Whether you are a complete newcomer to Northern Ireland or returning after living abroad, you may need to familiarize yourself with the school system in the region, particularly if you are returning with children. Schooling in Northern Ireland is typically broken into three main component parts: pre-school, primary school and secondary school.
The Department of Education is responsible for the administration of pre-school, primary and post-primary schooling in Northern Ireland. Education and Library Boards have responsibility for ensuring adequate education provision in their areas. The Department for Communities has responsibility for further and higher education. All schools follow the Northern Ireland Curriculum which is based on the National Curriculum used in England and Wales. On entering secondary education, all pupils study a broad base of subjects which include geography, english, mathematics, science, physical education, music and modern languages.
Typically, children attend primary school from the ages of 4 or 5 to 11 or 12, and secondary school from age 11 or 12 to 16. At age 16 students sit their GCSE examination which also marks the end of compulsory education. From there, most students either transfer to sixth form at secondary school, or grammar school, or a Further Education College to study A-levels or vocational qualifications and training. The results of these examinations help determine entry into higher education.
What makes schooling in Northern Ireland different?
While it is true that all schools in Northern Ireland follow the Northern Ireland Curriculum which is based on the National Curriculum used in England and Wales, the truth is that there are a number of differences between it and other parts of the United Kingdom (UK). It is also significantly different to the primary school system in the Republic of Ireland.
First of all, while the school year in Northern Ireland also starts in September, the child’s age on 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+.
Similarly, schools in Northern Ireland name their year groups differently, with 4 and 5 year olds in year 1 rather than reception, and 11 year olds starting secondary school in year 8 rather than year 7.
In addition, 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.
Finally, unlike the education system in England and Wales, the Northern Ireland curriculum does not have any SATs (national tests that children take twice during their primary school life, typically in Year 2 and Year 6).
Publicly funded secondary education is provided in secondary schools or grammar schools in Northern Ireland. Entry to grammar schools is through academic selection and grammar schools set their own transfer tests and invite pupils to sit these tests in their own schools. Pupils enter secondary education at age 11 or 12 and follow the National Curriculum that is affiliated to England and Wales with a number of minor differences. At age 16 students sit their GCSE examination which also marks the end of compulsory education. Most students either transfer to sixth form at secondary school, or grammar school, or a Further Education College to study A-levels or vocational qualifications and training. The results of these examinations help determine entry into higher education.