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.
“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.