Northern Ireland’s education system is under the microscope after international studies exposed vast differences in the standards of our primary and post-primary sectors.
The scrutiny comes after Northern Ireland emerged as Europe's top performing education system for primary maths, according to global school rankings.
We are also the highest ranking English-speaking country in primary reading — beating England, Ireland and Canada.
But the new findings, revealed yesterday following the publication of two major league tables, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), are in stark contrast to the our post-primary performance on the world stage.
In 2009 the Programme for International Student Assessment rated Northern Ireland’s post-primary education system as average, about mid-table, after we were outperformed by English speaking and a host of European countries.
Meanwhile, PIRLS has placed Northern Ireland pupils fifth in reading out of 45 participating countries, and TIMSS ranked our students sixth of the 50 countries that signed up.
Opinion is divided on why our pupils are world-class at primary level only to spiral down to just average just five years later.
Education Minister John O’ Dowd has blamed academic selection at 11 as one of the flaws in the system.
He said: “Transfer is part of the problem and when you look at our primary schools, where we have all-ability classes, where we have a mix of socio-economic backgrounds, we lead the world.
“Then at 11 years of age we tell 60% of those children they have actually failed despite the fact they are the best, and we separate them out in their different schools.
“The debate has to now be how do we continue to improve in post-primary school?”
His claims were backed by Sir Robert Salisbury, a leading expert in literacy and numeracy.
“It is a very, very different picture for 15-year-olds,” he said. “Selection has a lot to do with that. It demotivates a lot students. Equality of opportunity is not the case in Northern Ireland.”
But the Governing Bodies Association, which represents Northern Ireland’s 52 voluntary grammar schools, has lauded selection as the key to the primary sector’s success.
Director John Hart said: “We welcome the findings of these studies and offer our congratulations to our colleagues serving in the primary school sector.
“As the minister has acknowledged, this confirms that standards are rising across all levels. It is interesting to note these measurements were conducted at primary six level when many pupils are preparing for transfer.
“Perhaps, given the minister’s welcome for this performance, he will re-examine his views that transfer assessments and their focus on the core skills of literacy and numeracy distort the curriculum.”
The minister has written to the principals of all 854 primary schools here congratulating them on their work.
“The importance and significance of these findings cannot be overestimated. This is the first time we have measured our primary level schools against international standards and the results are truly impressive,” he said.
“These statistics have shown the exceptional results our system is producing at primary level education.
“It’s a credit to all involved that despite the resource problems we are facing that we are still able to lead the English-speaking world in primary school in numeracy and literacy.”
Mr O’Dowd believes the secret to his and his department’s success is good teaching, good leadership, strong community engagement and a clear focus on the needs of the pupil.
However, the primary global rankings have exposed weaknesses in our post-primary system which he has vowed to tackle.
“I want our young people to be entering the world of further and higher education and work with the same advantages with which they complete their primary education,” he said.
“The reason why Sinn Fein always challenged the notion that we have a world-class education system was because the facts did not stand up.
“We now have a world-class education system at primary school level and I am confident that we can have a world class post-primary education system as well,” he added.
US academics have produced comparisons in the key subjects of English, maths and science — using tests taken in 2011 by 900,000 pupils in 60 countries including 3,586 Year 6 students from 136 primary schools in Northern Ireland. The rankings combine the four-yearly Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the five-yearly Progress in International Reading Literacy Study. It is the first time NI has taken part in the studies.
One in three have no qualifications
By Lindsay Fergus
Almost one in three people (29%) in Northern Ireland aged between 16 and 74 have no qualifications, it has emerged.
On the other end of the scale, just under one in four (24%) of the population aged 16 and over has achieved Level 4 or higher, which includes NVQs, HND and degrees.
The figures were revealed in the 2011 census, published yesterday.
England and Wales Census figures, also released at the same time, show we were just below their figure of 27% of people who had Level 4 or above qualifications. Some 23% had no qualifications.
Although it is a damning indictment of the Northern Ireland education system, 29% is considerably lower than the 2001 figure, when 42% of the population here had no qualifications.
Standards here have been rising, and according to figures released by the Department of Education last month 59% of pupils achieved five GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and maths and 65% attained three A-Levels at grades A* to C.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said: “These statistics and many others are the real focus of the census in determining where we should be targeting vital and scarce public resources to best serve the needs of our community.”
Silence is deafening from O’Dowd’s critics
By Lindsay Fergus
It's not too often Education Minister John O’Dowd is not under fire from one of his many critics. But yesterday after Northern Ireland’s primary education system was ranked by international experts as world-class, even his ardent opponents fell silent.
And who could argue with the amazing results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) that placed Northern Ireland fifth and sixth on the world stage?
The findings will be seen by many as endorsement of Sinn Fein’s education policies and the fruits of 10 years of labour for the party, which has controlled education since 2002.
They are also testament to the dedication of our teaching profession which often finds itself bearing the brunt of criticism.
How proud our teachers must feel to be recognised for their dedication while dealing with cuts to capital spend, cuts to the workforce, cuts in resources.
But what the exceptional results at primary level have done is prove the problems appear to lie in the post-primary sector.
Yes, there are pupils leaving primary school without satisfactory standards, but what we need to now get to the bottom of is why is there such a fall in standards from ages 10-15.
Instead of pointing the finger of blame at selection, there needs to be a review of the post-primary system, which needs built up and not torn apart in a war of words.