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The education system in Northern Ireland (NI) has some important differences to the one in England and Wales. For example, religion still plays a large part and there are no Sats.

Northern Ireland – key differences in education

While the school year in NI also starts in September, the child’s age after 1 July (rather than 1 September, as in England and Wales) determines when they start school and what school year they are in. As elsewhere, children start primary school at 4+ and move on to secondary school at 11+.

NI schools name their year groups differently, with 4/5 year olds in year 1 rather than reception, and 11 year olds starting secondary school in year 8 rather than year 7. Many schools still use the old system informally, calling the first year of secondary school form one, and the two A level years the sixth form. 

The earliest a child can leave school in NI is at the end of the June following their 16th birthday, so a child born between 2 July and 31 August would not be able to leave school until the end of the following June when they would be nearly 17 years old.

The NI curriculum is based on the national curriculum used in England and Wales, but with no Sats. All take GCSEs and have the choice between A levels or the more vocationally centred applied advanced level exams or BTecs. No schools in NI teach the IB.

Half term holidays may be less than a week long, and most NI schools do not have a half term holiday at all in the summer term.  The Christmas and Easter holidays are often less than two weeks but summer holidays usually last for the whole of July and August.

Types of school in Northern Ireland

Religion still plays a large part in the education system in NI. Although integrated education is expanding and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) has been set up to accelerate this, Protestants and Catholics are largely educated separately, particularly in the non-selective schools.

Nearly half of NI schools are controlled schools. They are open to all faiths and none, but about two-thirds of pupils are Protestant. Many were originally Protestant church schools and the three largest Protestant churches (PresbyterianChurch of Ireland and Methodist), known as the transferors, have representatives on the boards of governors of all but nurseries, grammar schools and special schools. These governing boards are in charge of the management of the schools, but the education authority is responsible for employing staff.

Northern Ireland education systemVoluntary controlled schools are entirely funded by the state and run by a board of governors; for voluntary aided schools a foundation or trust – generally religious – contributes to the building costs, appoints most of the governors and has a substantial influence in running the school. The latter schools can use faith admissions criteria and teach RE according to their own faith.

Catholic maintained schools, which educate about a third of NI pupils, are managed by boards of governors nominated by (mainly Roman Catholic) trustees plus parents, teachers and representatives from the education authority. The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools is responsible for managing this sector and employing teachers.

Integrated schools are not secular but are essentially Christian in character and welcome all faiths and none. These may be grant maintained – with the governors responsible for managing the school and employing staff – or controlled, with the education authority employing staff.

Some political parties in Northern Ireland would like to end academic selection in favour of neighbourhood-based comprehensives but at the moment the grammar school system is alive and well. They tend to be less segregated than secondary schools but a fair number are either controlled by the state (Protestant) or maintained by the Catholic church.

Entry to the grammar schools is via the 11+ transfer test

Voluntary grammars – are state funded but are managed by boards of governors who are responsible for employing staff. Voluntary A grammars get capital grants from the education authority and charge little or no fees; Voluntary B grammars, which do not get capital grants and have greater autonomy, are allowed to charge fees.

There are some Irish-medium schools or units where pupils are taught most subjects in Irish (the second language for most).

There are also a number of special schools (either controlled or voluntary) for those with special educational needs.

There are a small number of independent schools which set their own curriculum and admissions policies and are funded by school fees paid by parents. Many of these are the prep schools to the largely state-funded voluntary grammars.

There are five schools in Northern Ireland which take boarders. Campbell College (boys) and Victoria College (girls) are private fee-paying independent secondary school classified as voluntary B grammar schools with fee-paying preparatory departments. Rockport School (co-ed) is an independent all-through school. The Royal School Armagh and the Royal School Dungannon (both co-ed) are both voluntary A grammar schools. The girls at Strathearn may board at Campbell College next door.

Some boarders are local children who mostly go home at weekends, but there is also a large international contingent of full boarders from all over the world. Even for non-EU students who have to pay fees for tuition and boarding, these are far less expensive than English independent boarding schools.

Northern Ireland transfer test

Entrance to the grammar schools is via an 11+ exam known as the transfer test, which has no catchment areas. There are two types of test – the AQE and the PPTC – both of which use a combination of maths and English tests. Most schools use one or the other, so it important for applicants to sit the correct test.

The AQE, or common entrance assessment, is mostly used by the controlled (non-denominational) grammar schools; the PPTC is mostly used by Catholic maintained grammar schools. Rockport College sets its own admissions tests.

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