The Detail on post-primary exam results

Over at The Detail, Kathryn Torney has compiled a very interesting report examining the academic performance of schools in the post-primary sector in the north of Ireland. At one level, the results merely confirm what is already known- and expected- due to the continued existence of the selection process which determines entry to the grammar sector.

Torney’s report headlines the fact that, using the criterion laid out in England for assessing school performance, a worryingly high number of our schools (77 schools) would be deemed as ‘failing’. This is because they fail to secure the minimum expected level of attainment for their pupils at GCSE level: 5 GCSEs A*-C including Maths and English for 35% of their pupils.

However, that measure of performance is misleading as our system of post-primary transfer makes it considerably more difficult for our non-grammar schools to reach that threshold. Put bluntly, in a system in which the 40% most academically gifted of pupils attend grammar schools, the non-grammar sector is left trying to make the most with a pupil intake that invariably includes a disproportionately large number of pupils with severe learning difficulties, low attainment and social and behavioural problems which exacerbate the challenge of attempting to deliver a quality educational experience. That so many manage to so do is a testament to the quality of leadership, teaching and learning of all involved in those school communities.

Therefore, the most interesting aspect of Torney’s report is the comparative analysis of school performance within their respective FSME (Free School Meal Entitlement) bands.

Torney’s report includes references to specific schools in a comparative context which makes for interesting reading. These results illustrate the varying levels of performance by schools with similar social and academic intakes which points to the key issue of school leadership, and the quality of teaching, as being the pivotal factor determining performance.

This is not something unique to post-primary schools, either.

  • pauluk

    ‘ in the north of Ireland.’

    I presume this is Donegal you are talking about.

  • Mick Fealty

    Don’t be silly.


    How do you think the scraping of a wide range of vocational qualifications in England will affect such comparisons? Are these qualifications available to NI students?

  • cynic2

    Thats fine Chris but what conclusion can we really draw from it? IS any comparison valid?.

    For example, surely the key objective must be maximising the performance of each pupil, not the assessed performance of the schools?

    As Mick points out we also know from the steps taken by the national Dept. Of Education this week that some schools have been able to (legitimately under the old regime) pad their results by courses in subjects like Nail technology. So what is the point of the data anyway? The comparison needs to then look at the overall take up of those types of activities in the rest of the UK and NI – a fiendishly difficult thing to unravel.

    Even then I am not sure where all that would take us. The Education system in England, for example, is not a monolithic structure. Its an ever increasing somgsboard of options with different systems in different counties and now free standing Academys. Perhaps that would be a solution here – we are already half way there with voluntary grammars and CCMS – but would SF ever relinquish the power to force their ideology on parents?

  • Chris Donnelly

    I think the key element of the standard for assessing ‘failing’ schools in England is the inclusion of the two main curricular subjects of English and Maths in the 5 GCSE’s A*-C figures- not the provision of additional vocational qualifications.

    Over the past five years here, the secondary/ non-grammar sector has reported a year on year increase in the number and % of pupils obtaining 5 GCSEs A*-C, or grades equivalent to these.

    My own area of expertise lay in the primary sector, but from speaking to secondary teachers and principals, I’m led to believe that the successes have come from schools getting smarter about targeting subjects for pupils to ensure they get as many across the minimum threshold.

    That’s understandable and indeed commendable when compared against what went before, when far too many schools reported an alarmingly high number of kids leaving with either very few or no qualifications at GCSE level.

    In regard to your question, Mick, I think it remains the case that vocational qualifications count at GCSE level as equivalents, though I’d need to verify that.

    For those who follow the annual results table produced by the Irish News for non-grammars, or indeed for those who have looked at the Department of Education stats collated online for individual schools, it is worth noting that the local stats for % achieving 5 GCSEs do not include the stipulation that the reported % include Maths and English at GCSE precisely because all involved know that this will dramatically reduce the figures.

    Hence the reason why Torney had to obtain these new stats based on that key stipulation.

    Ultimately, two things will stand out in any analysis of our system. Firstly, that the job facing non-grammar schools is a considerably more difficult and challenging one to that facing the grammar sector, and that fact needs to be recognised.

    Secondly, in spite of the caveat outlined in the first point, it is very obvious that there are worryingly high disparities in terms of educational attainment within and across the distinct sectors which is confirmed by the most reliable and fair comparative analysis – ie that involving measuring school performance against other schools with similar profiles (grammar or non-grammar measured against others in the same FSME bracket.)

    ESAGS represents a good beginning, but I’d like to see more of a focus on incentivising high performing school leaders and teachers to work in schools located in the working class districts from which the long line of low attainers and under achievers invariably exist.

    As the performance of some primary and post-primary schools in these areas illustrates, there clearly are ways of significantly increasing the prospects for working-class pupils.

  • Reader

    Chris – the two points that leaped out at me were your own main point – the amazing disparity between what can be achieved, and what has been achieved, in many cases.
    The other point is that the Dixon Plan clearly isn’t delivering an alternative to selection – it’s just delivering an efficient form of selection – so it isn’t an answer for those who are ideologically opposed.

  • cynic2

    Help!!! I must be ill. I agree with Chris Donnelly!

    The question is though – what is the solution? I think that part of the problem is that it is so fragmented across the sector. Each Board has problems in a range of schools.

    So why doesn’t the Minister be radical and go for people power as the Tories are doing in England. Shocking I know. If they want a grammar that’s fine. A comp – their choice? Irish Medium – your choice.

    Fund each school by a capitation allowance with a top up for those with a high number of pupils from deprived backgrounds or or with disabilities. Implement this over a 3 year changeover period and recognise that in that time parents will vote with their feet and that schools that aren’t economically viable will close – not because petty bureaucrats in the Department or Board decide so, but because the parents vote with their feet and take the children elsewhere.

  • Reader

    cynic2: Fund each school by a capitation allowance with a top up for those with a high number of pupils from deprived backgrounds or or with disabilities.
    While I’m sort of in favour of the open market approach (a.k.a. choice), the problem with your solution is that there are economies of scale, which should probably also be taken into account.
    Another thing is that I think the boards automatically find places for teachers from schools that are closing down. I suspect that process – unmodified – isn’t quite brutal enough to get the full benefits you were hoping for from the market.
    And finally, it would be tricky to set the special needs supplement at the right level – if the supplement was high enough to guarantee every pupil a place, it’s quite possible that a new special needs sector will arise spontaneously from the ashes of ‘inclusive education’.

  • cynic2


    They are taken into account. Either the school is financially viable or it isnt.

    And why should every teacher in a failed school get a job – the good ones can but the rest?