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Pupils at Northern Irish Grammar School - The Royal School DungannonMore than 90 per cent of schools in Northern Ireland are divided on faith based lines. This means that the vast majority of children are educated in either a state-funded school that predominantly attracts Protestant families or a school funded by the state but maintained by the Roman Catholic church. 

As with the other three home nations, Northern Ireland has its own curriculum. Introduced in 2007, it sets out what must be taught to children between 4 and 16 in grant-aided schools. While based on the English curriculum, there are some key differences.  

At least half of all children in Northern Ireland sit the transfer test at 11+ to try and get into a grammar school. 

When do children start school in Northern Ireland? 

Children start primary school at 4+ and move on to secondary school at 11+. But while the school year 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.  

Are the school years different in Northern Ireland? 

Northern Ireland 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. 

Age School year Stage of curriculum Exams
4-5 Year 1 Foundation Phase  
5-6 Year 2 Foundation Phase  
6-7 Year 3 Key stage 1  
7-8 Year 4 Key stage 1  
8-9 Year 5 Key stage 2  
9-10 Year 6 Key stage 2  
10-11 Year 7 Key stage 2 Transfer test
11-12 Year 8 Key stage 3  
12-13 Year 9 Key stage 3  
13-14 Year 10 Key stage 3  
14-15 Year 11 Key stage 4  
15-16 Year 12 Key stage 4 GCSEs
16-17 Year 13 Key stage 5  
17-18 Year 14 Key stage 5 A levels

What subjects are studied in Northern Irish schools? 

For primary school children, schools must cover these subject areas (although some schools call them different names): 

  • language and literacy 
  • maths and numeracy 
  • the arts 
  • the world 
  • personal development and mutual understanding 
  • physical education 
  • religious education  

Some schools also teach a modern language.

The post-primary curriculum builds on earlier learning and also develops children’s life and work skills. Subjects studied are:

  • language and literacy 
  • maths (including financial capability) 
  • the arts (art, drama, music) 
  • environment and society (geography and history) 
  • learning for life and work (personal development, citizenship, employability, home economics) 
  • modern languages 
  • physical education 
  • science and technology 
  • religious education 

What are the different types of school in Northern Ireland? 

Controlled schools: Nearly half of NI schools are controlled schools. They are open to all faiths and none, but nearly 60 per cent of pupils are Protestant, compared to 11 per cent Catholic. Many were originally Protestant church schools and the three largest Protestant churches (Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist), known as the transferors, have representatives on the boards of governors of all but nurseries, grammar schools and special schools. Controlled schools are managed by the education authority (EA) through the boards of governors.  

Catholic maintained schools: These represent 44 per cent of primary and 29 per cent of post-primary schools. When added to Catholic managed Voluntary Grammar figures, they educate 44 per cent of the whole school age population. They 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. On the whole, these schools do not select academically or according to religion. 

Voluntary grammar schools: These are state funded but managed by boards of governors who are responsible for employing staff. Most are Voluntary A grammars, which 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. Religion is not part of the entry criteria. 

Integrated schools: These schools are essentially Christian in character and welcome all faiths and none. The idea is to invite them to come together to improve their understanding of one another. These may be grant maintained – with the governors responsible for managing the school and employing staff – or controlled, with the education authority employing staff. 

Irish medium schools: These schools or units teach pupils most subjects in Irish (the second language for most). 

Special schools: Either controlled or voluntary, these schools cater for those with special educational needs. 

Independent schools: There are 16 independent schools in Northern Ireland. They set their own curriculum and admissions policies and are funded by school fees paid by parents. The majority are the prep schools to the largely state-funded voluntary grammars. 

Boarding schools: There are just five boarding schools in Northern Ireland. These are either independent schools or voluntary A grammar schools. 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.  

How to get into a grammar school in Northern Ireland? 

The 11+ examination, the traditional assessment for grammar school admission, was discontinued in Northern Ireland in 2008 in an attempt to make the education system fairer. But many of the grammar schools simply produced their own entrance tests, called transfer tests, because they didn’t want to become mixed-ability comprehensives.  

From September 2023, the Schools Entrance Assessment Group (SEAG) will administer most transfer tests in Northern Ireland (59 schools so far). These SEAG tests will replace the AQE and PPTC tests previously used, and have the benefit of children only needing to apply to one testing organisation.  

There will be two assessment papers, both sat in or around November, two weeks apart. Both tests have English (or Gaeilge) and maths questions. Registration is likely to be open between early May and mid-September. 

None of the Northern Ireland grammar schools has a catchment area. 

How are children tested in school in Northern Ireland? 

Children in Northern Ireland are assessed annually through teacher assessment and planned tasks and activities. They do not take Sats, but skills are assessed using Levels of Progression (LoP) at the end of KS1, KS2 and KS3. Results of these LoPs are presented to parents at the end of Years 4 and 7, with teachers assigning levels at each of these years respectively. These tell parents whether they child has reached expected national curriculum levels. 

All children in Northern Ireland take GCSEs (although GCSEs use the old A*-E grade system, not the new number grades used in England) and have the choice between A and AS levels or more vocational qualifications. No schools in Northern Ireland teach the IB. 

When are school holidays? 

Schools break for five holidays throughout the school year. The half-term breaks are shorter than in England and there isn’t a mid-term break in the summer term, but summer holiday are two weeks longer. 

When do children leave school? 

The earliest a child can leave school in Northern Ireland 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.  

Do private schools follow the same curriculum? 

There are just 16 fee-paying schools in Northern Ireland, and just as with private schools elsewhere in the United Kingdom, they are free to follow their own curriculum. However, as most private schools tend to prepare pupils for GCSEs and A levels, the curriculum is unlikely to stray too far from what is offered in the state sector.

Photo credit: The Royal School Dungannon

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