How Northern Ireland became the new Finland


Teachers and policymakers in Northern Ireland got a surprise Christmas present last month, in the shape of an enviable slot in international literacy and numeracy rankings. According to the study, Northern Irish primary pupils performed better in reading and numeracy than in any other English speaking country in the world.

Some 600,000 nine- and 10-year-olds from 50 countries were assessed as part of two studies; Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Northern Ireland came sixth in numeracy and fifth in literacy.

Tony Blair’s famous intonation of “education, education, education” may – at least in Northern Ireland – have amounted to more than solid speechwriting.

Between 1997 and 2007 per capita education funding in the UK and Northern Ireland rose by 48 per cent, while teacher numbers rose by 35,000 and teachers’ pay rose by 18 per cent. There was also massive recruitment of support workers such as teaching assistants – up by 172,000 in the period.

All this investment was complemented by a revised primary school curriculum that represented a major shift in teaching practice, as well as targeted literacy and numeracy programmes. Minister of Education in Northern Ireland John O’Dowd believes that in Northern Ireland the investment was accompanied by a real commitment to raising standards.

Challenging ourselves

“For years we had claimed that ours was a world-class education system. I and others started to challenge that because it wasn’t true. We saw the revised curriculum as an opportunity to start challenging ourselves and raise standards. We were coming out of a conflict situation with higher levels of disadvantage. We needed to take a proactive stance to raise education levels.”

O’Dowd credits initiatives such as the Learn, Read and Succeed programme and a greater emphasis on numeracy and literacy in the teacher-training colleges.

“The revised primary curriculum was designed to create independent learners,” he explains. “The aim was to create a curriculum flexible enough to allow for individual circumstances.”

This idea of autonomy in schools and classrooms is working on the ground, says Mario Gribbon, principal of St John the Baptist Primary School on Garvaghy Rd in Portadown. He has seen more consistency across schools and improvements at classroom level.

“The old curriculum was overloaded with content. The new curriculum, which was made statutory in 2007, emphasises skills. It’s all about what skills we want the children to attain, rather than what content we need to cover. It’s a totally new approach.”

Gribbon says that the new Northern Irish classroom is barely recognisable from its predecessor.

“It’s a culture shock for some. There’s no set curriculum. The children don’t have books fired at them. At the Foundation Stage (the equivalent of our Junior and Senior Infants) they are free to choose the activities they like, within a structured framework.

“Teachers have a lot more flexibility in how they teach and what materials they use. There is a lot of observation – how are individual children responding to different activities. It’s all recorded. The focus is on preparation for learning. It’s amazing to see the level of writing taking place at this stage without formal lessons.”

The model is closer to the Montessori method, which sees children given structured autonomy in choosing daily activities, scaffolded to build on their growing skills. Getting the teachers on board has been greatly enhanced by investment in training and professional development, says Gribbon. Getting parents to trust the system is the next important step, he says.

Parents on board

“Parents love to see books. Where maths is concerned, they love to see a page full of sums. We post Youtube videos of teachers delivering mental maths exercises to give parents an insight into these new methods. At first some teachers were wary of doing this but you have to get parents on board.”

According to Gribbon, the old culture of the isolated teacher in his or her classroom does not fit with the new regime.

“In our school the teachers are working in partnership with each other. There is also a lot of support, resources and good ideas coming from CASS (Curriculum Advice and Support Service).

Gribbon warns against complacency in the face of the TIMSS and PIRLS results. He sees threats to the system which may be felt in the coming years.

“New teachers are unable to find work other than subbing work. There’s a higher calibre of teaching graduate coming into the system now, and they have great strategies and enthusiasm. You have to keep regenerating the system but for now that has stopped. It scares me for the future.”

Gribbon also notes the level of assessment that is built in to the Northern Irish primary school system. There are statutory assessments at the end of Key Stage 1 and at Primary 7 level as well as computer adaptive tests and literacy and numeracy tests. There is also the thorny old issue of assessment for entry to Northern Ireland’s grammar schools, a high pressure selection tool that has seen a grinds culture develop among primary school-age children. “Grammar schools are still participating in unregulated tests. It adds to a culture of testing that is stressful for young children,” he says.

John O’Dowd agrees that prevailing conditions will test recent achievements. “The budgetary situation is challenging across all departments. Social deprivation is still a barrier. We need to focus on hardcore areas where educational attainment is still low.”

Gribbon welcomes the findings but won’t celebrate until these results are repeated in further assessments. “As the old saying goes; “A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two is never sure.”

Emphasise skills instead of content: With the introduction of the new primary curriculum in 2007, Northern Irish primary teachers now focus on the skills they want children to attain rather than covering set content. There is more flexibility for teachers and more child-led learning. There is also a huge cohort of assistant teachers and SNAs across the system

Distribute leadership: Teachers in Northern Ireland who take on extra roles in areas such as assessment or special education are still paid extra, unlike in the Republic where increments for Special Posts of Responsibility have been scrapped. “This is a huge deficit for the South,” says Mario Gribbon. “My school has 18 teachers and five of them have paid management roles, such as co-ordinating Key Stage 1 or special education needs. We have school leadership teams. I couldn’t do it all.”

Foster a culture of self-evaluation: Schools are encouraged to constantly scrutinise the results of their own practice and to share best practice with other schools. The Every School a Good School initiative includes an online TV channel where schools can broadcast success stories for other schools to learn from.

Encourage professional development: Schools can assign teacher tutors from within the staff to support struggling teachers. However, despite this, Minister for Education John O’Dowd says that the issue of underperformance is “raised constantly” by boards of governors and that progress in the area is happening too slowly in many cases.

Invest in ICT: Since 2000, the Department of Education in Northern Ireland (DENI) has invested over £470 million (€668m) in ICT infrastructure in schools through the C2k programme. Every grant-aided school across Northern Ireland has a modern, connected ICT infrastructure, with a common email system for all teachers. C2k’s new education technology contract was launched last year and promises Europe’s first education cloud for schools, including a new e-learning platform, Fronter.

Global numeracy rankings 2011

1 Singapore

2 South Korea

3 Hong Kong

4 Chinese Taipei

5 Japan

6 Northern Ireland

7 Belgium (Flemish)

8 Finland

9 England

10 Russian Fdtn

11 United States

12 Netherlands

13 Denmark

14 Lithuania

15 Portugal

16 Germany

17 Republic of Ireland

18 Serbia

19 Australia

20 Hungary

Global literacy rankings 2011

1 Hong Kong SAR

2 Russian Federation

3 Finland

4 Singapore

5 Northern Ireland 6 United States

7 Denmark

8 Croatia

9 Chinese Taipei

10 Republic of Ireland

11 England

12 Canada

13 Netherlands

14 Czech Republic

15 Sweden

16 Italy

17 Germany

18 Israel

19 Portugal

20 Hungary

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