Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The education system in N.Ireland

I am very conscious that when I am talking about 'my school' most people don't know much of anything about the education system in Northern Ireland where I teach. Like most things about N.I it is complicated & if you are as confused at the end as you were before, then I have done my job correctly!
Stormont, N.I Parliament Building.
N.I is under British rule but at present we have our own government that sits in Stormont, outside Belfast, so have our own Department of Education (DENI) & Minister for Education.
Traditionally there have always been 2 main communities in N.Ireland - Protestants & Catholics - and so these each have their own education sectors; The Controlled and Maintained sectors. All schools up until the early 1980's fell into one of these 2 categories & it was quite usual (and still is today) for someone to be educated just within their 'own' community. The teacher training colleges were also separate so many teachers have not only attended religiously segregated schools but also university before going back to teach in one of the 2 sectors upon graduation.
However at the height of the conflict in N.I. groups of parents came together to establish schools that were neither controlled or maintained and therefore neither Protestant or Catholic. The ethos of these integrated schools was to be Christian. These new schools came under the wing of an organisation called Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education or NICIE.
Originally all these schools were self-funding however since 1989 DENI funds all established integrated schools the same as the other 2 sectors.
In recent years Irish Language schools have also been established. 
Windmill was established in 1988
I teach within the integrated sector, the photo above is of the new school building we moved into in 2006. Children attend our school from the age of 3 until 11, then they move onto the secondary level.
The preschool system is also not straightforward - there are 3 different types of settings and a child is entitled to a free preschool place for one year before starting formal learning at the age of 4. This free place is for 5 days a week and can range from 12.5 hours to 25 a week. As I said there are 3 types; statutory, voluntary & private. (Even within the former there are 2 types - a stand alone nursery school with a teaching principal and a unit within a primary school.) There are only teachers in the statutory sector working with an assistant in classes of 26 children. Many leaders and assistants in the voluntary sector are educated to degree standard but do not have a teaching qualification. the staff/child ratio is lower in the voluntary sector. The private sector is usually daycare or creches run as a business.
As a nursery teacher I am also qualified to teach other age groups - I do sometimes have to remind primary colleagues that 'yes I am a qualified teacher, and no I don't just play all day'. I am also paid the same as my colleagues who teach in the primary & secondary settings. This is not the case in other countries as I have come to realise and for this I am grateful. However, sometimes I do wonder if  it would be better to be paid a little less and have an another assistant? 
Children attend preschool the year they turn 4 on or after the 2nd of July. This means you can have a child who is 3 and 2 months in the same class as a child who is 4 and 2 months. They do not have to attend but most parents choose to take up their free place and in recent years there has been a shortage of places for those who want to attend.  
As an integrated school we have children attending from the 2 main communities - in fact the school must have an equal percentage of each 40% with 20% left for 'others'. Originally intended for people of other faiths but now more recently these 'other' places are taken up by children whose parents do not wish them to be labelled as being either Protestant or Catholic. Staff and management are also drawn from the 2 different backgrounds. 

Traditionally controlled schools would reflect a British identity and the maintained an Irish one. As an integrated school we can reflect both. We teach our children to respect both communities and their flags and sports teams. We can celebrate the Queen's Jubilee and a win for the local GAA football team.
The Queen
Tyrone winning an All-Ireland
One thing an integrated school is not is 'neutral', some parents think that their child will taught no religion or hear no talk of cultural identity, but this is not the case. The chair of our Board of Governors stresses at new parent induction evenings that if they want a neutral space they need to look elsewhere. Instead it is hoped that those who attend and work in integrated schools will have a better understanding of the 'other' community and be less likely to feel threatened or intimidated by them. I am proud of my Irish heritage but more importantly I hope I am making a difference in the lives of the citizens of the world of tomorrow.


  1. This is interesting, Kierna. I'm glad that there is free preschool in N.Ireland, for children available for 1 year before kindergarten. Here in Saskatchewan we have some prekindergartens, but not enough.

    I think in some ways there might be abit of overcrowding from your description, and hence a bit stressful to teach.

    Here in Saskatchewan, we also have a Catholic school system, and Public School system, both publicly funded. Although I was educated in the Catholic school system, I chose to send my child to the Public School when he was ready, because I preferred him to respect all faiths. We do try to have a "pluralistic", society here in Canada - not always successful.

    I grew up knowing my Irish Catholic grandma, who taught me to respect all religions - I always felt she was wise.

    You are such a dedicated teacher - this is so apparent in the interesting posts you write!

  2. Kierna,
    Could you fill me in on what FB is?
    You mentioned it in your comment on my blog the other day. Sounds interesting.

  3. So fascinating to read about how the school system works for you. Our school system seems crazily complicated too... but not so much by religion and religious history and culture but by the fact that ours is different from state to state!

  4. Thanks Brenda & Kate for taking the time to read this post. I can't imagine how it must be to have different systems from state to state. Although I suppose some of your states are probably bigger than N.I.! We have different systems in each of the 4 areas that make up the UK - & this can cause issues for teachers moving from one to the other.
    Brenda, as for the over crowding, after attending a Reggio Emilia course last week I have realized that it's up to me to ensure that I use the environment as the 3rd adult!!

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