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Educational effectiveness and school improvement in Northern Ireland: opportunities, challenges and ironies

Kelly, Anthony (2011) Educational effectiveness and school improvement in Northern Ireland: opportunities, challenges and ironies In, Chapman, Christopher P., Armstrong, Paul, Harris, Alma, Muijs, Daniel, Reynolds, David and Sammons, Pam (eds.) School Effectiveness and Improvement Research, Policy and Practice: Challenging the Orthodoxy? Abingdon, GB, Routledge pp. 81-96.

Record type: Book Section


Northern Ireland (NI) poses an interesting challenge for educational effectiveness research (EER). Its schools ‘continue to outperform their counterparts in England and Wales’ (DENI 2007: 7), yet any historical attempt to describe the system as ‘effective’ would raise a wry smile among those for whom intolerance was not a desired outcome. NI schools are disproportionately ranked among the top performers in UK state examinations and although PISA 2009 showed that in reading, mathematics and science its scores were similar to those of England and Scotland (Bradshaw et al., 2010: xi), this represents a decline for NI. In 2003 only three countries had significantly higher reading scores, its mathematics score was significantly above the OECD average (only six countries did better), and in science just two countries had significantly higher scores (Bradshaw et al., 2007; DENI, 2007: 8). The declining trend has been noted by policy-makers and politicians, who have higher aspirations for NI that merely coming top of the ‘domestic’ league:

“There are two notes of caution which must be sounded when forming assessments of quality [of education in NI]. The first relates to our tendency to compare ourselves with England and Wales, partly because they have similar school systems. Such comparisons certainly show our education system in a generally positive light – but there is an argument that we should be benchmarking ourselves rather more ambitiously and in an international context. It is after all from across the globe that our young people will have to face challenges and compete in tomorrow’s economy.” (DENI, 2007: 8).

On the ground things are changing too: for practitioners as a result of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement 1998 and the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006; and more prosaically for effectiveness and improvement researchers since NI no longer publishes pupil attainment data at the school level. When Martin McGuinness as Education Minister announced the abolition of school performance tables in January 2001 – that instead schools would provide their own information on examination results to parents – he brought NI into line with the Republic of Ireland but broke with long-standing practice in the rest of the UK. The move was welcomed by all the teacher unions and headteacher associations. John Dunford, general secretary of the (then) Secondary Heads Association, acknowledged that the tables had ‘tended to polarise selective and non-selective schools’ in NI and hoped that their abolition would be ‘a forerunner to major changes to league tables on the mainland’

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Published date: December 2011
Keywords: northern ireland, school effectiveness, school improvement


Local EPrints ID: 336158
ISBN: 978–0–415–69894–8
PURE UUID: e6d2d7e8-726a-4c32-8658-6eef81dfb4f8
ORCID for Anthony Kelly: ORCID iD

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Date deposited: 21 Mar 2012 10:09
Last modified: 18 Jul 2017 06:09

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Author: Anthony Kelly ORCID iD
Editor: Christopher P. Chapman
Editor: Paul Armstrong
Editor: Alma Harris
Editor: Daniel Muijs
Editor: David Reynolds
Editor: Pam Sammons

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