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Educational underachievement in Northern Ireland: Review of research

Jonathan Harris, Research Fellow at Stranmillis University College

The term ‘educational underachievement’ is common in policy and academic discourse relating to education in Northern Ireland and beyond, despite the ambiguity created by its wide variety of potential meanings. These varied meanings entail different methodologies, data and research questions when it comes to research and policy.

Within the context of Northern Ireland, the term remains a high-profile, explicit policy focus. Northern Ireland appears to have wider educational inequalities based on socioeconomic status in comparison with other UK jurisdictions and comparable OECD countries, and high rates of pupils leaving full-time education without any qualifications. Most recently, the New Decade New Approach deal that restored the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2020 specified the need to address educational underachievement and its links with socioeconomic background, and subsequently an Expert Panel was appointed to report to the education minister with a costed action plan to ‘tackle persistent educational underachievement’. This panel was due to submit its action plan by the end of May 2021, before a further Independent Review of Education is planned to examine broader systemic issues in education.

‘Northern Ireland appears to have wider educational inequalities based on socioeconomic status in comparison with other UK jurisdictions and comparable OECD countries, and high rates of pupils leaving full-time education without any qualifications.’

While, in the words of Gorard and Smith (2004), ‘educational underachievement’ may be an ‘imperfect descriptor’, its very ambiguity serves to open a window on the full range of issues within and beyond education that influence pupils’ educational outcomes. At the Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU), we engage in a diverse portfolio of collaborative and interdisciplinary research with the aim of informing progress in this area. Recently, we completed a review of research in educational underachievement in Northern Ireland, summarising findings from 62 original articles and reports from the past 20 years. We highlighted the following core themes and gaps in the existing research evidence:

  1. The overall assessment that in Northern Ireland, socioeconomic inequalities in education lead to wider disparities in educational achievement based on wealth and class remains unchanged since a major, authoritative review published in 2000. Statistically, the strongest predictor of academic attainment at 16 or 18 is whether a pupil gains access to a selective grammar school, and this in turn is far less likely for poorer children than for wealthier children. Since then, and despite policymakers’ repeated calls for progress in this area, only one substantial academic research project has fully focused on educational underachievement: the Investigating Links in Achievement and Deprivation (ILiAD) project. An interdisciplinary team conducted an area-based mixed-method analysis of education in seven of the most deprived wards in Northern Ireland and identified community-based enablers and barriers to educational success.
  2. Boys underachieve in relation to girls in school systems across the developed world. However, little research has attempted to explain why this might be the case within the context of the Northern Ireland curriculum and its application in schools across the country. We argue that more research in this area is needed to identify ways in which boys can be more equally served by the curriculum in place here.
  3. Several statistical analyses point to inequalities between and within religiously defined groups in Northern Ireland. Though peace has endured for more than twenty years, society remains divided, particularly in relation to education. The school system remains largely denominational, and the virtues of faith-based education appear to be widely valued in social and cultural terms. However, no recent research has evaluated the impacts of faith-based education on educational attainment and inequality or the role of the churches in addressing educational underachievement in Northern Ireland.
  4. The issue of the fairness of assessments, both related to academic selection and public examinations, has been the focus of a number of studies in the past 20 years. In interviews and questionnaires with GCSE pupils, Barrance and Elwood (2018), for instance, provided enlightening insight into the effects of phasing out modular courses and controlled assessment on perceptions of fairness and curricular choice – a discussion we have become all the more familiar with during the Covid-19 pandemic. We argue that further research in this area, incorporating pupil voice in a meaningful way, must now be prioritised as we establish the ‘new normal’.
  5. Existing research and government monitoring of educational underachievement using only GCSE and A-level attainment data skews our collective attention to post-primary education and to a narrow reflection of ‘achievement’. However, there is a need for long-term evaluation of key policy interventions in the early years, for example the Foundation Stage curriculum. Recent investment in the nurture provision at a number of primary schools in areas of high deprivation has been robustly evaluated to demonstrate significant social, emotional and behavioural benefits, and this should serve as an example as we seek to implement evidence-based practice in our schools (Sloan et al., 2020).



Barrance, R., & Elwood, J. (2018). Young people’s views on choice and fairness through their experiences of curriculum as examination specifications at GCSE. Oxford Review of Education, 44(1), 19–36.

Gorard, S., & Smith, E. (2004). What is ‘underachievement’ at school? School Leadership and Management, 24(2).

Sloan, S., Winter, K., Connolly, P., & Gildea, A. (2020). The effectiveness of Nurture Groups in improving outcomes for young children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties in primary schools: An evaluation of Nurture Group provision in Northern Ireland. Children and Youth Services Review, 108.