Educational attainment inequalities receive continuous policy attention across the UK with certain social groups consistently underachieving. Our study (Early et al., 2022) used the first record linkage dataset for education in Northern Ireland to examine pupil differences in GCSE attainment outcomes. The dataset linked three administrative data sources for the first time: the 2011 Census, the School Leavers Survey and the School Census. The data linkage was conducted by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, and the data were anonymised and held in a secure data environment. A pupil’s gender, socio-economic background, religious affiliation and attended school were the key factors considered in the study.
The centrality of socio-economic background is evidenced in previous research on educational attainment (Ilie et al., 2017; Siddiqui & Gorard, 2022; Taylor, 2018). This theme is reiterated in our study which found socio-economic background is of key importance to understanding educational attainment disparities. Parental qualifications were the greatest socio-economic predictors of attainment in this study. The higher a mother’s/father’s qualifications, the higher a pupil’s GCSE outcomes. More specifically, mothers’ qualifications had a greater influence on their child’s GCSE outcomes compared to fathers. This study also found Free School Meal Eligibility – which is a common indicator of socio-economic background in policy and research – was a sufficient measure of socio-economic disadvantage to examine disparities in educational attainment. However, other indicators such as parental qualifications had a greater impact on attainment.
Like socio-economic background, gender remains central to understanding attainment differences in Northern Ireland, with female pupils achieving higher GCSE outcomes than males. Despite religion being a key identity source in Northern Ireland and previous research suggesting that Catholic pupils outperform Protestant pupils (Borooah & Knox, 2017; Leitch et al., 2017), our study found no notable difference in the attainment of Catholic and Protestant pupils. More specifically, this study did not find evidence to support that Protestant working-class males were underachieving, despite this being a key concern in previous studies (Burns et al., 2015; Purvis, 2011).
‘Despite religion being a key identity source in Northern Ireland and previous research suggesting that Catholic pupils outperform Protestant pupils, our study found no notable difference in the attainment of Catholic and Protestant pupils.’
The post-primary education system in Northern Ireland reflects two layers of segregation: academically, determined by a pupil’s performance in the transfer test; and religiously, based on a pupil’s affiliation. The academically segregated system, underpinned by the transfer test, leads to grammar and non-grammar school attendance. Pupils achieving high scores on the transfer test, supplied by GL Assessment and AQE, gain entrance to grammar schools. Although grammar school attendance is a key indicator of educational attainment, this is unlikely to be a causal relationship as grammar school pupils are more likely to have higher prior academic attainment.
The availability of linked administrative data for education research in Northern Ireland remains limited, therefore restricting the ability to examine inequalities across the system. Moving forward, while this study contributes to discussions on educational inequalities and highlights its associated complexities, more must be done to provide access to administrative data for education researchers to address the pertinent issues in Northern Ireland’s education system.
This blog is based on the article ‘The influence of socio-demographics and school factors on GCSE attainment: Results from the first record linkage data in Northern Ireland’ by Erin Early, Sarah Miller, Laura Dunne and John Moriarty, published in the Oxford Review of Education.
Borooah, V. K., & Knox, C. (2017). Inequality, segregation and poor performance: The education system in Northern Ireland. Educational Review, 69(3), 318–336. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2016.1213225
Burns, S., Leitch, R., & Hughes, J. (2015). Education inequalities in Northern Ireland. Summary report. Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. http://www.equalityni.org/ECNI/media/ECNI/Publications/Delivering%20Equality/EducationInequality-SummaryReport.pdf
Early, E., Miller, S., Dunne, L., & Moriarty, J. (2022). The influence of socio-demographics and school factors on GCSE attainment: Results from the first record linkage data in Northern Ireland. Oxford Review of Education. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2022.2035340
Ilie, S., Sutherland, A., & Vignoles, A. (2017). Revisiting free school meal eligibility as a proxy for pupil socio-economic deprivation. British Educational Research Journal, 43(2), 253–274. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3260
Leitch, R., Hughes, J., Burns, S., Cownie, E., McManus, C., Levers, M., & Shuttleworth, I. (2017). Investigated links in achievement and deprivation. Final summary report (Volume 3). Queen’s University Belfast.
Purvis, D. (2011). Educational disadvantage and the protestant working class: A call to action https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/28757278/a-call-to-action-educational-disadvantage-and-the-protestant-nicva
Siddiqui, N., & Gorard, S. (2022). Is household income a reliable measure when assessing educational outcomes? A Jigsaw of two datasets (Next Steps and National Pupil Database) for understanding indicators of disadvantage. International Journal of Research & Method in Education. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/1743727X.2022.2094359
Taylor, C. (2018). The reliability of free school meal eligibility as a measure of socio-economic disadvantage: Evidence from the millennium cohort study in Wales. British Journal of Educational Studies, 66(1), 29–51. https://doi.org/10.1080/00071005.2017.1330464
The Administrative Data Research Network takes privacy protection very seriously. All information that directly identifies individuals will be removed from the datasets by trusted third parties, before researchers get to see it. All researchers using the Network are trained and accredited to use sensitive data safely and ethically, they will only access the data via a secure environment, and all of their findings will be vetted to ensure they adhere to the strictest confidentiality standards. The help provided by the staff of the Administrative Data Research Network Northern Ireland (ADR-NI) and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) Research Support Unit is acknowledged. The ADR-NI is funded by the Economic and Research Council (ESRC). The authors alone are responsible for the interpretation of the data and any views or opinions presented are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the ADR-NI. The Census and Department of Education data has been supplied for the sole purpose of this project.