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

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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 Curriculum in Northern Ireland is based in law with the primary legislation being:[1]

The Education and Libraries (NI) Order 1986: SI 1986 no 594 (NI3)

The Education and Libraries (NI) Order 1987 : SI 1987 no 167 (NI2)

The Education Reform (NI) Order 1989 : SI 1989 No 2406 (NI20)

The Education and Libraries (NI) Order 1993: SI 1993 No 2810(NI12)

There is a statutory requirement for the Curriculum to be delivered to all pupils attending grant-aided schools. This also applies to pupils with special needs, although in their case exemptions can be arranged through statements of special educational needs. The 12 years of compulsory schooling are divided into 'Key Stages'.

Table 4.1 Key Stages of Compulsory Schooling

Key Stage 1
Primary School
Key Stage 2
Primary School
Key Stage 3
Post Primary
Forms 1-3
Key Stage 4
Post Primary
Forms 4-5
Source: Information Brief on Education in Northern Ireland, DENI 1994

Programmes of Study exist for all subjects. These set out the content, skills, and understanding to be taught to pupils of different levels of ability within each Key Stage. 2 The original programmes of study put in place in 1990/91 were revised in 1994/95 to take account of complaints of overload, particularly from Primary schools. It is envisaged that the complete revised primary curriculum should take up 85% of available teaching time. This will allow schools to allot the extra time to additional curricular work and extra-curricular activities.[3]

Within Key Stages 1 and 2 (ages 4-11), the curriculum consists of Religious Education and five areas of study.

Table 4.2 Programmes of Study in the Primary Curriculum

1) EnglishEnglish (Statutory programme of study)
2) MathsMaths (Statutory programme of study)
3) ScienceScience (Statutory programme of study)
4) Environment and
History (Statutory programme of study)
Geography (Statutory programme of study)
5) Creative and
Expressive Studies
Art and Design, Music
Physical Education
Source: Information Brief on Education in Northern Ireland, DENI 1994

In addition there are four cross-curricular themes: Education for Mutual Understanding, Cultural Heritage, Health Education and Information Technology. EMU and Cultural Heritage were conjoined in 1992 because they share common objectives. They are now generally regarded as one theme.

Within Key Stage 3 (age 11-14) and Key Stage 4 (age 15-16), the curriculum consists of Religious Education and six areas of study. (See table 4.3) At this stage there are six cross curricular themes: EMU, Cultural Heritage, Health Education, Information Technology, Economic Awareness, Careers Education. (EMU and CH regarded as one theme)

Table 4.3 Programmes of Study in the Secondary Curriculum

Religious EducationStatutory core syllabus
1) EnglishStatutory programme of study
2) MathsStatutory programme of study
3) Science and
Technology and Design
Statutory programmes of study
4) Environment and Society1 of either:
Business Studies
Home Economics
5) Creative and
Expressive Studies
Statutory programme of study for Physical Education
6) Language StudiesFrench/German/Irish/
Italian/Spanish with emphasis on oral and aural work
Source: Information Brief on Education in Northern Ireland, DENI 1994

The minimum statutory curriculum time recommended by DENI is 60-62.5%. This allows for extra time to be allocated to compulsory subjects or for offering additional subjects within the designated areas of study.4 Key Stage 4 completes the compulsory period of education, but pupils opting to continue further may proceed to either General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) or General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs).

Grammar schools have traditionally offered only GCSEs at Ordinary and Advanced levels, but since 1992 an increasing number are offering GNVQs. Most Secondary schools with a post-16 facility are offering GNVQs and A Levels.

GNVQs were developed to introduce more vocational elements into the curriculum. They are comprised of a combination of academic, technological and vocational elements. At advanced level they provide a realistic alternative to A levels. An important distinction is that while A levels are assessed in the main by end of year examinations, GNVQs consist of mandatory and optional units which are continually assessed. There is also internal and external assessment.

GNVQs may be taken at three levels:

Foundation Level - equivalent to four GCSEs at grade D-F or NVQ Level 1;

Intermediate Level - equivalent to four/five GCSEs at grades A-C or NVQ Level two or BTEC First Certificate/Diploma;

Advanced Level - equivalent to two A Levels or NVQ Level 3 or BTEC National Certificate/Diploma.

Pupils of 16 years or more with no qualifications may enrol for Foundation level GNVQs and then proceed to Intermediate. One Advanced GNVQ plus an additional unit or A level is equivalent to three A levels, which is the normal requirement for entry to university. Subjects may also be taken at Supplementary or AS level which is equivalent to half an A level. While areas may differ, the GNVQs currently on offer in schools in the Western Board area are, in order of popularity, Business, Health and Social Care, Leisure and Tourism, Manufacturing Science.[5,6]

The National Commission on Education has recommended the abolition of A levels in favour of a broader system. A levels are regarded as best serving the needs of the universities and thus, a minority of the population. However, one problem with GNVQs as an alternative to A levels remains that of acceptance. It is considered by some that it is not enough for them to be accepted by employers and even by the universities, but that unless they are widely accepted by the Grammar schools they will continue to be regarded as second class in nature.


In 1971, a review of national schooling brought major changes to the Primary curriculum. The traditional subject-orientated approach gave way to a child-centred, integrated curriculum with the emphasis on learning by discovery. The curriculum is now composed of: Religious Education, Language - Irish and English, Maths, Social and Environmental Studies (includes History, Geography, Elementary Science, Civics), Art and Craft activities, Music, Physical Education. In addition, the following areas are being developed as part of the current curricular review: the Arts, Physical Education, Health and Science.

The White Paper (1995) reinforces this commitment to increasing emphasis on science; introducing a European awareness programme; developing a broad arts curriculum involving dance, music, drama, art, poetry, story-telling; supporting a health and well-being programme including diet, hygiene, safety, relationships and sexuality. There is also a commitment given to the introduction of more precisely stated learning objectives and increased assessment.


Junior Cycle
The Junior Certificate programme was introduced in 1989. While generally regarded as innovative, concerns have been expressed that it has not been fully implemented due in part to lack of funding for practical subjects and problems with regard to assessment of project work. Coolahan (1994) argues that inadequate funding of in-service training has resulted in teachers choosing to retain traditional didactic methods rather than opting for the active learning, pupil-centred methods envisaged by the curriculum planners.

Most types of post primary schools share similar curricular requirements and basically the same core curriculum. This consists of Irish, English, History, Geography, Maths, Science, or a language other than Irish and English, or a subject of the Business Studies Group, or Civics. The Rules and Programme for Secondary Schools recommends that Physical Education should form part of the curriculum.[7] The programme will be based on an approved syllabus and teaching hours are registered on the school timetable.

In all schools, the curriculum at Junior Cycle (three years) must include the following subjects: Irish, English, Maths, History and Geography, not less than two other subjects from the approved list of examination subjects and Civics. The latter is to be replaced by Civic, Social and Political Education.

Table 4.4: Recommended curriculum area time allocation in Junior Cycle

Curriculum areaMinimum % time
Language and Literature
a) Vernacular
b) Other European

Science and Technology12.5%
Social, Political, Environmental Education10%
Arts Education7.5%
Physical Education5%
Religious Education5%
Guidance, Counselling & Pastoral care2.5%
Source: NCCA, Towards the New Century, 1993

All subjects are offered at Ordinary and Higher Level and three subjects - Irish, English and Mathematics are also offered at Foundation Level for Junior Certificate. Two, Irish and Mathematics, are offered at Foundation Level at Leaving Certificate. Media education is mainly addressed as part of English and to a lesser extent Art. Information Technology is taught principally through technology and business studies and also on a cross-curricular basis. It can also be offered as a non exam subject at Junior Cycle. At present Religious Education is not an examination subject.

As a result of the White Paper (1995) increasing emphasis is being put on Science and Technology and either a Science or a technological subject will become part of the core syllabus in Junior Cycle. The Paper also states that each school will be expected to provide students with experience in the following areas as recommended by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment: Language and Literature, Mathematical Studies, Science and Technology, Civics, Social and Political Education, Arts Education, Religious Education, Guidance, Counselling and Pastoral Care, Physical Education, Health Education including Personal and Social Development, Relationships and Sexuality Education.

It is envisaged that some subjects will be dealt with in a cross-curricular way or by short modules e.g. Health Education. Schools will be required to involve management, staff and parents in developing and implementing a policy on Relationships and Sexuality Education.

It is anticipated that all students will have access to the study of a modern European language and to a recognised course in at least one creative or performing Art form. The area of the Arts had been recognised as having been comparatively neglected and the importance attached to redressing this is reflected in the White Paper (1995) statement that cultural poverty is a significant part of disadvantage.

Senior Cycle
There has been major restructuring at this level. Alternative programmes to the traditional academic Leaving Certificate have been introduced. The four main elements are :

1) The introduction of a Transition Year - to become compulsory for all pupils commencing second level in 1996.
2) Revision of the established Leaving Certificate programme.
3) Introduction of the new Leaving Certificate Applied Programme.
4) Development and expansion of the Leaving Certificate Vocational programme.

Transition Year
Transition Year is a non-examination year following the Junior Certificate. Its aim is to give pupils an opportunity to experience a wide variety of courses, modules, project work and work experience. There is no set programme and significant autonomy is given to each individual teacher. Some standardisation has been suggested to overcome the problem of the disparity of programmes on offer. Overall reaction to this extra year has been positive. It is considered a good maturing process. The Department of Education has increased the level of capitation by £50 per pupil. In 1995 459 schools were providing a Transition Year - 67% of Voluntary Secondary, 45% of VEC, and 64% of Community and Comprehensive schools.[8]

Established Leaving Certificate
The Leaving Certificate has been the traditional academic route for pupils wishing to proceed to third level education. It is competitive, with points being awarded for grades and these points determine access to universities and other third level institutions. The majority of pupils take this option. Syllabi are being revised on a phased basis and the first six revised syllabi were introduced in September 1995.

The approved course must consist of five subjects from the following list of subjects, one of which must be Irish :

Table 4.5: Approved examination subjects for Leaving Certificate

GreekClassical Studies Hebrew
Spanish. .
Applied MathsPhysics Chemistry
Physics & ChemistryBiology Agricultural Science
Agricultural EconomicsEngineering Technical Drawing
Construction StudiesHome Economics
(Scientific & Social)
Home Economics
Business OrganisationEconomics Accounting
Economic HistoryArt (including Crafts) Music
Source: Rules and Programme for Secondary Schools, Dept. of Ed. 1995

All subjects are offered at Ordinary and Higher level. In addition, Maths and Irish are also offered at Foundation Level. In certain circumstances, approval may be obtained to present a subject not on the above list.

Concern has been expressed about Foundation level courses. This is related to the perceived danger of pupils opting for these courses early in their school life. As a result they may have difficulties accessing higher level courses later and thus get locked-in to a lower level of achievement.

The Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA)
A modular, two year course, currently piloted in some 100 schools and expected to be on general offer in September 1997. The programme is composed of :

Table 4.6: Composition of Leaving Certificate Applied Programme

General Education Modulessix modules in Social Education
two modules in Communicative Irish
two modules in Modern Languages
two modules in Arts education
two modules in Leisure and Recreation (including Physical Education)
Vocational Educationeight modules in Vocational Specialisms
four modules in Mathematical Applications
two modules in Information Technology
Vocational Preparationeight modules in Vocational Preparation and Guidance
four modules in English and Communications
Source: Rules and Programme for Secondary Schools, Dept. of Ed. 1995

One module is the equivalent of 40 hours which is approximately four class periods per week for half of the school year. One credit is given for satisfactory completion of each module. A maximum of 40 credits is possible for this element of the course. A further 27 credits are allocated for student tasks (three credits per task). Three tasks to be completed in each of the above areas i.e. General Education, Vocational Education and Vocational Preparation. There are also external exams accounting for 33 credits in English and Communication, Vocational Specialisms, Mathematical Applications, Language (Irish and Modern European), Social Economic Education.[9]

The aim of this course is to facilitate transition to working life, but students may gain access to further education by taking a PLC course. Progress to higher education is then possible. Those schools offering the Senior Certificate are expected to opt for this new programme, and those currently running VPT1 courses will not be permitted to continue these if they opt for LCA.

Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme
A Modular two year course has recently been established after a pilot period in over 60 schools. It is offered in conjunction with certain Leaving Certificate subjects. This distinguishes it from LCA which is taken instead of the Leaving Certificate.

A minimum of five Leaving Certificate subjects (including Irish and a continental language) must be taken within LCVP. Also required are the mandatory link modules of enterprise education, preparation for work and work experience, in addition to a choice from Specialist and Service groups of subjects. Creative and innovative skills are fostered through active learning processes e.g. projects, mini-enterprises, visits to workplaces, interchange with employers and report writing. There is an emphasis on vocational, technological, communicative and interpersonal skills.

Vocational Preparation and Training Programme
There are two of these provided in second level schools: VPT1 aimed at 15-16 year olds leaving school with few or no qualifications. 1996 is the last year that this option will be offered. It will be replaced by LCA. VPT2 is aimed at those who have completed VPT1 or have qualifications but no vocational training. This continues in the form of Post Leaving Certificate courses. Uptake in 1996 for these courses is approximately 18,000.

Senior Certificate
Introduced in 1983, its emphasis is on introduction to working life. It is possible to progress to further education through Post Leaving Certificate courses or the Regional Technical Colleges. The National Vocational Certificates acquired would then allow progress into Higher education.

The Senior Certificate consists of seven areas of study with a choice of units within these. 1) Work and communication skills (focal unit).- units include: work experience and enterprise education, functional literacy, money matters, citizenship, law, home management, baby care; 2) Food and Agriculture - units include nutrition, horticulture, agri-business; 3) Social and Cultural Studies - includes units on Northern Ireland, Europe, consumer education, health; 4) General Technology - includes construction, electricity, plumbing, home maintenance, craftwork; 5) Computer applications; 6) Irish (conversational); 7) Maths.[10] It is intended that the Senior Certificate will be replaced by the LCA.


The curriculum in Northern Ireland is highly centralised, defined and based in law. In the Republic of Ireland it is based more on Ministerial directive and tends to be less prescribed. Although the situation is changing, teachers in the Republic of Ireland have had more freedom to initiate changes either locally or through Curriculum Development Units. However some see what was a flexible and innovative system becoming more rigid due to pressures at the stage of transfer from Primary to Secondary schools. Competition for entry to third level institutions also tends to have a restrictive influence on the curriculum of Secondary schools.

Flexibility is also possible in the Northern Ireland Curriculum. A minimum statutory curriculum time is laid down as 60-62.5% for Key Stage 4 from 1996. The remaining time allows for a degree of choice at this level. However, it would appear that there remains a perception of over-prescription and over-assessment. Current changes are likely to result in a more malleable curriculum with less assessment. Flexibility in the Northern Ireland system is also possible with regard to choice of syllabus, especially at A level. For example, teachers may choose to do a Northern Ireland syllabus in one subject but a different Examination Board syllabus in another. These Boards are based in England (e.g. University of London Examination and Assessment Council). This may take place due to teacher preference with regard to the amount of course work involved or the perceived appropriateness of that particular syllabus for certain students.

One major difference between the curricula in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is that the Irish language is a compulsory subject in the latter. The situation in Northern Ireland is that the majority of Catholic Secondary schools and all Catholic Grammar schools offer Irish Language. Policy with regard to the subject varies. Some schools treat it as a compulsory unit for the first three years of Second level and present it as a voluntary option thereafter. Two integrated Secondary schools in Northern Ireland offer Irish for GCSE. At least one controlled school does Irish studies.

Cross-curricular themes
In Northern Ireland cross-curricular themes are delivered mainly through the compulsory subjects but also through the non-compulsory ones. They are not discrete subjects in their own right, but rather transcend subject boundaries.[11] Two of the cross-curricular themes are distinctive features of the Northern Ireland curriculum. These are Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU) and Cultural Heritage (CH). They are specifically aimed at increasing knowledge and understanding of the different sectors of society in Northern Ireland and the fostering of respect for self and others. These two themes are compulsory elements of the curriculum and in addition, special funding is available through the Community Relations Branch of DENI for cross-community joint activities.

There is no equivalent to CH as a cross curricular theme in the Republic of Ireland. Neither is there an actual equivalent of EMU, although it can be argued that it is implicit in certain subjects e.g. Religious Education, the civics element of Environmental and Social Studies and the new Civic, Social and Political Education (CSPE). This new CSPE programme will deal with citizenship, democracy, rights and responsibilities, human dignity, interdependence and law and involves cross-curricular projects. The INTO submission to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation recommended the introduction of EMU and CH in the Republic of Ireland. In fact, according to the NCCA aspects of EMU are broadly written into CSPE. However, there is no specific module dealing with the political situation in Northern Ireland equivalent to that which was developed for the Social and Cultural Studies programme of the Senior Certificate. This programme addressed perceptions on both sides of the Northern divide. However, the Senior Certificate is soon to be replaced by the new Leaving Certificate Applied Programme and it is possible that this unit on Northern Ireland may be lost. However the two curriculum bodies North and South are working closely together to develop such programmes along similar lines.

The CSPE programme has been run as a pilot project and it is intended to introduce it as a mandatory subject at Junior Cycle level by September 1996, probably in the form of a discrete unit plus a cross-curricular approach.

Pastoral care
This is an area which is being attributed with increasing importance north and south of the island.

Republic of Ireland
The Department of Education is currently encouraging schools to develop their own programmes in consultation with parents which takes into account the ethos of the school. In this regard the NCCA are drawing up guidelines on implementation for teachers.[12]

Many schools both Primary and Post Primary already have life skills or personal and social education programmes. Health Boards have been involved in developing and supporting some of these. There is concern among some teachers that the Department of Education has not provided sufficient material and support, although the Minister has established an implementation group which is comprised of the NCCA, parents, teachers and others. Suggested guidelines from this group are comprehensive and include personal and social skills, moral development, bullying, self-esteem, sexuality, gender stereotypes, community living and social responsibility. The programme caters for all age groups within schools. There will be free standing modules as well as a cross-curricular approach. The NCCA guidelines also state that the school should draw up a clear Relationships and Sexuality Education policy statement in consultation with teachers and parents and that this policy should cover the whole area of social, personal and health education. The policy must also make provision for parents who do not wish their children to take part on the grounds of moral objections.[13]

Northern Ireland
Pastoral care, involving as it does, personal and social development, health and well-being is regarded as demanding a whole-school dimension, i.e. needing the involvement of all teachers and a cross-curricular approach as well as specific inputs. Most of the cross-curricular themes are seen as relating in many ways to Pastoral Care issues. Most teachers are form teachers and as such are responsible for the pastoral care programme for their form. Pastoral care covers a wide range of topics e.g. study skills, relationships, drugs awareness, economic awareness (money management). Sex education is dealt with by the form teacher as part of relationships in the pastoral care programme. It is also dealt with by the Religious Education teacher and the Biology teacher. Issues such as contraception may be dealt with by the teacher or by an invited nurse or doctor. This applies to maintained as well as controlled schools. Parents have the right to withdraw children from sex education but this rarely happens.

Guidance and Counselling
There are three basic differences between Guidance and Counselling in the two jurisdictions.

1) In the Republic of Ireland, Guidance Counsellors must be fully qualified i.e. must have done either a one year full-time post-graduate training programme or its equivalent. In Northern Ireland this is not the case, and training may be done in a modular way. Area Boards have taken responsibility for Guidance and Counselling training. Currently, by doing 3-4 modules, a Diploma can be obtained which is approved by Queen's University. This can be topped up by doing a further 8-9 modules starting with a certificate and leading eventually to full qualification. Magee College and Jordanstown at the University of Ulster also run Guidance and Counselling courses.
2) The second difference is that Guidance and Counselling in the Republic of Ireland includes a strong pastoral dimension whereas in Northern Ireland Careers and Pastoral Care are often separate. In this regard the work of the Guidance Counsellor in the Republic of Ireland has been approximately estimated as follows:[14]

Table 4.7: Work of Guidance Counsellor Republic of Ireland

Career Guidance40
Personal Counselling21
Classroom teaching28
Other activities3
Source: NISCA News, Spring 1995

3) The method of provision of Guidance and Counselling teachers is different north and south. In Northern Ireland there is no specific number of Guidance and Counselling teachers allocated to schools. This is a matter for the principal. In the Republic of Ireland ex-quota appointments are made according to the number of students. Cutbacks have resulted in a reduction from the pre 1983 level of 1:250 to 1:500 in 1983. In 1993 an allocation of 0.5 of a counsellor was made for schools of 350-499 pupils. In 1996 the situation is:

Table 4.8: 1996 Guidance Counsellor appointments Republic of Ireland

PupilsGuidance Counsellors
1,0002 full time
850 - 1,0001 full time and 1 half time
500 - 8501 full time
250 - 5001 half time
Source: NISCA News, Spring 1995

To a large extent whether a counsellor works as a full-time counsellor or has to combine it with teaching another subject seems to depend on the value the principal puts on Guidance and Counselling.

In Northern Ireland careers education is mandatory at Key Stages 3 and 4. It is in fact a cross-curricular theme, although many schools also provide specific modules.

Religious Education
Religious Education is compulsory in both jurisdictions. However, in Northern Ireland it is an examination subject whereas in the Republic of Ireland it is not, although this will change as a result of the Education Bill (1997). Perhaps as a result of this, to date there is no fixed syllabus for Religious Education in schools in the Republic of Ireland.

In Northern Ireland there is a core Religious Education syllabus based on Christianity and drawn up by the four main Churches, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist. Drawing up a core rather than a complete syllabus permits schools to add to it what they deem suitable for their needs and ethos.15 The Core Syllabus is statutory for year 11 in Key Stage 4 from 1995 and for year 12 from 1996. A certificate in Religious Education is required for teaching in Catholic maintained Primary schools in Northern Ireland. This is not a requirement in the controlled sector or in the Republic of Ireland.

In Northern Ireland English at GCSE level consists of separate English language and English literature papers. No such separation exists in the Republic of Ireland.

European Languages
In both Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland European languages are generally implemented at Second level. In both systems children at Primary level are introduced to European awareness which includes an introduction to EU languages.

Physical Education
Physical Education is a compulsory element of the curriculum in Northern Ireland located in the study area Creative and Expressive Studies and is timetabled up to GCSE level. In the Republic of Ireland Physical Education is compulsory at National school level, but is one of the few countries in Europe where it is not part of the core curriculum at post-primary level.[16] However, the White paper (1995) expresses an aspiration to a total health education programme including Physical Education throughout compulsory schooling.

At Primary level in the Republic of Ireland it has been recognised that science is inadequately treated compared with international standards.[17] Unlike Northern Ireland, there is no set science syllabus at this level and it is up to the individual teacher how much emphasis is put on it. There is no special grant for Science equipment at Primary level. This would have to be covered by the Capitation Grant. However, the White Paper (1995) has again pinpointed Science as an area that is in urgent need of upgrading.

A distinguishing factor in the Science curriculum at Senior level is that in Northern Ireland, in addition to the traditional GCSE 'track', different awards can be attained. Single Award Science is a course based on Physics, Chemistry and Biology combined and leads to one GCSE. Double Award Science is also based on these three components but requiring more curricular time and is equivalent to two GCSEs. A separate GCSE in each of these may also be taken (Triple Award). In the Republic of Ireland Physics and Chemistry can be taken as one subject, but this has not proved to be a popular option.

Information Technology
This is a rapidly growing area in Northern Ireland with increasing funding being directed towards this area of the curriculum. Each education board area has an information technology co-ordinator. The resourcing of Information Technology in Northern Ireland is significantly greater than in the Republic of Ireland. This disparate emphasis is perhaps due to the fact that science and technology are treated separately from the area of study Environment and Society in the Northern Ireland curriculum at Primary level whereas in the Republic of Ireland science is part of Social and Environmental Studies at this level.

It is recognised that the area of the Arts has been neglected.[18] In the Republic of Ireland, the central role of the Arts in education has been stressed in the recent White Paper. As a result it is intended to introduce drama, poetry, story-telling, dance, music and painting into Primary schools and to follow this through with a strong arts and culture input at Second level also. Drama, music, art and design are part of creative and expressive studies on the Northern Ireland curriculum.

In Northern Ireland, prior to 1990, there was no prescribed common history syllabus. The new curriculum, introduced in 1990 and put into effect in 1991 was statutory. Therefore, for the first time, controversial issues had to be addressed. It has been under review in 1995 and the revised syllabus will come into effect in 1996. The curriculum specified an investigative approach incorporating different perspectives.

In the Republic of Ireland, James Bennett[19] sees considerable changes at Primary level since the 1971 curriculum review which proposed a less chronological approach and more use of primary source material and themes and a greater emphasis on social history. Also, at post-primary level, he sees a more critical approach developing which he ascribes to a diminishing fear of undermining religion and patriotism.

Media Studies
Media studies form a distinct unit in the Northern Ireland curriculum within the Social and Environmental Studies modules. It can also be taken as a subject at A level. In the Republic of Ireland it is a feature of the Junior Certificate, English syllabus and is examined under the heading of media studies. It will also feature in the revised Leaving Certificate English, which is due to be introduced, in the form of literacy and film studies as well as general media studies. It also appears in a more diverse form in Art, Craft, Design and Technology.


Many schools in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are linked through European Studies. As well as a European awareness being built into the curricula at Primary and Second level in both jurisdictions, there are opportunities for cross-community contact within Northern Ireland through joint project work with other schools.[20] There are also exchange programmes such as the European Studies Project established by the Departments of Education in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain. This project's aim is to develop curricular links with schools in France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Holland. This project operates four programmes catering for children from 11-18.

Community initiatives existing for the post-16 age group include:

LINGUAprovides grants for
- initial and in-service training for language teachers
- language studies for use in working life
- exchanges for 16-25 year olds in professional, vocational and technical education.
particularly aimed at helping disadvantaged youth, its aim is to improve youth exchanges and mobility within the EU. It includes study visits for youth workers.
PETRAFor young people in vocational education and training. Its aims include developing transnational training partnerships. This is now incorporated into the new Leonardo programme.
FORCEAlso aimed at improving trans-European vocational training. Also now under Leonardo.
IRISAimed at improving vocational training for women. It promotes exchanges and networking between EU womens' training programmes.
ERASMUSAimed at promoting mobility of University students. Now incorporated into the Socrates programme.
TEMPUSSimilar to Erasmus but with links between the EU and countries of central and eastern Europe.
COMETTIts aim is to promote co-operation between universities and industry in relation to training in new technologies. Now under the Leonardo programme.
EUROTECNETTo promote technology in training and industry. Now under Leonardo.
WIDER HORIZONSOperated through the Training and Employment Agency. This programme must have a cross-community and cross-border element, incorporate a two-four month stay in a country outside the U.K. and have a strong vocational training or employment oriented base.

There are also a range of initiatives operated through the Education and Library Boards, the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges and other organisations. The Central Bureau promotes student and teacher exchanges between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and at a European level.

The most recent Socrates programme brings together several earlier programmes namely - Erasmus, Lingua, Arion, (study visits for policy makers), Eurydice, (exchange of information) and Comenius. The latter programme covers Nursery, Primary and Secondary schools and also promotes teacher, principal and senior management exchanges.

The new Leonardo Initiative has been implemented to encompass Petra, Force, Comett, Eurotecnet. It will work to introduce an EU vocational training policy.[21]

In the Republic of Ireland the bodies administering these programmes are:

Department of Education - Eurydice, Arion
Leargas - Comenius
Higher Education Authority - Lingua, Erasmus
Linguistics Institute of Ireland - Lingua
National Distance Education Centre


Northern Ireland
Debate continues with regard to the volume of assessment required following the major curriculum reforms of 1990. The initial pilot assessments in 1992/93 proved time-consuming and have since been revised.

The curriculum details programmes of study for each subject, which indicate the subject matter, skills, and processes to be taught to the different levels of ability in each Key Stage. Attainment Targets were introduced which identified the knowledge, skills and understanding expected to be reached for these different levels of ability by the end of each Key Stage. These were to be expressed as Statements of Attainment.[22]

Currently teacher assessment, instead of involving the original box-ticking of Statements of Attainment, now involves an overall assessment of a pupils progress with the option of using externally produced Assessment Units to back up the teachers own assessment. Class assessment records form the basis of a portfolio of work which is submitted by the school to the CCEA for external moderation. Agreement Trialing was introduced to help establish acceptable uniform standards for each level.

Because of on-going curricular reviews, it is likely that statutory assessment will not be introduced before the 1996/97 school year and then only for Key Stages 1 and 2 for English and Maths (and Irish in Irish-Medium Schools) and Key Stage 3 for English, Maths and Science. The form of assessment is as yet not finalised.

Controversy still exists with regard to the system of selection at the age of 11. These arguments tend to be based around concerns such as the stigma of failure at an early age, that the pressure of the examination restricts investigative work and the relationship between success and social class background. On the other hand others argue that it is good for standards and that it gives an opportunity to academically bright children from less well-off backgrounds to attend the more prestigious Grammar schools.

Briefly, there are three major examination events in the system.

  1. 11 plus (transfer procedure) at Key Stage 2 and age 11
  2. GCSE at Key Stage 4. Approximate age 16
  3. A Levels/GNVQs. Approximately 18 years

Republic of Ireland
Currently there are no formal assessment procedures at Primary level, nor are there external examinations on the occasion of transfer to post-Primary education. Informal end-of-year assessments are usually done by teachers, some making use of standardised tests. There has been debate about assessment methods and the possible use of the results of assessments as performance indicators by the Department of Education or by Boards of Management or outside bodies. There is general agreement however that assessment of some kind is necessary.

The Education Bill (1997) states:

  1. All Primary schools will be required to develop a policy on assessment within the framework of the school plan. Assessments are to take place at the end of first and fifth class. Teachers may also continue their own end-of-year assessments for other classes.

  2. Parents are to be guaranteed a right of access to their child's assessment records.

  3. Schools are to provide aggregated assessment outcomes, in accordance with nationally agreed guidelines, on a confidential basis to Boards of Management, to Education Boards and to the Department of Education. These can be used for the purposes of quality assurance, the identification of special learning needs and the targeting of resources.

  4. Assessments from a cross-section of representative schools will be regularly monitored to provide the Department of Education with an indication of national standards. These results will be publicly available, but the schools will not be identified.

At Second level, assessment by State examination takes place through the Junior Certificate, which is usually undertaken at age 15. It is externally set by the Inspectorate. Although assessment at Junior Certificate is seen as essential, change in the method of doing so is considered desirable. The current external State examination is seen as not catering adequately for assessment of project work. The Junior Certificate programme is intended to encourage active learning, problem solving and critical thinking, but Coolahan (1994) argues that the exam system tends to inhibit this. This has resulted in an unduly text-based, teacher centred approach. He also claims that the system encourages learning by rote, with results in non-exam subjects being downgraded e.g. Civics, Religious Education.

To address this the White Paper (1995) gives a commitment to the introduction of a synthesis of external examination and internal assessment (with external monitoring). At Senior level the emphasis is still to be on external examination but with improved assessment techniques. There has also been a decision that there will be no publication of the results of individual schools.

The final State assessment is mainly through the established Leaving Certificate, or one of the alternative programmes already discussed. It is taken either two or three years (if Transition Year is done) after the Junior Certificate and the usual age is 17-18 years.


Northern Ireland
Implementation at school level involves the Boards of Governors in consultation with the school principal. They are required to ensure that the statutory curriculum is delivered at school level. The Boards' responsibilities also include reviewing the curriculum policy of the school on a regular basis and drawing up a written statement of school policy. They must ensure that the policy and the syllabi and courses offered are in keeping with the statutory requirements. It is also their responsibility to provide the local Education and Library Board and the CCMS in the case of Catholic maintained schools, with a copy of their written statement.

Other responsibilities include that Religious Education is taught in accordance with the statutory requirements and that the subjects within each area of study are taught in accordance with the written policy statement of the school. There is also a requirement that any courses leading to external qualifications are only undertaken if the qualifications are approved by DENI.[23]

Republic of Ireland
Traditionally schools in the Republic of Ireland have had quite a large degree of autonomy. This is perhaps due in part to the absence, in the past, of intermediate structures such as Education and Library Boards. This has, in terms of delivering the curriculum, given schools a degree of latitude in defining the syllabus and choosing the texts and methodology.[24]

The Education Bill (1997), in outlining the responsibilities of Boards of Management, states that school plans, agreed by the patrons/trustees/owners/governors, are developed, implemented, published and regularly evaluated. There is a requirement that the curriculum, assessment and general education provisions within the schools are of a high quality and meet the requirements prescribed by the Department of Education. Boards of Management will be responsible for protecting and promoting the ethos of schools.

The development of school plans commenced at Primary level in the early 1980's and is now widely practised at that level and to some extent at Secondary level. The Department of Education is soon to circulate guidelines for school plans for the Primary sector and it will then become the responsibility of Boards of Management to ensure that a school plan is implemented. Guidelines for Second level will follow after a period of consultation.

The Government White Paper (1995) envisages school plans having two elements;

1) School policy e.g. aims, objectives, ethos, curricular provision, approaches to teaching and assessment, policies on discipline, home liaison etc.
2) Development projects - curricular or non curricular.

It is envisaged that the latter would be the responsibility of the principal and staff and a report may be published in the annual school report. The policy section is to be published by the Boards of Management for parents and other interested parties. The Board must also produce an annual report informing parents how the aims and objectives expressed in the school plan have been met. The school plan must be approved by the Board, and, in relation to values and ethos, by the patron/ trustees/owners/governors.

In both jurisdictions the definition of curriculum has widened from a narrow one of 'subjects' offered, to a broad, holistic view of education, with an increasing emphasis not just on personal development but also on the development of pupils as future participative citizens at a local and global level.

Table 4.9: Points of similarity and difference between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland Curricula

Curriculum centralisedLess tightly controlled. Becoming more prescribed.
Irish offered in some schools especially in the 'maintained' sector Irish compulsory
More emphasis on Science and Technology Increasing emphasis on Science and Technology
Education for Mutual Understanding and Cultural Heritage No direct equivalent
Statutory cross curricular themesLess cross-curricular work
Significant formal assessment at both Primary and Second level No formal assessment at Primary level. None at Second level up to Junior Certificate (approx. 15 years)
11 Plus examNo entrance exams to Second level
Religious Education: Four main churches co-operated to produce a core syllabus
Religious Education as an exam subject
Each church develops its own curriculum

Religious Education not an exam subject (this is about to change)
Specialised curriculum at A level (three-four subjects) More general education at Leaving Certificate (approximately six subjects)
No equivalent of Transition yearTransition year between Junior Certificate (15 years) and Leaving Certificate
In-service well fundedGenerally seen as not adequate


In-Service Support: Republic of Ireland
Until recently, in-service support for teachers in the Republic of Ireland was comparatively inadequate. However, the need for a comprehensive, cohesive in-service support system for the teaching profession has been acknowledged in the report on the National Education Convention (1994) and in the recent White Paper (1995). At present, in-service providers include the universities, colleges of education, teachers' centres, teachers' unions, subject associations, the Department of Education, the Department of Health.

A National In-Career Development Unit was established in the Department of Education in 1994 with responsibility for curriculum development and in-service training. At the moment, training is seen as being provided in a number of ways; through the teachers' centres, which have been developing over the last few years and are now termed Education Centres and through external courses and courses within the schools themselves. When established, the new Education Boards will have a major responsibility in this domain.[25]

In many ways the developments in the Republic of Ireland mirror provision already available within Northern Ireland. This is reflected in the new role being envisaged for Education Boards and Teachers Centres. Further examples can be seen in curricular and managerial contexts in terms of programmes for principals, school planning, Boards of Management. The gap in provision is narrowing and the Minister for Education in the Republic of Ireland has announced the allocation of £40 million to be directed towards in-career development over the period 1994-1999. The main source of these funds is the Community Support Framework (EU).[26]

The White Paper acknowledges that these new developments will necessitate a revision of current practices in the Republic of Ireland in relation to substitution arrangements, travel and subsistence allowances and study leave. Currently, these facilities are more freely available in Northern Ireland. In the Republic of Ireland there is also a degree of dissatisfaction among teachers with regard to the non-recognition of award-bearing courses. The Department only pays a substitute in the case of a teacher being given leave of absence without pay or for an approved course of study e.g. Diploma in Career Guidance. Courses run by the Department of Education are free, but there is a charge for those run by other agencies.

It is estimated that payment for essential substitution will account for half of the total future government in-service budget.

There are six Education Centres which have a full-time director and secretary and a further twenty which are administered by part-time staff. The White Paper proposes these now be called Education Centres and has made provision for a major building programme and for the full-time staffing of the majority of centres. It is intended that as well as providing in-service courses, the Centres will also provide resources and facilities for parents and Boards of Management. The Centres will be under the auspices of the new Education Boards. Their importance in delivering in-service training is recognised and £11 million has been allocated to them from structural funds.

In-Service Support: Northern Ireland
There is a large budget allocated centrally and all in-service costs are charged against this. Education and Library Boards control the budget and the planning for in-service work. Schools are allocated a budget for attendance depending on the number of staff and pupils. Take-up of this allocation is monitored by the Boards and schools are advised if they are under-using the resource. Generally, in-service training is done during the school year and substitute cover is paid by the Boards. Allowances are available to teachers for travel to courses and for a meal if away from home for more than five hours. In the case of secondments, the organisation involved pays the teacher and the school pays the substitute. Attendance at in-service courses is voluntary and the view has been expressed that there should be compulsory additional training every five years. Many schools prefer to do their own school-based in-service activities, tailored to their own needs.

The Education and Library Boards provide in-service support and advice to all grant-aided schools in their area. The training programmes provided are worked out in consultation with the schools. The Boards also consult with other bodies such as the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, Governing Bodies Association, Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, Regional Training Unit.

The in-service programmes may be delivered in several ways:

  • within the classroom
  • working with small groups of teachers in individual schools
  • working with the whole staff in individual schools
  • in Teachers' or Resource Centres.

Boards also provide induction training for new teachers and for those returning to work. Other support providers are the Boards Education and Welfare Service and the schools Psychological Service.

Teachers Centres Northern Ireland
The Teachers Centres are funded by the ELBs out of the budget for curriculum advisory and support services. This pays the salaries of the permanent staff, the seconded teachers, and the general running costs.

A major difference in the administration of the Centres north and south, apart from staffing and funding, is that in the south the Director of the Centre has complete control. In Northern Ireland the Director of the Centre is part of an overall team, and is responsible for administration but not necessarily for all the programmes run there. Programmes offered are usually on-going over a term or a school year and they cover all areas of the curriculum. The Centres also present programmes for Boards of Governors. They also provide library, film, and technological resources in addition to running programmes and providing advice. Some Centres catering for a specific subject area or special needs are located in schools.

In Northern Ireland the Regional Training Unit provides training at a regional level. Its remit includes management training for principals and senior staff in schools and Further Education Colleges and also for Education and Library Board staff. In addition to the management training programmes, a school-based support programme is also provided. New principals are given direct support for one year. The RTU also provides inter-Board courses in minority subject areas e.g. Irish-medium schools or the hearing impaired. Summer schools for teachers are also organised. The RTU also funds courses, operated by over 60 agencies, other than the ELBs. It is also involved in projects linking education and industry for example the Headteacher into Industry project and the Management in Education project.

Education Advisors
In Northern Ireland, advisors are attached to all Education and Library Boards and are responsible for curricular and general advice, for planning programmes and ensuring their delivery. They liaise with schools in their own areas with the help of assistant advisors. There are advisors for all curricular areas within the Boards.

In the Republic of Ireland, there is no direct counterpart at the moment although the Report of the National Education Convention has advanced the idea that teachers with special expertise be seconded as advisors to schools.

There are no salary increases for additional qualifications of teachers in Northern Ireland although these do increase promotional prospects. In the Republic of Ireland such increases are paid for additional qualifications for example:

Table 4.12: Allowances granted for academic qualifications

Academic qualification*Allowance (IR£)
a) Higher Diploma in Education
b) Higher Diploma in Education
(first or second class)
c) Primary Degree (pass)
d) Primary Degree
(first or second class)
e) Masters Degree (pass)
f) Masters Degree
(first or second class)
g) Doctors Degree
Source: Pay proposals of the Programme for Competitiveness and Work, 1996

* Only one of the allowances at a) or b) may be held with one of the allowances c) to g).

Salaries are also higher in the Republic of Ireland but this is offset by several factors.

1) It takes seven years to get to the top of the basic salary scale in Northern Ireland (approx. £20,000). In the Republic of Ireland it takes 15-16 years (approx. £23,000).
2) In 1987 a freeze on the creation of new teaching posts was announced with the result that many posts are now temporary full-time. This has had repercussions for pension rights.
3) Promotion opportunities are greater in Northern Ireland due to the larger number of posts of responsibility (heads of departments etc).

The Report of the National Education Convention has also stressed the need for increasing chances of promotion in schools in the Republic of Ireland by creating posts such as head of departments, head of staff development and mentor for inducting newly qualified teachers. Currently some teachers are seconded to the Department of Education and Teachers Centres for curricular planning, pre-service and in-service programmes. The proposed secondment of teachers to the newly re-structured Inspectorate will create another outlet for promotion.

Development of Material: Northern Ireland
In the main, materials are developed by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), Northern Ireland Centre for Learning Resources (NICLR), Education and Library Boards and the Regional Training Unit. Local publishers with a focus on Northern Ireland and CCEA have links with commercial publishers in the UK. The media (BBC, Channel 4) have also been instrumental in developing materials. Development has also taken place among teachers at school level and there has been a fair degree of cross-border co-operation in this regard.

The NICLR produces materials for the CCEA, ELB's and also for other bodies such as the Department of the Environment, the National Trust etc. CCEA generate materials through their own officers, working groups and by commissioning writers. They also produce guidance material for curriculum and assessment and give advice to the media in relation to drama being produced relevant to the curriculum. ELB's produce materials for pupils and in-service materials for teachers. These bodies all liaise from time to time in the production of material. An example of cross-border and EU co-operation was the production of the 'Kings in Conflict' video.

Schools can also apply to a small grants scheme if they wish to develop materials.

Research and Development
A lot of research goes into the materials production. In addition the CCEA carries out a considerable degree of R and D focused on their own work to check that advice offered and products are appropriate. There is an officer responsible for R and D in the CCEA. Material will sometimes evolve from a project e.g. a Western Education and Library Board environmental project led to the production of much more general materials. DENI and NICLR also carry out research and development.

Development of Materials - Republic of Ireland
The Department of Education does not play a major role in the actual development of materials other than providing an outline of the curriculum and giving broad general guidelines to publishers. Educational materials are produced mostly by four main publishers who employ teachers and consult schools to determine which texts they want to use. There are differing views as to the desirability of this situation. A view from within the Department sees it as market driven, with plenty of good material and the Department playing a supervisory role in producing the recommended list. On the other hand, several teachers expressed the view that the publishing companies had taken over this whole area and as a result had too great an influence on the curriculum.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has little role in the production of educational materials. They are an advisory body to the Minister on the content of the curriculum. In this respect there is a significant difference between the NCCA and the CCEA in Northern Ireland. There has also been little involvement of the national TV station in this area. The Department views this as an expensive way to develop materials, but it is an area that is being considered. Local schools, and teachers also produce materials e.g. their own workbooks etc. and materials are also being developed by Teachers Centres.

Also involved in materials development and production were the City of Dublin and Shannon Curriculum Development Centres. These were initially established to produce materials especially for the junior cycle of Secondary schools.

The ASTI has proposed greater consultation and co-operation between the Irish Educational Publishers Association (IEPA) and the Department of Education and NCCA. The ASTI also suggest that the IEPA should liaise with the Curriculum Development Units and Teachers Centres and use materials developed by teachers.[27]

Research and Development
There is a small budget for R and D available from the Department of Education. Research is carried out principally by the Educational Research Centre, situated in St. Patrick's' College of Education, Dublin and other education departments. The Department of Education will give grants to a lecturer, a group of teachers, a group of parents or others to carry out such work.

The OECD Review (1991), acknowledged that for a small country the Republic of Ireland had a good record with regard to research but pinpointed a lack of policy-related research. A review of the field by the NCCA similarly highlighted the need for closer liaison between policy makers and a greater co-ordination of educational research.[28]

According to the Green Paper there has been a considerable growth in the last few decades involving a wide variety of bodies and substantial State funding both direct and indirect. At the level of Higher Education there is concern about the underfunding of research. In addition, it has been argued that there is an apparent concentration on funding research linked to industrial needs resulting in a comparative neglect of research in the field of humanities and social sciences.

Curriculum and Technology Resources
In this context, the Republic of Ireland would seem to compare unfavourably with Northern Ireland. In the former jurisdiction, computers, books etc. are generally expected to be purchased out of the capitation grant. These grants are also intended to cover general running expenses such as heating, lighting, cleaning. There is some funding available for computers for office administration purposes. However, with regard to students, the only funding for computers is in the case of disability where a grant up to a maximum of £3,000 is available for special equipment. The Department may pay more in special circumstances for example in the case of island schools special provision is also made for computers. However, O'Toole (1997) claims that although the Republic of Ireland has the fastest growing computer industry in Europe, the school system has the lowest level of computerisation in the EU.[29]

At Primary and Secondary levels school books must be bought by parents. Exceptions are made for the disadvantaged and this is up to the school principal to assess and apply for. Books in this case may be lent or rented out. Except for a very small grant of £2 per pupil at Primary level, little provision is made for school libraries, these must be financed out of the capitation grants.

By comparison Northern Ireland is very well funded. DENI allocates money each year to the Boards for specific targeted areas such as libraries or computers. These may remain designated areas for a year or so, after which money may be directed elsewhere. It is the responsibility of the Education and Library Boards to distribute this in whatever way they feel fit to the controlled schools in their area.

According to the Western Education and Library Board their aim is to have a minimum of ten computers in each Information Technology or Business Studies Department plus some extra per school at Second level and to have one computer per class at Primary level. At present there is a shortfall and it now needs another Department initiative on computers. Under the new LMS arrangements, schools now control their own budgets so they can prioritise and buy computers for themselves if there is no current targeted funding for this purpose.

There is an on-going library initiative which aims to bring all Primary schools up to an acceptable standard. However, with recent cut backs there is no money being allocated the year 1995-96. The Secondary level is resourced by the Library service itself. The Central Library will assist and advise on purchases made possible by money which has been allocated through the LMS. In the case of a new library being set up, this is provided for by the Board out of the Central budget. Where an existing library is being refurbished the Education and Library assists plus there is an allowance under LMS. School books are purchased by schools from the ELB's and are free to pupils.


The influence of Europe on the education systems in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been considerable and has operated at both legislative and financial levels. European legislation has led to the mutual recognition of qualifications, although there is an anomaly in relation to the requirement of Irish in order to teach in the Republic of Ireland. Although this appears to run contrary to EU directives, it is in fact legal because of the position of Irish as the first language of the State according to the Constitution, and EU regulations with regard to the protection of minority languages.

Substantial EU funding for education and training especially in the Republic of Ireland, (£100 million in each of the five years 1989-1993), has had a major impact and ensured a European dimension in both curriculum and increased the mobility of students and teachers. This increase in mobility is due to the encouragement and funding of many exchange programmes and to the EU directives on student fees which led to many students from the Republic of Ireland going to Northern Ireland and other United Kingdom third level institutions where they were eligible to have their fees paid. As of 1997 undergraduate third level education in the Republic of Ireland will be free and this may change the situation, especially if the promised extra 6,000 places come on stream.

There is widespread recognition of the necessity to ensure the compatibility of standards and qualifications within the European Community and also the necessity to exchange information as evidenced by a proposal to set up a network of teacher education institutions to share information and research.[30]

School leaving qualifications
In both jurisdictions pupils are staying on in the educational system in increasing numbers, both at second and third level. The participation rates at upper second level (18 years) in 1993 were 79% in the Republic of Ireland and 72% in Northern Ireland. Educational targets for both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are to increase second level retention rates and to improve the level of qualifications of school leavers.

Table 4.10 Profile of School Leavers: Northern Ireland

NORTHERN IRELAND1987-88 1992-93
% leaving school with at least one A level 26.0%33.7%
% leaving with no GCSEs/O levels/CSE21.5% 7.3%
% going on to further and higher education 44.7%62.3%
Numbers leaving with no formal qualifications 3,9961,099
approx 5%
Total number of school leavers24,388 22,316
Source: DENI SB1/1995

Table 4.11: Profile of School Leavers Republic of Ireland

% sitting Leaving Certificate60.0% 79.0%
% leaving after Junior Certificate
(or Intermediate/Group Certificate)
% going on to third level20.0% 57.3%
% leaving with no qualificationsapprox.
Source: Thornhill, ASTI Convention 1995

In the Republic of Ireland in 1993 there was a total of 67,500 pupils of which 3,300 left with no qualifications. Approximately 1,000 pupils per year leave after primary school. It appears many of these are likely to be the children of travelling families. The aspiration is to increase the current percentage of pupils completing Senior cycle (79%) to 90% within the next five years. There is a ten year target to get all traveller children of Secondary school age to complete the Junior cycle and 50% to complete Senior cycle. It is also intended to have all traveller children of the appropriate age to be enrolled in Primary schools.

In Northern Ireland the educational targets for the year 2,000 are that 85% of 19 year olds will have achieved 5 GCSEs at Grade C or higher or an Intermediate GNVQ or an NVQ Level 2. It is also expected that 60% of 21 year olds should have achieved two A levels or an Advanced GNVQ or an NVQ Level 3.[31]

Technical and Vocational Qualifications
In both jurisdictions the necessity to provide alternatives to the traditional academic courses at Second level has been recognised. This has led to the development of new courses e.g. GNVQs and NVQs in Northern Ireland and Leaving Certificate Vocational Training Programmes, Senior Certificate and Leaving Certificate Applied in the Republic of Ireland. These programmes all contain academic as well as vocational and technological elements. Although the new courses are proving popular, there remains a problem with regard to their acceptance and recognition by parents and pupils and also by third level institutions and in the case of Northern Ireland, by the Grammar schools. Although many Grammar schools have introduced GNVQs, there still exists a problem in terms of their status when compared to A levels.

A recent OECD report refers to the lack of credibility among employers of the NVQs in the United Kingdom generally. However, NVQs, depending on their nature and their relevance to the course applied for, are acceptable for entrance to universities in the case of mature students.[32]

A similar issue in terms of recognition of standards and qualifications has been experienced with regard to the Post Leaving Certificate courses in the Republic of Ireland. Many of these appear to be accepted more readily by United Kingdom universities than by those in the Republic of Ireland.[33] This may be partially due to the relative availability of places. The PLC's developed originally in response to a perceived need and were aided by ESF Grants. They were not initially recognised by the Department of Education and therefore they sought and obtained recognition through City and Guilds and BTEC in the United Kingdom. As a result of the popularity and growth of the PLCs, the Department of Education established the NCVA to examine and certify these courses. To date, their emphasis has been on a consideration of the year long PLC's although many PLC courses are of two and three years duration. It is expected that the newly established Board, Teastas, will speed up the co-ordination and standardisation of all such courses and qualifications.

In Northern Ireland a similar drive to monitor standards is evident. The DENI Strategic Analysis (1994) stresses the need for the NICCEA to work with awarding bodies for vocational qualifications to ensure high quality courses. There is some liaison between the two jurisdictions in determining the equivalent values of courses. In some cases joint certification occurs e.g. FÁS and City and Guilds.

Liaison takes place between the United Kingdom/Europe and the United Kingdom/Republic of Ireland. The National Academic Recognition Information Council U.K. is part of the European network of organisations involved in assessment and recognition of qualifications. NARIC operates in Dublin under the aegis of the Higher Education Authority. Bilateral agreements also exist between the two jurisdictions at the level of Higher Education Authorities.

In spite of the development of new courses and the increased participation of young people in Further and Higher education, there is still an unacceptable level of young people leaving school with no qualifications or with low levels of skills, in both jurisdictions. It is argued that the skills level in the U.K. economy as a whole lags behind that of most of its competitor countries, and Northern Ireland lags behind the U.K. average. The success rate of the top 33-35% of students is recognised but the numbers leaving with little or no qualifications is an area that needs to be targeted. There is a need for greater vocational provision, raising of standards and esteem for qualifications, better co-ordination in the Further Education sector and greater co-operation between schools and colleges of Further Education and other providers of vocational education and training.[34]

In the Republic of Ireland, the White Paper (1995) also stresses the importance of upgrading skills, monitoring and standardising qualifications and increasing co-operation between the various providers. The necessity for broad occupational training which provides people with transferable skills comparable to developments in Europe is also emphasised. The White Paper also recognises the need to develop more flexible course structures to allow for easier transfers between courses and institutions. The need to be aware of education and training developments within Europe and to keep pace with these and for qualifications to be recognised internationally is evident in both jurisdictions and has resulted in many links being established between educational institutions.

There is a growing acknowledgement in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland of the importance of life-long education and the need to improve access for adults, the long-term unemployed and the marginalised. The DENI Strategic Analysis (1994), suggests the introduction of certification for non-vocational courses on the basis that many courses are initially pursued for leisure but if certificated, could lead to further education and training. The document also acknowledges the contribution made to adult and continuing education in the voluntary sector by the Workers Educational Association. Enrolments in WEA courses have increased by 63% in the five years up to 1993/4. In 1992/3 almost 9,000 students were enrolled and of these almost 60% were on State benefit and included many who might be considered disadvantaged. In recognition of the role of WEA, DENI has given a commitment to an expansion in this area. This commitment is reflected in the expressed targets for the area which anticipate a 5% increase per annum in enrolment to WEA courses and a 5% increase per year in the proportion of students gaining accreditation through recognised qualifications.

Similarly in the Republic of Ireland there is a perceived need for improved adult education. Concepts relating to access, especially for disadvantaged groups, adult career guidance, accreditation and funding are considered in the Report on the National Education Convention (1994). There is also general agreement that this is an area which is experiencing rapid growth and within which there is a significant potential to tackle educational disadvantage.

There are now moves in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to have mutual validation of non-vocational and adult education courses.

University Entrance
Two separate application procedures are required for students wishing to apply to universities in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Application is through the Central Applications Office (CAO) in the Republic of Ireland and through Universities and Colleges Admissions System (UCAS) in Northern Ireland. A joint application procedure was suggested some years ago but to date there have been no developments in this regard.

A significant difference between the two systems is that UCAS makes offers in advance of the examinations with other factors e.g. a confidential report and other information on the application form being taken into consideration. The CAO system is based exclusively on points achieved in the examinations and offers are made after the results are published.

Leaving Certificate and A levels are mutually recognised for entrance to universities. Northern universities also recognise NCEA certificates and diplomas and exemptions may be granted on the basis of good results in these.[35] Regional Technical College Diplomas are acceptable in some cases in Northern Ireland.

Entrance to universities from Post Leaving Courses (PLC's) remains problematic. Some PLCs are accepted in the University of Ulster, in Regional Technical Colleges, the Dublin Institute of Technology and in many UK universities. Universities in the Republic of Ireland are rather more reticent to accept such qualifications. The establishment of Teastas as the new regulating and certification body may change this situation.


Until 1990 in Northern Ireland there were problems with regard to the recognition of the Higher Diploma in Education taken in the Republic of Ireland although this was almost a direct equivalent of the Northern Ireland Post Graduate Diploma in Education. Following an EU Directive in 1991 this recognition was granted. The current situation is that the Department of Education Northern Ireland recognises all Republic of Ireland teaching qualifications. However, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools still requires a certificate of Religious Instruction for Primary level teaching. The certificates granted by all of the Catholic Teacher Training Colleges in the Republic of Ireland are recognised by CCMS in this regard. Anyone without such a certificate is required to acquire one and this takes approximately two years. This requirement does not extend to Second level unless the particular post demands it.

In the Republic of Ireland, all teachers, including those from Northern Ireland, must have their qualifications assessed by the Registration Council and must pass an examination in Irish. Since 1992 the regulations with regard to Irish prevent fully qualified teachers from taking up posts even in special or remedial schools. A further anomaly is that neither Montessori teachers or university lecturers are required to sit the Irish exam.[36]

Following the Anglo Irish Agreement and the Framework Document, it was envisaged that the active co-operation between the Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland education systems would be promoted. The White paper (1995), gave a commitment to re-examine the situation with regard to mutual recognition of teacher qualifications and to prioritise the facilitation of North/South teacher mobility. Also in this context, the Irish National Teachers Organisation, as part of their submission to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, recommended that accreditation should not depend on the ability to speak Irish.

A ministerial statement in November 1995, guaranteed full recognition of Northern Ireland qualifications and allowed a two year period to acquire the necessary qualification in Irish for teachers at Primary level. It is expected that this directive will come into force in September 1996.

The current situation is that those without the qualification in Irish continue to be paid at the untrained rate of £43.60 per day compared with the fully trained rate of £66.17 per day.


1. DENI, (1994), Information Brief on Education in Northern Ireland
2. Northern Ireland Curriculum Council, (1990), Inset 3, Belfast
3. Ancram, M. (1995), New Education and Training Targets, Press release: 23 May, Northern Ireland Information Service
4. CCEA (1994), Contact, No. 2, September
5. BTEC (1995), Getting GNVQs Right
6. BTEC (1995), GNVQ Question and Answer Guide
7. Department of Education (1995), Rules and Programme for Secondary Schools 1987/88 to 1994/95, The Stationery Office, Dublin
8. ASTI (1995), Members' Handbook
9. Department of Education (1995), Rules and Programme for Secondary Schools, Dublin
10. Shannon Curriculum Development Unit (1989), Senior Certificate Programme Outlines
11. CCEA (1994), Contact, No. 2, September
12. Irish Times (1995), Education and Living, 31 January
13. Irish Times (1995), Education and Living, 7 March
14. NISCA (1995), NISCA News, Spring
15. The Churches Religious Education Core Syllabus Drafting Group (1992)
16. Healy, Y., (1996), Education and Living, Irish Times, November 5
17. Coolahan J. (ed), (1994), Report on the National Education Convention
18. NCCA (1993), A Programme for Reform of Curriculum and Assessment Policy: Towards the New Century, March
19. Bennett, J. (1994), 'History Text Books in Primary Schools in the Republic of Ireland 1971-1993', Oideas, No. 42, Dublin.
20. NICC (1992), Thinking European: Ideas for integrating a European Dimension into the Curriculum
21. Irish Times (1995), Education and Living, 10 October
22. Northern Ireland Curriculum Council, (1990), Inset 3, Belfast
23. Northern Ireland Curriculum Council (1990), A Guide for Teachers
24. Coolahan, J. (ed), (1994), Report on the National Education Convention
25. Department of Education (1995), White Paper: Charting our Educational Future, Dublin
26. ASTI (1995), Members' Handbook
27. ASTI (1995), Convention Handbook
28. Coolahan, J. (ed), (1994), Report on the National Education Convention
29. O'Toole, Senator J., (1997), 'INTO Policy Document', Irish Times, 15 January
30. ASTI (1995), National Convention
31. Ancram, M. (1995), New Education and Training Targets, Press release: 23 May, Northern Ireland Information Service
32. University of Ulster (1996), Undergraduate Prospectus for Entry
33. Irish Times (1995), Education and Living, 25 April
34. DENI (1994), A Strategic Analysis
35. Queens University Belfast (1995), A Guide for Students from the Republic of Ireland
36. Department of Education, (1991) Recognition of Professional Qualifications. Regulations No. 824

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

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