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Education in Ireland, by Dominic Murray, Alan Smith and Ursula Birthistle

[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]

Text: Dominic Murray, Alan Smith and Ursula Birthistle ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
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There are approximately 340,000 pupils in statutory education in Northern Ireland (190,077 in primary; 148,264 in second-level schools).

A distinctive characteristic of the education system in Northern Ireland is segregation. The system is segregated by religion in that most children attend predominantly Protestant (Controlled) schools or Catholic (Maintained) schools. It is also segregated on the basis of academic ability (and some would argue social background) in that a selection system operates at age 11 to decide which children attend Grammar schools. Approximately one third of children in second level education attend Grammar schools. It is further delineated by gender, particularly in second level education where a quarter of the Secondary schools and almost half of all Grammar schools are single sex.

Primary education in Northern Ireland
Primary level covers the ages 4-11 years. The starting age is four years on or before 1st July to start on 1st September of the same year. If space allows, four year olds who have not reached the compulsory starting age may be enrolled. At age 11 the majority of pupils sit a series of tests as part of a Transfer Procedure to determine whether they transfer to the more academic Grammar school system or the more vocationally orientated Secondary school system. However, such distinctions may be less valid since the introduction of a common curriculum for all pupils. Parents have the right to express a preference for which second-level school they wish their child to attend. Schools must publish admissions criteria which are applied when the number of applicants exceeds the maximum capacity for the school. Only Grammar schools are permitted to select their pupils on the basis of results from the Transfer tests.

Secondary education in Northern Ireland
Provision is in either secondary intermediate (High) schools which cater for 11-16 years, with some provision for 16-18 years; or in grammar schools which have sixth forms taking pupils up to age 18.

Statutory education ends at age 16 although education is free for those pupils who decide to continue to age 18. At 16 years pupils sit the GCSE examination (usually 7-10 subjects are taken). At 18 years the GCE 'A' level examination (3-4 subjects are usually taken).

Types of schools in Northern Ireland

Controlled schools
When the State of Northern Ireland was set up, the main Protestant churches transferred their ownership of schools to the State. These and new schools established by the State have became known as 'controlled' schools. Controlled schools are managed by Boards of Governors under the auspices of the Education and Library Boards and are 100% funded by the ELB's under the Local Management of Schools (LMS) scheme. The enrolments of most controlled schools continue to be predominantly Protestant. In 1993 there were 488 Primary, 81 Secondary and 18 Grammar schools in the controlled sector which catered for 144,660 children (just under half of all pupils in Northern Ireland).

Voluntary Maintained schools
In 1921, when the State of Northern Ireland was established, the Roman Catholic church retained ownership of its schools. These schools have evolved into a system of Catholic voluntary maintained schools and were initially only partly funded. Through a series of legislative changes over the years Catholic maintained schools have become 100% funded by the ELB's under the LMS. Until the Education Reform (NI) Order, 1989 maintained schools received 85% of capital funding, but may now receive 100% of capital costs if they opt for 'new category voluntary' status. This necessitates a change in the composition of the Board of Governors so that no single interest group has a majority. The Council for Catholic maintained Schools (CCMS) was also established through the Education Reform (NI) Order, 1989 to undertake certain functions in relation to matters such as the employment of teachers in Catholic Maintained schools. In 1993 there were 469 Primary and 83 Secondary schools in the maintained sector which catered for 143,321 children (just under half of all pupils in Northern Ireland).

Voluntary Grammar schools
In 1993 there were 52 voluntary Grammar schools in Northern Ireland of which 31 are Catholic voluntary Grammar schools. The others are schools which were established with a distinctive ethos related to the founding body (in many cases church related). Voluntary Grammar schools receive 100% direct grant for running costs from the Department of Education. They receive 85% of capital costs, but may qualify for 100% capital funding by opting for 'new category voluntary' status. Running costs are met by direct block grants from DENI. Eleven voluntary Grammar schools have boarding facilities for which fees that vary between £1,000 - £1,800 per term may be charged.

Integrated Schools
Since 1981 a small but growing number of integrated Primary and Secondary schools have been established in Northern Ireland. They are distinctive in that they have been established by parents rather than the State or a church. Integrated schools are 'shared institutions' in that their management, staffing and enrolment are drawn in roughly equal numbers from the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. Initially integrated schools were established as independent schools (financed largely by charitable foundations, voluntary bodies and parental fund-raising) and could only receive Government funding once their viability was established. However, the Education Reform (NI) Order, 1989 introduced a number of measures to support the development of integrated schools. These include the introduction of two main categories of integrated schools:

  • Most new integrated schools are established as Grant Maintained Integrated schools through a development process supported by the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE). Provided certain criteria are met, the schools can receive 100% recurrent funding direct from DENI on the day they open. However, capital funding is not provided until the school has proved its viability (often up to three years later). One consequence of this policy is that most new Grant Maintained Integrated schools have opened in temporary mobile accommodation.

  • Increasingly, Government has sought to make it easier for existing (mainly controlled) schools to become Controlled Integrated schools. This involves a statutory process whereby parents or governors within an existing controlled school may initiate a ballot to determine whether the school should seek a formal change in status. If there is a majority in support of such a change then formal changes to the management of the school are made although it continues to receive 100% funding for capital and recurrent costs from the local Education and Library Board. Less clear are the criteria in terms of enrolment, management, staffing, curricular and systemic changes within the school that government would require over a period of time to ensure that the transformation is not merely cosmetic.

In 1996 there were 31 integrated schools in Northern Ireland (20 Primary and 11 post-Primary) attended by 5,500 pupils (almost 2% of the school population). The running costs of nursery classes within integrated Primary schools are not funded by the Department of Education.

Irish Medium Schools
In Northern Ireland there are eight Primary and two Secondary schools in which the medium for teaching and learning is the Irish language. The level of statutory funding is related to viability as determined by DENI. From November 1995 the Primaries are fully funded by government and one of the Secondary schools receives partial funding. In total, Irish language schools serve 805 pupils at primary level and 108 at secondary. The co-ordinating body within Northern Ireland is called Gaeloiliuint (The Council for All-Irish Education). All Irish medium schools are also affiliated to Gaelscoileanna, which is an all-Ireland co-ordinating body.

Independent Schools
There are 21 independent (fully private schools) catering for a very small proportion of pupils and which receive no public funding. Most of these are Independent Christian Schools associated with the Free Presbyterian Church. Also in this category are several Irish language schools and a Rudolph Steiner School. Since these schools are completely independent they are subject to minimum registration and inspection requirements and are not subject to the statutory requirement to implement the Northern Ireland curriculum.

Preschool Education
State provision includes 89 Nursery schools and nursery classes which are attended by over 4,000 children. In addition, reception classes in Primary schools cater for 70% of all four year olds. A very small number of preschool groups are run by Health Boards.

In general terms, within the voluntary and private sector, nursery provision falls within the remit of the Department of Education whilst the Department of Health and Social Services is responsible for the registration of all playgroups. However, policy in this general area can be somewhat ambiguous with regard to the exact status of different types of preschool groups. In general however, private and voluntary provision falls into three broad categories:

  • privately funded nurseries (including seven nurseries operated by integrated schools and 21 Irish language nurseries);
  • community playgroups, most of which are affiliated to the Northern Ireland Preschool Playgroup Association (NIPPA);
  • voluntary playgroups supported by organisations such as the NSPCC and Save The Children.

There are approximately 645 playgroups in Northern Ireland catering for 15,853 children. All preschools and playgroups must be registered with the Health Boards and meet stringent health and fire regulations. At present it is possible to run a parent and toddlers group without registering if it operates for under two hours per week, but under new legislation this will change and all groups, including crèches (not included at present) will have to register.

Arrangements differ from Board to Board. Generally a £650 launching grant is available from the Boards. Once established, groups go on a waiting list for sessional grant aid (£6 per session, usually five sessions per week). This is paid for 44 weeks per year and once granted will continue. There is a limited budget within Boards for sessional grants which increases every year. The increase is used for those on the waiting list rather than giving an increment to those already in receipt of a grant. Preschools provided by integrated schools and Irish-medium schools do not receive any direct grant-aid from government.

From 1997 it is proposed to introduce a nursery voucher system. The vouchers would give parents of four year-olds £1,100 to buy three terms of nursery education for their children in either State or private schools and playgroups. No means test will be required. (At time of writing, due to doubts about a continued ceasefire and increased spending on security, this scheme has been suspended by the Secretary of State for one year).

There are a number of courses available for those wishing to work in the preschool sector including:

  • BTEC in Nursery Nursing - a two year, part-time course
  • Diploma in Playgroup Practice - a one year course run by NIPPA
  • Management of Early Years Setting - a 20 week course run by NIPPA


In the Republic of Ireland there are approximately 870,000 pupils in all schools (505,883 in Primary and 367,645 in Second-level schools). These numbers were for the 1993-94 school year.[1]

In the Republic of Ireland the Roman Catholic church has historically played an important role in the management of education. Although the distinctions are less explicit than in Northern Ireland, the dynamics of the system raise issues about denominational, non-denominational and secular perspectives on education. Virtually all Primary (National) schools are de facto denominational Catholic schools; at Second level approximately 460 schools can be described as religious. A further 320 Community, Comprehensive and Vocational schools have more secular management structures.

There is a degree of segregation on the basis of gender. Many schools in the Republic of Ireland were traditionally single sex, but this is changing. The newer Comprehensive and Community schools are co-educational. The remaining single-sex schools are predominantly in the secondary sector with some also at primary level. New Primary schools must be co-educational.

More recently, demographic factors have largely determined the types of new schools being established. Also, amalgamations of existing schools are occurring, especially in rural areas. These have tended to result in the establishment of either Community schools or Community colleges. Similarly, in the Dublin area, the new towns on the periphery of the city are establishing Community schools or colleges.

Primary schools in the Republic of Ireland
Statutory schooling age in the Republic of Ireland is between ages 6-15 years. There is a proposal in the White Paper to raise the school leaving age to 16 years. Children may start at four years, if there is room, and many do. The average starting age is five. The Constitution of the Republic of Ireland recognises parents as the prime educators of their children and there is a right to educate at home, although in practice this rarely happens.

Primary schools in the Republic of Ireland are almost exclusively National schools, most of which are State-aided parish schools, established under diocesan patronage. Although denominational, they are required, if numbers permit, to accept all denominations. National schooling is non fee paying. There are 3,200 Primary schools staffed by over 20,000 teachers. There are also 115 special schools and 79 private schools. More than 50% of Primary schools have four teachers or less.

Since 1975 most Primary schools have Boards of Management which employ the teachers. Teacher salaries are paid by the Department of Education and recurrent costs (for heating, cleaning etc.) are funded by 'capitation grants' per pupil from the Department of Education. Schools are also required to raise a contribution equal to at least 25% of the capitation grant. Funding for the site of a National school is provided by the local community through the Patron (the person proposing the new school). The Department pays 85% of building and furnishing costs (95% in disadvantaged areas).

Gaelscoileanna - Irish Language Schools
Gaelscoileanna are generally set up by parents who own the school through a limited company. When temporary recognition has been granted the Department of Education will pay teacher salaries and capitation grants. It normally takes 3-5 years to prove viability and attain full recognition. They receive a small amount of extra funding compared to National schools. This is in the form of a higher capitation grant and is paid because these schools are not parish schools and so do not have the parish financial support.[2]

The co-ordinating body for the schools is called 'Gaelscoileanna'. It assists with start-up and liaises with the Department of Education. It is funded through Bord na Gaeilge. Gaelscoileanna gives all new schools, including those in Northern Ireland, a start-up grant. It liaises closely with Gaeloiliunt, the umbrella body for Irish medium schools in Northern Ireland.

Multi-denominational Schools
In the Republic of Ireland, at Primary level, there are 14 multi-denominational schools attended by more than 2,000 pupils. 'Educate Together' is the co-ordinating body for these schools. This body maintains strong links with the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and All Children Together.

Multi-denominational schools have been established in a similar way to integrated schools in Northern Ireland. In both jurisdictions the motivation for the establishment of these schools has been parents rather than the traditional institutional interests of Church and State. However, there are distinctions between the two types of schools and these are mainly related to the circumstances underlying the two different societies in which the movements have emerged. In particular the conflict in the North and an emerging pluralism in the South.

Multi-denominational schools are funded as National schools. 25% of recurring costs (other than salaries) must be met locally. In the case of a new school, the project must own the site and raise 15% of capital costs. Unlike other National schools, only provisional recognition is granted until viability has been proven. Therefore, capital costs for furniture, refurbishment etc. may not be immediately funded. The White Paper suggests that this differential may be removed soon.

Second level education in the Republic of Ireland
Entry to second level education is at the age of 12 years and, unlike Northern Ireland, no official transfer procedure exists which determines the post-Primary school which children will attend.

In the year 1993/94 there were 782 post Primary schools attended by 367,645 pupils and staffed by 20,355 teachers.

There is a three-year Junior cycle leading to the Junior Certificate at approximately age 15. Typically 7-8 subjects are taken at this level. A Senior cycle follows which may be of two or three years duration depending on whether the school offers a 'transition year'. Where students opt to take transition year they may do so immediately after Junior Certificate. It is a student centred and interdisciplinary programme, with a wide range of courses and activities including work experience. Sixty percent of all schools now provide this course. The Senior cycle is a broadly based curriculum and typically 5-7 subjects are taken for the Leaving Certificate.3 Subjects are offered (normally) at two levels but at three in certain subjects.

Types of schools in the Republic of Ireland

Secondary schools
These are privately owned and managed, mainly by religious authorities and Boards of Governors. They are subject to Department of Education recognition and regulations. The Department pays 90% of approved building costs. Equipment and recurrent costs are met largely by a flat-rate capitation grant per student. Teachers' salaries and allowances are paid almost in full by the Department of Education. Secondary schools have traditionally been similar to Grammar schools in Northern Ireland in offering an academic curriculum, but increasingly they are offering more vocational and technical options and generally non-selective. Many Secondary schools are still single sex-schools.

Vocational Schools
These schools are administered by Vocational Education Committees (VEC's) which are elected by the local authority of the area in which they are located. Day to day management is by Boards of Management and the schools do not charge fees. They are 90% funded by the Department of Education and 10% by the VECs.

Comprehensive Schools
There are a small number (16) of Comprehensive schools which were established originally as part of the proposed comprehensivisation of second-level education. They are administered by Boards of Management which include representatives of the VEC and the Department of Education. Different Boards structures have been developed for Catholic and Protestant schools. They receive 100% funding from the Department of Education.

Community Schools
These are the successors to the Comprehensive schools. They are similar but have a different management structure involving greater participation of local community interests including trustees of amalgamated schools and/or local religious interests, parents etc. Many resulted from the amalgamation of Secondary and Vocational schools. They receive 100% funding from the Department of Education and do not charge fees but are required to make a relatively small local contribution towards buildings and equipment.

Community Colleges
Almost identical to Community schools, but differ in that they are administered and funded by the VEC. Many Vocational schools have dropped the word 'vocational' and now use the term 'community college'.[4]

Pre-school Education
State provision takes four major forms. Infant classes in Primary schools which are regarded as pre-school education, cater for 95% of all 5-6 year olds at senior infants level and 59% of 4-5 year olds at junior infants level. In addition, there are 33 Early Start programmes being offered in Primary schools in disadvantaged areas and 50 pre-schools for the children of the Travelling community. All of these are the responsibility of the Department of Education. In addition, the Department of Health provides community play groups and day care centres.

Private and voluntary provision includes privately funded nursery schools. These are mainly Montessori schools for 3-5 year olds catering for 2.5% of this age group. There are also 252 Naionraí (Irish speaking or bilingual groups) which cater for 2,900 children which is approximately 2.5% of 3-5 year olds. There also exists over 1,600 registered playgroups.

Presently, a fire certificate, planning permission and compliance with the Health and Safety at Work Act is all that is required when establishing a preschool facility. However, the 1991 Child Care Act (when implemented in 1996) will require all child care facilities to register with the Health Boards.

The funding system from the Health Boards for preschool groups in the Republic of Ireland appears to operate on an ad hoc basis. It is possible to receive a block grant of approximately £500 per year but it may not be awarded every year.

The 'Early Start' programme is run by the Department of Education in disadvantaged inner city areas. It began with eight centres and a further 25 were to be established during the 1995-96 school year. The centres are attached to primary schools and are staffed by two primary school teachers and two qualified child care assistants. The centres are free and provide for 60 pupils between the ages of three and four (two classes of 15 in the morning and two in the afternoon). Each centre receives a start-up grant of £4,500 plus £1,500 per annum for the development of parental involvement and a capitation grant of £55.[5]

Tensions between the playgroup sector and the Early Start programme have been identified. In some areas the two approaches are perceived to be 'competing' for the same children, there is some resentment that the longer established playgroup sector is not funded by the Department of Education and that the Early Start programme gives a prominent role to teachers who may not have specialised in preschool education.[6]

Most qualified teachers working with this age group will have completed a three year B.Ed degree course. Other courses available for those wishing to work in the preschool sector include:

  • Montessori - two year, full-time course.
  • Diploma in Nursery Nursing - two year, full-time course validated by the National Nursery Examination Board (NNEB).
  • National Vocational Certificate in Child Care, level 2 which is validated by the NCVA (required to work as an assistant in the Early Start programme).
  • Introductory Playgroup Course - minimum of 20 hours run by IPPA.
  • Naionraí operate two, one-week intensive courses through Irish and leaders are encouraged to undertake other training courses as well.
    (A one-year course has been drawn up but funding is not available)

Since 1995 a BA in Early Childhood Studies is being offered within University College Cork.

Issues of importance within the sector concern the appropriateness of learning environments and teacher:pupil ratios for four year olds within Primary schools,7 liaison between the Education and Health Departments within Government and relative emphasis on pre-schooling or child-care.[8]

Further education
In Northern Ireland there have been recent proposals to transfer administrative responsibility for funding Further Education from the Education and Library Boards to the Department of Education. Amalgamations have also reduced the number of Colleges of Further Education in Northern Ireland to 24. The colleges allow access to students who wish to complete or return to second-level education, or who wish to proceed to further vocational and technological education. The colleges therefore provide an important additional route into higher education as well as leisure and community education courses. During 1993-94 there were 46,680 students in non-vocational courses at Colleges of Further Education. During the same period there were 23,125 students in full-time and 58,398 in part-time vocational courses.[9]

Similar levels of access have been more difficult to achieve in the Republic of Ireland where there is no equivalent to Colleges of Further Education. The White Paper acknowledges the need for a new organisational structure for Further Education. It is anticipated that the vocational education and training and adult education sectors will be more coherently planned and certificated. A Further Education Authority is to be established to co-ordinate provision, advise the Minister, to allocate budgets and to liaise with the new certification body - Teastas.

In the Republic of Ireland a 5-level framework for vocational qualifications certificated by the NCVA has recently been introduced. A National Foundation Certificate will cater for those with poor, or no formal qualifications; NCV1 will be available within the Senior cycle; NCV2 will apply to the wide range of relatively new Post Leaving Certificate (PLC) courses. Foundation Certificate, NCV1 and NCV2 will be provided in second-level institutions and also in recognised vocational education and training centres such as Youthreach, travellers workshops etc. NVC2 and upwards lead to further and higher education and employment.[10]

Post Leaving Certificates (PLCs) were developed over the last eight years, especially by the Vocational Education Committees (VECs), because many students were failing to get into third-level education. Arrangements were made with third-level institutions for enhanced points for these courses (DIT - Dublin Institute of Technology, and RTCs - Regional Training Centres, both statutory, self-governing institutions which provide some degree courses). Students could then re-apply as 'non-standard applicants'. Originally many such courses were certificated by the U.K. based BTEC and City and Guilds. PLCs appeared to be more readily accepted in UK universities and this may have been due to greater availability of places there. The NCVA, whose certification is recognised in the UK, France and other EU countries, has now made moves to start validating Post Leaving Certificates and some colleges which specialise in PLC qualifications have begun to appear (mainly in the VEC sector). Currently there are almost 18,000 PLC students.[11] A problem for PLC students is that they are regarded by the Department of Education as second-level students and thereby do not have access to third-level grants.[12]

Both jurisdictions are developing more modular courses which should increase flexibility and ease of transfer. Both Departments of Education have stressed the need to monitor standards to ensure that they are in line with other EU countries.

Initial teacher training
In Northern Ireland there are two teacher training colleges both based in Belfast. They reflect the religious and cultural segregation of the education system in the North in that St. Mary's is a Catholic teacher training college whilst most teachers who train at Stranmillis College enter the profession in 'predominantly Protestant' controlled schools. Both colleges cater for the primary sector, mainly through 4-year B.Ed degree courses. Both colleges also offer some secondary provision and intakes are subject to quotas set by DENI. For 1995 the intakes were:

Table 2.1: Intakes to teacher training colleges: Northern Ireland 1995/96
College. Total
St. Mary's96 primary42 secondary 138
Stranmillis95 primary 45 secondary140
Source: Dept. of Ed. Primary Teacher Training Section

Almost 75% of all second-level teachers are trained at Queen's University Belfast and the University of Ulster at Coleraine and Jordanstown which offer specialised PGCE courses to graduates who have completed degree programmes. Recent announcements suggest that in future the universities will concentrate on PGCE courses and the colleges on undergraduate degree programmes.

Cutbacks in projected requirements for secondary teachers led to a stipulation from DENI that approximately 80% of students entering teacher training colleges in 1995-96 must opt for primary teaching and students applying for the B.Ed secondary course will have to choose from the three main academic subjects (Business Studies, Technology and Design and Religious Studies).[13]

In the Republic of Ireland, at primary level, there are four teacher training colleges in Dublin and one in Limerick. They are privately managed and largely financed by the State. The two largest (St. Patrick's, Drumcondra and Mary Immaculate, Limerick) account for 85% of all primary teacher training. A three-year B.Ed degree includes teaching practice in each year. In 1995 the numbers of trainee primary teachers enrolled in each college were :

Table 2.2: Intakes to teacher training colleges: Republic of Ireland 1995/96
Annual enrolment
St. Patrick's, Drumcondra
St. Mary's, Marino
Church of Ireland
Mary Immaculate, Limerick
Source: Irish Times Educational Supplement, 31/1/95

Almost all second level teachers are trained within universities mainly by a consecutive route leading to a degree and the Higher Diploma in Education. Some concurrent degrees are offered in the University of Limerick and St. Angela's College (home economics) through University College Galway. The quota on the number of H.Dip places for 1994-95 was 800.

In Northern Ireland there are approximately 20,000 full-time students at undergraduate level in the two main universities (Queen's University, Belfast and the University of Ulster which operates through four campuses at Coleraine, Jordanstown, Magee and Belfast.[14]

In the Republic of Ireland, the National University of Ireland operates through three constituent colleges (University College Cork, University College Galway, University College Dublin) and St. Patrick's College, Maynooth. The other universities are the University of Dublin (Trinity College), Dublin City University and the University of Limerick. The enrolment figure for the university sector during 1993-94 was 51,000.[15]

Other degree granting institutions in the Republic of Ireland include:

  • Dublin Institute of Technology
    This is an amalgamation of six colleges run by the City of Dublin Vocational Committee. It was established as a single statutory self-governing institution in 1992. Its degree courses are validated by the University of Dublin. The enrolment for 1993/94 was 10,000 and application for admission is through the CAO.

  • Regional Technical Colleges
    There are eleven colleges in the Republic of Ireland offering a wide range of courses in business studies, science, technology and engineering. In addition to National Certificates and Diplomas, a limited number of degrees are awarded by the National Council for Education Awards. Enrolment in 1993/94 was 22,000 and application is made through the CAO.

There has also been a considerable growth in the number of private colleges becoming involved in third level education.

The Open University (OU) which is involved in distance learning, operates throughout Ireland from an administrative base in Belfast. In Northern Ireland it has over 2,000 registered students and operates through nine study centres. In 1993 the total number of undergraduates was 3,156 including those enrolled in study centres in the Republic of Ireland.16 In April 1996 an enquiry and advice centre was opened by the OU in Dublin to meet the growing demand for places.[17]

In the Republic of Ireland there were 6,600 mature students attending at higher education in 1993-94 of which 75% were part-time. The 1,697 full-time mature students represent less than 5% of all full-time students. This is very low by EU standards. The proportion in the United Kingdom for example is five times the level in the Republic of Ireland.[18]

University admissions
The universities in both jurisdictions are autonomous bodies and have reciprocal arrangements for recognition of A-level and Leaving Certificate results. Applications for admission are slightly different. Application to universities in Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. is made through the Universities and Colleges Admissions System (UCAS) and offers of places are made to students before they sit their final year examinations at school (offers are usually conditional on results). In the Republic of Ireland applications are made through the Central Applications Office (CAO) which operates a points system based on examination results and offers are made only after final year examination results have been published.

Participation rates and movement between jurisdictions
In Northern Ireland student:staff ratios have been increasing (from 9.5 in 1984, to 13.9 in 1989, to 16.4 in 1994), and a significant increase in the age participation index (API) from 22.6 in 1989 to 38.6 in 1994. API gives an indication of the percentage of young people from Northern Ireland entering higher education. Scotland and Northern Ireland have the highest API in the UK. Approximately 40% of Northern Ireland students attend universities outside the State. This is partly due to preference and also because admission is easier in some UK universities, especially the former polytechnics.[19]

In the Republic of Ireland participation rates in higher education have increased from 20% of the age cohort in 1980 to 40% in 1994. About half of these take degree programmes.[20]

Approximately 85% of undergraduates in Northern Ireland are from Northern Ireland (10% are from the Republic of Ireland and 5% from Great Britain and overseas). The estimated enrolments of Northern Ireland domiciled full-time, undergraduates for 1995/96 was:

Table 2.3: Estimated enrolments of Northern Ireland domiciled full-time,
undergraduates for 1995/96
Universities Northern Ireland16,741
Teacher training colleges Northern Ireland 1,283
Institutions Great Britain12,000
Source: DENI, (1994), The Education Services in Northern Ireland: A Strategic Analysis

In the Republic of Ireland the enrolments in higher education are:

Table 2.4: Republic of Ireland enrolments in higher education
Universities (Republic)51,000
Teacher training colleges (Republic)1,800
Technological colleges (Republic)34,600
Source: Dept. of Ed., Brief Description of the Irish Education System 1995

During 1995 it was estimated that the number of students from Northern Ireland enrolled in the Republic of Ireland was 1,700; and the number of students from the Republic of Ireland enrolled in Northern Ireland was 2,700.21

Fees and student grants
In Northern Ireland the fees for undergraduate and postgraduate courses are usually paid by the State through the Education and Library Boards. Since 1996 the Republic of Ireland has adopted a similar policy as fees for third-level education will be abolished (except in the cases of part-time students, postgraduates and non-EU nationals). This has caused some fears that postgraduate fees will increase because of the general abolition of fees at undergraduate level and this could have implications for research and development. Fees in the postgraduate sector will be paid on the basis of means testing.[22]

European Social Fund grants are available for designated courses in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

In both jurisdictions the State pays (means-tested) maintenance grants to students, although these are higher in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland there are also arrangements through commercial banks for student loan systems at low interest rates.

Student Grants in Northern Ireland
There are two types of grant which government may pay towards student maintenance. These are 'mandatory grants' (if the course is on the list of specified courses and the student is personally eligible) or 'discretionary grants'. Basic grants for 1995-96 were:

Table 2.5: Student grants Northern Ireland
Students living at home£1,530
Students living away from home (London) £2,340
Students living away from home (outside London) £1,885
Source: DENI, Grants and Loans to Students

Student Loans in Northern Ireland
Students can apply for a loan up to a fixed annual maximum of approximately £1,200. Loans may be taken out in addition to any student grant which has been awarded. They are not means-tested. In the case of Northern students going to study in the Republic of Ireland, fees and maintenance grant are paid, subject to eligibility, as in Northern Ireland, but not loans. This appears to be because of the nature of administration of loans which is partly through the universities and colleges. Eligibility for loans is decided by the college concerned and the loan is paid by the Student Loans Company.

Disability Grants in Northern Ireland
There are a number of provisions for third-level students with disabilities. Up to £3,650 is available for special equipment related to educational needs (this is a once-off grant). A further £4,850 (maximum) is available per year for a carer, and up to £1,215 per year for other extra costs. The allowances are means-tested. Extra allowances are also available for travelling expenses.[23]

Disability Grants in the Republic of Ireland
The National University of Ireland offers grants for students with severe physical disabilities of up to £500 per annum, tenable for three years. The number of awards made is determined by the Vice Chancellor. The Department of Education has a central fund for students with disabilities. The fund was first established in 1994. For 1995/96 the fund stands at £105,000. Applications are made through the college concerned and awards are discretionary.

Other benefits, such as the Disabled Persons Maintenance Allowance, Disability Benefit, Blind Persons Pension, Mobility Allowance (some of which are means tested), may be retained while attending third-level education and are unaffected by being in receipt of fees and maintenance payments. However, the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (AHEAD) recently produced a report which is critical of the allowances and provision in the Republic of Ireland compared to the situation in the U.S. and Sweden.[24]

Student Grants in the Republic of Ireland
From April 1996 a capital means test will be introduced in addition to the existing income test. Tax relief on covenants will be abolished.

Table 2.6: Maximum student maintenance grants: Republic of Ireland
Students living at home£637
Living away from home£1,600
Source: Irish Times, Education and Living Supplement, January 1997

The income threshold is to rise by 2.4%, so a family with four children will receive a full maintenance grant up to an income of approximately £16,000 and will receive half-maintenance up to approximately £17,800. A family with two children at college at the same time can add another £2,000 on to these limits (with three children this becomes £4,000).

Grant application procedures are to be simplified to a centralised agency and a single grant system. Previously there were three different types of grants administered by 70 VECs and local authorities. A recent report[25] has recommended a student loan system to supplement the grants. The report also stressed the inadequacy of the maintenance grants for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Ordinary Irish Higher Education Grants scheme applies to students going to Northern Ireland to study. Up to now this grant was not payable outside the island of Ireland. From September 1996 it will apply to the rest of the UK and the EU.[26]

1. Department of Education, (1995), Brief Description of the Irish Education System, Government Publications
2. Eagriocht na Scoileanna Gaeltachta
3. ASTI, (1995), Convention Handbook
4. O'Flaherty L., (1992), Management and Control in Irish Education: The Post Primary Experience, Drumcondra Teachers' Centre, Dublin
5. Department of Education, (1995), Early Start Programme
6. Irish Times, (1995), Irish Times Education Supplement 24/4/95 and 26/9/95
DENI, (1994), Information Brief on Education in Northern Ireland
7. Douglas, F. & Horgan, M., (1996), 'Intellectual Development and Early Childhood Education in the Republic of Ireland' in Curriculum, vol. 17 no. 2, Autumn
8. Irish Times, (1995), Education and Living 25/4/95
9. DENI, (1995), Compendium of Northern Ireland Education Statistics
10. NCVA, (1995), Guide to Level 2 Awards
11. Department of Education, (1995), White Paper: Charting our Education Future, Government Publications, Dublin
12.Irish Times, (1995), Irish Times Education Supplement 28/3/95
13. St. Mary's College, (1995), A Short Guide to Courses for Applicants, 1995-1996, Belfast
14. DENI, (1994), The Education Services in Northern Ireland: A Strategic Analysis
15. Department of Education, (1995), Brief Description of the Irish Education System, Government Publications
16. DENI, (1994), The Education Services in Northern Ireland: A Strategic Analysis
17. Aontas, (1996), The Irish Times, 4 April
18. Aontas, (1995), 'A Special Report', Irish Times, 6 September
19. DENI, (1994), The Education Services in Northern Ireland: A Strategic Analysis
20. Department of Education, (1995), White Paper: Charting our Education Future, Government Publications, Dublin
21. Thornhill, D., (1995), Official Perspectives, presentation to ASTI Conference 11/11/95
22. Irish Times, (1995), Irish Times Supplement 25/4/95
23. DENI, Grants and Loans to Students - A Brief Guide
24. Irish Times, (1995), Education and Living 9/5/95
25. de Butléir, (1993), 'Third Level Student Support', Report of the Advisory Committee on Third Level Student Support, Government Publications, Dublin
26. Irish Times, (1995), Education and Living 14/2/95

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