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Blog post Part of special issue: Education research: Northern Ireland

Editorial: Education research: Northern Ireland

Barbara Skinner, Professor in TESOL and Education at Ulster University

Education in Northern Ireland (NI) is characterised by segregation along religious/sectarian lines underpinned by a long history of religious tensions and fractured politics.

Ninety-three per cent of pupils in mainstream education attend schools with either a Catholic/Irish identity (maintained schools) or a British/Protestant identity (controlled schools), while only seven per cent attend integrated schools (NISRA, 2020). NI’s post-primary school system is also divided by a selection process which determines whether 11-year-olds attend a non-selective post-primary school or a selective grammar school. These unique characteristics lead to inefficiencies and inequities in NI’s education system – for example, controlled and maintained schools located close to each other, with empty desks due to a shortage of local pupils from one side of the community. It is against this backdrop that this BERA Blog special issue captures some of the innovative education research being carried out by academics working in Northern Ireland’s five higher education institutes – Ulster University, Queen’s University Belfast, St Mary’s University College Belfast, Stranmillis University College and the Open University. Research presented in this series makes for compelling reading about the future of education in Northern Ireland.

Martin Hagan from St Mary’s University College kick-starts this collection by asking how a progressive NI education research agenda, aimed at improving the life chances of children in the ‘post-troubles’ era, can be implemented. He proposes that education research is aligned closely to teachers’ career trajectories, to allow for new insights into how teachers can be best supported to develop their competence. Glenda Walsh reinforces the message that despite NI being well known for producing high-achieving academic pupils, being ‘left behind’ is real for many other pupils and she focuses on prioritising play in NI primary schools as a way of helping all children get a fair start in education. Exploring why young people continue (or not) with the learning of languages in schools in Northern Ireland, Leanne Henderson and Janice Carruthers from Queen’s University Belfast, comment positively on a new initiative – a mentoring scheme which is in place whereby Modern Languages undergraduates mentor pre-GCSE pupils in non-selective schools. Acknowledging the unsustainability of the Northern Irish school provision, Jessica Bates, Una O’Connor Bones and Stephen Roulston examine Ulster University’s ‘Future Schools Toolkit’ which is designed to help schools critically examine their sustainability and to help them to consider different types of provision, such as sharing of facilities. Jayne Finlay pulls together research carried out at Ulster University on educating during the pandemic and calls for schools to reset their home–school partnerships by considering the use of digital communication apps, new communication styles between headteachers, teachers and families, and training staff in new forms of digital communication to ensure consistency of practice across school communities. Clare McAuley and Caitlin Donnelly explore teacher avoidance of conflict-related issues, through the experiences of eight history and citizenship teachers in NI. They find that the teaching of controversial and contested issues which relate to NI’s ‘past’ and its legacies is avoided by some teachers and embraced by others, even though this is a statutory part of the NI curriculum. They conclude that this ‘avoidance or not’ does matter, not just in the classroom but outside, for the future connectedness of NI society. In his concluding blog to this special issue, Samuel Taggart explains that despite how politics and media affect perceptions of NI – political instability, brinkmanship, stalemate – there is much here to showcase. He writes about a fascinating virtual reality project at Ulster University which explores pre-service teachers’ perceptions of contested spaces in Northern Ireland in order to support a new awareness of what communities here have in common rather than their differences.

I would like to thank all these blog authors for agreeing to write for this special issue on Northern Ireland. These contributors share a passion and dedication to improving education in Northern Ireland and further afield. This work is not easy to do in isolation – it demands collaboration with others – that is, all of us who are involved in educating, teaching and teacher education in all its forms and in all its places. So, if after reading this collection, something has piqued your interest, please get in touch so more fascinating education research can be done.


Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency [NISRA]. (2020). Annual enrolments at grant-aided schools in Northern Ireland, 2020–2021.