Northern Ireland

Education in Northern Ireland undergoes year of change

Peter Weir
Image caption Peter Weir became the first DUP education minister since the establishment of the assembly in 1998

2016 was a year of change at the top in education with new ministers for schools and universities

But familiar problems over money remained.

Peter Weir became the first DUP education minister since the establishment of the assembly in 1998.

His party colleague and economic minister Simon Hamilton became universities minister as part of an expanded portfolio.

'Frontline services'

Mr Weir changed his predecessor John O'Dowd's policies in important areas like preparation for the transfer tests and GCSE grading.

However as the year ended he faced strike action from some of the teaching unions unhappy at a pay award of 0% for 2015/16 and 1% in 2016/17, although he disputed their figures and called their action "futile".

The Education Authority (EA) also faced pressures and will be forced to look for around £50m of savings in 2017, which will affect some front-line services to schools.

Moves by the EA to cut hours for pupils in special school nurseries were condemned by Mr O'Dowd in March, forcing them to apologise and to review their plans.

After taking over following the assembly election, Mr Weir reversed a long-standing departmental policy by allowing primary schools to prepare pupils for the AQE and GL Assessment tests.

He also initiated talks between the two test providers towards finding a common transfer test, but admitted he could not "impose" a single test.

Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption The DUP's Simon Hamilton became universities minister as part of an expanded economic portfolio

'Tuition fees'

In higher education, Mr Hamilton will continue to wrestle with demands from Queen's University and Ulster University (UU) for more money from either the public purse or from student tuition fees.

In a university document obtained by the BBC, Queen's said students should pay between £5,200 and £6,300 a year depending on the level of government funding available.

UU, for their part, warned in a report that they risked losing 20m euros (£17.5m) in European Union funding and tuition fees as a result of the Brexit vote.

However, a record number of Northern Irish students entered university in 2016 with 14,800 taking up places, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

And amidst concerns and controversies about money and the transfer procedure our education system still produces many successes.

'Disqualified'

The number of GCSE entries awarded A* to C grades in Northern Ireland increased by 0.4% to 79.1% in 2016, a rate well above that in England and Wales.

There were, as ever, some stunning individual results, while St Paul's High School in Bessbrook doubled the amount of "good" GCSE passes by boys in just two years by introducing a range of innovative measures.

The proportion of top A-level grades achieved by Northern Irish pupils also rose slightly.

However 15 students at Our Lady's Grammar School, in Newry, had their grades cancelled after being disqualified from an A-level sociology exam for alleged malpractice.

Northern Ireland had the highest-achieving primary school pupils in Europe in major international tests in maths.

Image caption Noelle Buick, chief inspector of schools, said that too many pupils were still not getting a good enough education

'Not good enough'

The international rankings - Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) - have been published every four years since 1995, and the latest results also ranked primary school pupils here as sixth in the world in the subject.

But while she noted a number of improvements, the chief inspector of schools said that too many pupils were still not getting a good enough education.

In her latest report, Noelle Buick also expressed concern over how children are taught here, pointing out that about one fifth of lessons were "less than good".

And with the possibility of more teachers' strikes in early 2017 and warnings by school leaders over the impact of stretched school budgets, Mr Weir faces a challenging start to the new year.

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