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Northern Ireland pupils outperform their counterparts in UK

By Lindsay Fergus & Chris McKee

Northern Ireland is outperforming England and Wales when it comes to the percentage of pupils achieving five or more GCSEs at grade A* to C.

In Wales the average was 49.6%, while it was 58.2% in England and 60% here, according to the summary of annual exam results.

Of 213 post-primary schools, 78 were above the Northern Ireland average — 68 grammars and 10 non-grammars.

Just two schools had 100% of pupils secure five good GCSEs including English and maths — Lumen Christi College (Derry) and Lurgan College.

Education committee chairman Mervyn Storey said: “When the statistical performance of our schools is looked at in context, the news is positive. In 2011, over 75% of our pupils received five GCSE passes at grades A* to C. Almost 60% of GCSE students obtained five or more GCSE passes at grades A* to C including English and maths.

“Within the context of Northern Ireland this represents a raising of standards. Our pass rates are over 1% higher than the corresponding figures for 2010.

“When we set the results against the backdrop of the rest of the UK we can see just how well our pupils perform. We are almost 2% better than England and 10% better than the Welsh. Teachers should be very proud of the fact that yet again more of our young people are attaining the highest results in the UK.”

The top and bottom performing schools were both schools with a Catholic ethos — Lumen Christi College and St Mary’s High School (Lurgan).

In the top 10% there are 14 co-educational schools, seven girls’ schools and no boys’ schools. The top performing boys’ school is Royal Belfast Academical Institution (23rd), while the highest ranking girls’ school is Loreto Grammar, Omagh (5th).

RBAI principal Janet Williamson said: “We are delighted that the boys and school have received this recognition.”

Ten non-grammars were above the overall Northern Ireland average — St Patrick’s Co-Ed Comprehensive, Maghera; St Killian’s College, Carnlough; St Mary’s College, Clady; St Joseph’s College, Enniskillen; New-Bridge Integrated, Loughbrickland; St Catherine’s College, Armagh; Slemish College, Ballymena; St Eugene’s College, Roslea; St Ciaran’s High School, Ballygawley; and Newtownhamilton.

However, if you take the non-grammar school average for the percentage of pupils attaining five GCSEs including English and maths at grades A* to C, 65 of 145 non-grammars were above 36%.

Of grammars, 25 schools were below the 94% average including three which were outperformed by non-grammars — Cambridge House in Ballymena, St Mary’s Christian Brothers Grammar School, Belfast, and Campbell College, also in Belfast. The data also shows the challenges facing the non-grammar sector where 110 of 145 schools are above the Northern Ireland average (18%) of pupils entitled to free school meals (FSM), an indicator used to measure social deprivation, compared to two grammars.

“Deprivation as measured by FSM is strongly associated with poorer performance at every stage,” explained Professor Deirdre Heenan, provost of Magee and dean of academic development at the University of Ulster.

“There is a clear correlation between child poverty and reduced life chances. Those from deprived backgrounds are more likely to feel they lack the ability to succeed within the system.”

There are also 107 non-grammars above the Northern Ireland average (18%) for the percentage of pupils who have special educational needs in comparison to three grammars.

However, there are many schools — all non-grammars — with a high percentage of pupils entitled to FSM and with special educational needs (SEN) who are excelling. St Joseph’s College, Enniskillen, is not only one of the best performing non-selective schools at GCSE level, it is above the Northern Ireland average for the percentage of pupils achieving five GCSEs including English and maths at grade C and above, but has 21.9% of pupils on FSM and 65.1% with SEN.

Commenting on the data, Dr Linda Clarke, head of the School of Education at University of Ulster, said: “The real headlines are the schools with high FSM and high SEN, which come relatively high in the tables. Of course, even using FSM and SEN does not capture the complexity of interacting factors which impact on results.

“Schools are so varied that a fair method of comparison probably does not exist. Nonetheless, this does matter to parents, teachers and pupils who deserve the best possible chance to succeed.”

However, internationally Northern Ireland is lagging behind. In a 2009 international study of 15-year-olds (PISA), we were ranked 19 out of 30 OECD countries for reading and 27 out of 30 for maths. A new study will get under way this year.

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