Teaching and Learning in Northern Ireland


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Belfast, Northern Ireland

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What are the current teaching and learning conversations taking place in Northern Ireland?

On Friday 13th March 2020, I visited Hazelwood Integrated College, Belfast to host one of my own teacher training events for colleagues from across the region…

A drive down memory lane…

It is almost 27 years ago since I visited Belfast. In 1992/93 as I arrived in London to live and work solo for the first time, the city saw the greatest number of terror-related incidents since the 1970s. I was a trainee teacher in London and my older brother had just been deployed to RAF Aldergrove, Crumlin.

Today, almost thirty years later since the Good Friday Agreement, peace has largely been restored to the region for the citizens of Belfast. Whilst I do not pretend to claim I have any deep knowledge of The Troubles, it was fascinating to return to a beautiful city as an adult to gain a better understanding of the deep-rooted history within the community.

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Coronavirus: It appears I reached Belfast one day before all schools close for 16 weeks…

Across the UK…

In Scotland and Wales, perceptions of education ministers are more positive than the current mood in Northern Ireland or England, and I do wonder what we can learn from one another across the United Kingdom rather than searching for the answers on the other side of the world. In Northern Ireland, for example, teachers tell me there is a lack of national knowledge about what can be done to enhance wellbeing in schools, and the fact that there hasn’t been an operational government in recent years has exacerbated this further.

Workload and Wellbeing

My prime reason for visiting was to work with teachers and school leaders from across the region, sharing the ideas from Just Great Teaching, as well as to gather a better sense of the current issues for teachers today in Northern Ireland. There are several standout issues that I took away:

  1. Industrial action
  2. The marking (workload) burden
  3. Updating the knowledge of inspectors and union members
  4. Protestant and Catholic education, as well as integrated schools and colleges.

On the day when I surveyed teachers, marking was reported as the number one workload burden…

Teaching and Learning in Northern Ireland

Funding cuts

The situation is worse in Northern Ireland where there has been no operational government since 2017. The schools budget has been flat for five years, with no increase to accommodate inflation. This has led to industrial action as teachers haven’t received an increase in their pay, but class sizes are going up, SEN provision is being reduced and there have been redundancies. This is leading to workload and wellbeing concerns being more significant for Northern Irish schools than they have ever been in the past. Here are some of the key issues I researched using the Department of Education (Northern Ireland) data sets:

  1. There are 18,489 FTE teachers with total headcount at 19,867. This is an increase of 89 teachers from 2016/17.
  2. The proportion of teachers working part-time continues to rise with the median age of teachers is 41.5 years.
  3. Fewer teachers aged under 30 in 2018 (11.1%) than in 2013/14 (11.9%) and the proportion of teachers working in all schools who are male has been declining over the last five years. Most notable is the absence of male teachers in nursery schools.
  4. The pupil to teacher ratio (PTR) in 2017/18 is 18.0, an increase of 0.2 from 2016/17 with the average number of days lost per teacher due to sickness in all schools was 9.3 and,
  5. The teacher substitution costs decreased from £73.6 million to £69.0 million.

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School inspection

In Northern Ireland, ETNI (the Education and Training Inspectorate) manage the inspection and self-evaluation framework for all phases, which makes a judgement on the overall quality of education, outcomes for learners, quality of provision, leadership and management, governance, care and welfare, and safeguarding. There are six performance levels and additional terms are used such as ‘strengths’ and ‘areas for improvement’. However, union action over teacher pay in the past couple of years has made it very difficult for ETNI to inspect schools. Their chief inspector has just resigned in March 2020; opportunities for growth and change? I was told time and time again that policymakers would have had a great day listening to some of my ideas and working alongside colleagues…

Professional development

Some jurisdictions across the UK appear to be prioritising teacher CPD. Scotland, for example, requires teachers to undertake 35 hours of CPD activity every year. In Northern Ireland, rates of participation in teacher CPD are similar to the international average (10 days/50 hours), and whilst Wales is below the international average in terms of participation in subject-specific CPD, there have at least been national initiatives to provide structured CPD and increase subject-specific support (Cordingley et al., 2018).

In Northern Ireland, all teachers must be registered with the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland (GTCNI), the Education Authority or the Northern Ireland Substitute Teachers Register (NISTR). Qualifications here means that the teacher can work anywhere across the UK, but further induction will be needed to understand curriculum and qualification differences; every new teacher builds upon the career entry profile portfolio of evidence in the initial year of training. If a teacher moves from elsewhere in the UK to go and work in Northern Ireland, the same induction applies.

Throughout the day together, we explore cognitive science issues emerging into teaching and learning, as well as the challenges faced by teachers becoming research-informed. Overall, it was a productive experience all-round.

Teachers and schools must ask themselves whether the things they are doing are supported by research and evidence. There is a growing consensus that many school leaders and teachers across the UK are becoming research-informed, including in Northern Ireland.


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