted in statutory bodies failing to make any special provision for travellers. It was considered that provision was for all, so there was no special schemes or quotas for travellers. Consultation between travellers and statutory bodies is improving. In 1993 DENI produced circular No. 1993/37 "Policy Guidelines for the Education of Children from Travelling Families". This was a response to a resolution adopted in 1989 by the Council of the European Communities (89/c 153/01-01) aimed at addressing the educational needs of gypsy and travelling peoples.

The Circular points out that the Education Reform (NI) Order 1989 guarantees access for all of compulsory school-going age to education.

The DENI guidelines recognise the unique nomadic culture of the travellers. They encourage an integrationist approach to schooling while accepting the right of travellers to choose to send their children to the special school. They encourage school-home liaison, primary-secondary liaison and pre-school provision. Support measures suggested include special transport arrangements, home-work centres, peripatetic support, use of culturally suitable materials, in-service support and better inter-agency co-operation.

Educational Provision
Provision is seen as being most appropriate through integration in ordinary Primary schools, rather than in special schools which might result in ghettoisation. This preference is expressed by DENI, the Education and Library Boards, voluntary bodies, and most travelling parents.

Mainstream pre-school provision by the Education and Library Boards is theoretically available, but the demand for such provision is high and travellers tend not to avail of it. Paris (1995) states that there is some provision for a very small minority by voluntary organisations e.g. Save the Children and Barnardos. This is on-site and often involves help from older members of the travelling community.

Primary level
Approximately one third of the travelling population are in the Belfast area. Within this area the majority of primary age children attend a special school. Outside Belfast the majority are in mainstream schooling.[19]

The DOE report (1993) suggests that there is a 20% uptake of educational provision at pre-school level, a 100% uptake at primary level and a 43% uptake at secondary level. Due to the lack of recognition of the ethnicity or special status it is very difficult to monitor accurately such statistics. The above figures therefore should be treated with some caution. Daly (1990) argues that uptake of educational provision is highest among children resident in authorised sites.

Second level
It is estimated that a total of 81 children are enrolled in rural Secondary schools. However, those residing within the city tend not to proceed to second level schooling. Daly (1990) claims that the main reason for this low attendance is that parents perceive the curriculum at this level as being inappropriate and irrelevant.

Vocational Education
Mainstream training and employment provision has been criticised for not actively promoting its programmes among travelling communities and for not being sufficiently user-friendly for that community. Some special schemes do exist however which have been financed by DENI. Other pre-vocational training courses are organised by the BelfastTravellers Education and Development Group (BTEDG) with funding from the Training and Education Authority (TEA) and the European Union Horizons Initiative. Extra funding is now also available through the LMS schemes and three ELB's have appointed special traveller liaison teachers.

Republic of Ireland
In 1993, the DOE estimated that there were 3,909 travelling families with a total number of individuals of 20 - 25,000 in the Republic of Ireland. In 1994 there were 117 halting sites and 283 houses in group housing schemes. It was also calculated that there were 979 families on halting sites and 1,085 on roadside sites.

Educational Provision
As in Northern Ireland, there is a preference for integration into mainstream schooling and a commitment to this and to extra provision through special classes or extra support within the classroom was given in the 1995 White Paper. Concerns have been expressed that integration should not imply assimilation and that the unique culture of the travellers must be recognised.

Douglas [20, 21] records 50 preschools in the Republic of Ireland which cater for approximately 650 children aged 3-6 years. Preschool provision is partly the responsibility of the Department of Education and partly the Department of Health. This bi-lateral responsibility appears to cause some problems and one of the recommendations of the Task Force on the Travelling Community (1995) is that all responsibility should lie solely with the Department of Education.

Approximately 4,000 children are enrolled at Primary level. Of these 2,000 are in ordinary classes and 2,000 are in special classes or special schools. There are four special schools which cater for about 200 pupils in total.[22] There has been a very significant increase in enrolment at Primary level from 114 attending regularly in 1963 to the figure of 4,000 in the early nineties. This increase has been credited to factors such as the traveller liaison teachers service, the introduction of flexible transport services and special capitation grants. In-service training for teachers is being developed as are reading materials which take account of the particular lifestyles of the children.

Second level
As in Northern Ireland, attendance at second level is very low. Again, the main reason given for this was that the curriculum at this level did not relate to the needs or lifestyles of travellers. However a Government target is that within ten years, all traveller children of secondary level age will complete junior cycle and 50% of the cohort to complete senior cycle.

Vocational education
Senior Training Centres provide training and basic literacy and numeracy for the 15-25 year old group. These are run jointly by FÁS and the Vocational Education Committees.


1. Coolahan, J. (ed.), (1994), Report on the National Education Convention
2. Irish Times, (1995), 'Aontas - A Special Report' in Irish Times Special Supplement 6/9/95
3. McGowan, D. (1996), Interview Magee College, University of Ulster
4. Irish Times, (1995), 'Aontas - A Special Report' in Irish Times Special Supplement 6/9/95
5. Coolahan, J. (ed.), (1994), Report on the National Education Convention
6. Field, J., (1995), 'Adult Education in a Divided Society: A Perspective from Northern Ireland', in International Yearbook of Adult Education, vol. 23
7. Irish Times, (1995), 'Aontas - A Special Report' in Irish Times Special Supplement 6/9/95
8. DENI, (1994), The Education Services in Northern Ireland: A Strategic Analysis
9. Irish Times, (1995), 'Aontas - A Special Report' in Irish Times Special Supplement 6/9/95
10.Irish Times, (1995), 'Aontas - A Special Report' in Irish Times Special Supplement 6/9/95
11. Field, J., (1995), 'Adult Education in a Divided Society: A Perspective from Northern Ireland', in International Yearbook of Adult Education, vol. 23
12. WELB, (1994), Special Education Needs: School Year 1994/95
13. DENI, (1994), The Education Services in Northern Ireland: A Strategic Analysis
14. DENI (1994), Extracts from DENI Accounts
15. Coolahan, J. (ed.), (1994), Report on the National Education Convention
16. Irish Times, (1995), Irish Times Education Supplement 19/4/95
17. Coolahan, J. (ed.), (1994), Report on the National Education Convention
18. Daly, H., (1990), A Survey of Educational Provision for Traveller Children in Northern Ireland
19. Department of the Environment, (1993), Census
20. Douglas, F.G. (1994), The History of the Irish Pre-school Playgroups Association, Irish Pre-school Playgroups Association
21. Douglas, F.G. and Horgan M.A. (1995), Early Childhood Education: Issues and concerns, INTO, Dublin
22.Coolahan, J. (ed.), (1994), Report on the National Education Convention

Return to Publication Contents

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

go to the top of this page go to the top of this page
Last modified :