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Belfast Compulsory Education

Department of Education

Belfast Education and Library Board

While education policy in Northern Ireland has been strongly influenced by trends elsewhere within the United Kingdom, the region’s schools remain distinctive. Notably, the model of education practiced in Northern Ireland continues to be very selective.┬áThe majority of examinations sat, and education plans followed, in Northern Irish schools are set by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations & Assessment (CCEA). All schools in Northern Ireland follow the Northern Ireland Curriculum which is based on the National Curriculum used in England and Wales. At age 11, on entering secondary education, all pupils study a broad base of subjects which include Geography, English, Mathematics, Science, PE, Music and modern languages. Currently there are proposals to reform the curriculum to make its emphasis more skills based and in addition to those mentioned, Home Economics, Local and Global Citizenship and Personal, Social and Health Education will become compulsory subjects.

At age 14 pupils select which subjects to continue to study for General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) examinations. Currently it is compulsory to study English, Mathematics, Science, a modern language and Religious Studies, although a full GCSE course does not have to be studied for the latter. In addition, pupils usually elect to continue with other subjects and many study for 8 or 9 GCSEs but possibly up to 10 or 11. GCSEs mark the end of compulsory education in Northern Ireland.

At age 16 some pupils stay at school and choose to study Advanced Level AS and A2 level subjects or more vocational qualifications such as Advanced Vocational Certificate of Education (AVCE). Those choosing AS and A2 levels normally pick three or four subjects, and success in these can determine acceptance into higher education courses at university.

Northern Ireland remains the largest area in the UK which still operates grammar schools. In the last year of primary school, children sit the eleven plus transfer test, and the results determine which school they will go to. In 2001 the decision was taken to abolish the system, and to replace it with a form of comprehensive education, but this will not take effect until 2008.

Although religious Integrated Education is increasing, Northern Ireland has a highly segregated education system, with 95% of pupils attending either a maintained (Catholic) school or a controlled school (mostly Protestant). However, controlled schools are open to children of all faiths and none. Teaching a balanced view of some subjects (especially regional history) is difficult in these conditions. The Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE), a voluntary organization, promotes, develops and supports Integrated Education in Northern Ireland.

School holidays in Northern Ireland are considerably different from the rest of the United Kingdom. Northern Irish schools often do not take a full week for half term holidays, and the Summer term does not usually have a half term at all. Christmas holidays sometimes consist of less than two weeks, the same with the Easter vacation. This does, however, vary considerably between schools. The major difference however is that summer holidays are considerably longer with the entirety of July and nearly all of August off, giving an eight week summer holiday.

In Northern Ireland, a child who is four years old on or before 1 July in any year must start primary school on 1 September that year.

Types of Schools
Controlled schools are owned and funded by the Education and Library Boards although boards of governors are increasingly taking control. The education board employs teaching and non-teaching staff but here too they are relinquishing responsibility to governors. The role of the board is to plan provisions for schools, employ teachers and meet recurrent costs. These are mainly Protestant schools and the church is represented on the board of governors.

Catholic Maintained
These schools are owned by the Catholic church through a system of trustees. They are managed by a board of governors. Regular costs are met by the Education and Library Boards and they are responsible for employing non-teaching staff. Teachers are employed by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.

Other Maintained
These are owned by the Protestant church through a system of trustees and they are managed by a board of governors. Regular costs are met by the Education and Library Board who also employ the non-teaching staff.

Voluntary Grammar
These are owned by the school trustees and are managed by a board of governors, who employ all the staff. Regular costs are funded by the Department of Education.

Grant Maintained Integrated
These are usually partially owned by trustees and managed by a board of governors who employ all staff. Regular costs are met by the Department of Education.

Special Needs
Under the 1986 Education and Libraries (NI) Order, Education and Library Boards have to provide education for pupils with special educational needs up to the age of 19. They can be taught in mainstream primary and secondary schools but there are also separate special units for some students.

For more information on curriculum, assessments, and choosing a school, the following links will be helpful:


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