Exam results show a third of our schools are "failing"

Some students struggle to achieve five good GCSEs

Some students struggle to achieve five good GCSEs

MORE than a third of Northern Ireland’s post-primary schools would be rated as “failing” under exam performance criterion set by the coalition government for schools in England, The Detail can reveal.

Today we publish our analysis of schools’ exam performance based on the results obtained by thousands of pupils in last summer’s GCSE and A-Level examinations.

The findings provide stark evidence of the long tail of underachievement in many of the province’s schools – hanging uncomfortably alongside Northern Ireland’s highest achievers regularly outperforming their counterparts in other parts of the UK every year.

A breakdown of the grades obtained by pupils attending each of the 213 schools in the grammar and secondary sectors was released by the Department of Education in response to a Freedom of Information request from The Detail. This is the first time that the figures for the 2010/11 academic year have entered the public domain.

There were a total of 22,440 pupils in Year 12 across the province eligible for GCSE examination entry in the 2010/11 academic year.

A day after thousands of Primary 7 pupils received the result of their Transfer Test exam, we are publishing a detailed breakdown of the GCSE and A-Level grades obtained by each post-primary school – click here.

Our figures include information on the percentage of pupils entitled to free school meals in each institution and the proportion of pupils with special educational needs. The schools are listed in alphabetical order.


While many schools achieved extremely highly, a total of 77 schools in Northern Ireland – all non-grammars – failed to meet the key English benchmark of at least 35% of pupils achieving the basic standard of five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths.

This is over a third (36%) of all of our post-primary schools which, if based in England, would be rated “sub-standard” by the government.

More than half (39) of these schools are in the controlled sector, attended mainly by Protestant pupils. The others are 26 Catholic maintained schools, 11 integrated schools and one Irish language school.

Only 3.2% of the entire English secondary school estate failed to meet the criterion of having 35% of pupils achieve five good GCSEs including English and Maths. The vast majority of schools in England have an all-ability intake.

The Northern Ireland figures show that none of the 42 Year 12 pupils at St Mary’s High in Craigavon reached the basic standard of five good GCSEs including English and Maths.

This lies in stark contrast to Catholic grammar school Lumen Christi College in Derry and Lurgan College where 100% of the GCSE students achieved five or more good GCSEs including English and Maths. Lurgan College is in the Dickson Plan area which uses delayed academic selection at age 14.

Nine of the 77 schools are already in the Department of Education’s Formal Intervention Programme – which involves official action being taken when school inspectors find that the quality of education in a school is less than satisfactory. These schools should have formal action plans in place to make improvements.

The last department inspection of St Mary’s High in Craigavon took place in May 2011. It said that the pupils’ achievement in grades A*to C in at least five subjects was above the Northern Ireland average but those obtaining five good GCSEs including English and maths fluctuates and was below average for similar non-selective schools. Inspectors said this was a key priority to address. The quality of learning and teaching in the school was described as “very good” and the principal was described as providing “outstanding leadership and management” of the school.

The school said it did not want to comment on the latest department figures.

Video 1: Professor Tony Gallagher interview /

The extensive statistical database released to The Detail by the Department of Education also includes information on pupils who achieved no GCSE results at all at the end of their 12 years of compulsory education.

The school with the highest percentage of non-achievers was Dunmurry High in Belfast where almost 12% of the pupils achieved no GCSEs (or equivalent) at grades A* to G.

The school’s principal Mervyn Magee told The Detail: “This figure comes from nine pupils who no longer attended our school but were still considered to be enrolled in Dunmurry High. Four were educated off site, some in special behavioural units; another four pupils had serious health issues and one pupil refused to attend school. Many of our remaining pupils did very well in last summer’s exams.”

The South Eastern Education and Library Board announced at the end of November last year that it had decided to publish a development proposal to close Dunmurry High with effect from August 31 2012, or as soon as possible thereafter.


Free school meal (FSM) entitlement is used as a proxy measure of the levels of deprivation experienced by a school’s population. There is known to be a link between FSM entitlement and exam performance.

Benchmark data for GCSE and A-Level performance of groups of schools of similar FSM entitlement and size are compiled annually by the Department of Education and circulated to schools. However, individual schools are not identified in the data.

In the non-grammar sector FSME levels range from 7.7% at Newtownhamilton High School to 67% at St Peter’s High School in Derry. Fifty-five schools have 30% or more pupils entitled to free meals and nine have 50% or more.

For our analysis, we grouped the 145 non-grammar schools together according to the proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals. Free school meals bands set by the Department of Education split schools into those with 0 – 19.99% of children entitled to free school meals, 20 – 29.99%, 30 – 39.99%, 40 – 49.99% and 50% or more.

Within each FSM band, we ranked each school’s results by looking at the percentage of pupils who achieved five or more GCSEs at A*-C, including English and Maths. Comparing the GCSE results of schools with similar characteristics gave some interesting results – click here.

For example, St Eugene’s College in Enniskillen and St Mary’s High in Craigavon both have 20% of pupils entitled to free meals but 63% of the pupils at St Eugene’s achieved five or more GCSES A*-C including English and Maths – compared with zero at St Mary’s.

St Joseph’s High in Crossmaglen and Ballee Community High in Ballymena both had 38% of pupils entitled to free meals but 54% of pupils in St Joseph’s achieved the five good GCSEs benchmark (including English and Maths) compared with 6.5% of pupils at Ballee.

Only 23% of pupils achieved the exam standard at Strangford Integrated College in Carrowdore (11% FSM) – similar to the 22% obtained by St Rose’s High in Belfast, which has 55% FSM.

At St Mary’s College Ballymena and Newtownbreda High School 22% of pupils at both schools are entitled to FSM. However, over 68% of the pupils in Ballymena achieved five good GCSEs including English and Maths, compared with just under 20% at Newtownbreda.

The high number of surplus places in Northern Ireland’s schools – 85,000 extra places in schools at the last count – means that grammar schools often fill to capacity at the expense of the secondary school sector. This will have had an impact on some schools’ academic performance.

Video 2: Professor Tony Gallagher interview /


Free school meal entitlement has little impact on GCSE performance in the grammar sector. In 2010/11, an average of only 6% of grammar school pupils were entitled to free meals, compared to 26% of non-grammar school pupils.

FSME levels ranged from between 0.5% (Campbell College Belfast) to 20.5% (St Mary’s Christian Brothers Grammar) within the 68 schools in the grammar sector. Only 11 grammar schools had 10% or more pupils entitled to free meals. Ten of these schools were Catholic grammars.

For this reason, we decided to instead analyse grammar schools’ GCSE performance by grouping schools according to the percentage of Transfer Test A grades they admitted to their Year 8 in 2006. This is the year the students who sat GCSE exams last summer transferred to post-primary schools.

As part of our Freedom of Information request, we asked the Department of Education for a breakdown of the transfer test results achieved by the year 12 pupils at each post-primary school.

We calculated the percentage of A grades accepted by each grammar school and then compared this with the percentage of pupils achieving seven or more GCSEs A*-C including English and Maths in last summer’s exams. We also included information on the percentage of pupils achieving three or more A-Levels (or equivalent) at grades A*-C.

As would be expected, the differences in achievement are not as wide as between schools in the non-grammar sector but there were some differences between grammars with similar A grade intakes worth noting – see here.

For example, St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar in Belfast’s 2006 intake was 30% A grades – very similar to the 29% A grades accepted by St Dominic’s High in Belfast. However, their exam results provide evidence of the high performance often seen in all-girls’ schools.

The percentage of students achieving seven or more GCSEs at A*-C including English and Maths was almost 70% in St Mary’s CB, compared with 91% at St Dominic’s. And more than 90% of the A-Level students at St Dominic’s achieved three or more A-Levels at grades A*-C – compared with 62% at St Mary’s.

Our analysis also shows differences in A-Level achievement between grammar schools based in the same town. Omagh Academy took in 78% A grades in 2006, while Loreto Grammar, also in Omagh, took in 77%. These pupils went on to obtain similar GCSEs scores in last summer’s exams – but there was a big difference at A-Level where 63% of the Omagh Academy pupils secured three or more A-Levels at grades A*-C, compared with 80% at Loreto Grammar.

Just over 60% of year 12 pupils at Campbell College secured seven or more GCSEs at A*-C including English and Maths – compared to 100% of the Lumen Christi College pupils in Derry. However, Campbell’s intake was 20% A grades – compared to the 100% A grade intake at Lumen Christi.

Strabane Grammar is included in our analysis. It recently merged with Strabane High to form Strabane Academy, with effect from September 1 2011.

Three grammar schools are part of the Dickson Plan system in Craigavon/Portadown which means they use delayed academic selection at age 14. These schools – Michael’s Grammar in Lurgan, Portadown College and Lurgan College – could therefore not be included in our grammar school analysis as it involved the transfer grade intake at year 8.

Information on the academic performance of these three schools can be seen in the main schools’ table where every post-primary school is listed in alphabetical order.

Video 3: Professor Tony Gallagher interview /


Professor Tony Gallagher is Pro-Vice Chancellor at Queen’s University Belfast and former head of the university’s School of Education.

“I think what these figures reinforce is that we have a very wide pattern of performance among schools. Some schools are doing extraordinarily well, while others are getting very low levels of performance.

“One of the difficulties with our particular structure is that it exacerbates the effect of social disadvantage. It is crucial for Northern Ireland as a whole that we do something to try and address this as a matter of urgency.

“One of the consequences of the way our system is organised is that it concentrates the kids who are facing the biggest challenges in schools that are literally at the bottom of the pile. So the challenges that those schools are facing are really quite enormous. I don’t think it’s fair to impose that challenge on a school without giving them the support to do something about it.

“There is an underlying relationship between social disadvantage and performance, particularly in the secondary schools, but there is also quite significant variation between some schools as well. One school may be performing lower than another school but still be doing very well by its pupils given the challenges that they’re facing.

“There are a number of factors which help to explain this. One is the higher performance of girls over boys, another is that pupils in Catholic or maintained schools tend to do better at the same level of social disadvantage compared to controlled or Protestant schools and leadership of schools and quality of teaching also play a part.”

Does he think the Department of Education is doing enough to bring all of our schools up to a high standard?

“Over the last 20 to 30 years, there has been a whole series of initiatives of different kinds all focused around the issue of low performance or underperformance. The most recent is the Every School a Good School policy. However, the situation doesn’t appear to have changed that very much in terms of the relative patterns. I think there needs to be a more focused concentration on the situations where the challenges are greatest because it is for the good of Northern Ireland as a whole if we can try to crack this problem.”

Prof Gallagher said no child should leave without any GCSE qualifications.

“In this day and age for young people to leave school after 12 years in compulsory education with absolutely nothing to show for it is a disgrace. It is a shame on society that that happens.

“However, even getting a bit of paper with one GCSE isn’t going to do a young person much good. That’s why the five or more good GCSEs has been set as a benchmark. We need to lift our ambitions, we need to lift our sights higher and we need to do that for all our young people and not just write them off.

“A young person who leaves school with no or very low qualifications is going to face enormous challenges in times ahead.”

Mark Langhammer is director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Northern Ireland.

“These statistics set out in a stark way just how socially segregated our system is and how the extreme social engineering we practice does us no good at all.

“It has long been generally accepted academically, if not acted upon by policymakers, that overall school performance improves with balanced intakes.

“The lack of balanced intake in the education system creates a serious disparity among schools in which some flourish, but many are left to fight an uphill battle, coping with larger numbers of students affected by social and economic disadvantage.

“If standards are to rise for all, we need schools which are socially mixed, which have a leavening effect in which peer group pressure can be used to open minds, change outlooks and raise aspirations.

“Economically, as a society we cannot afford such a long tail of underachievement.”

Mr Langhammer said that research has shown that the educational ‘non-progressor’ is most likely to be a Protestant working class male.

However, the union leader cautioned against use of the ‘five good GCSEs including English and Maths’ target, warning that schools may focus their efforts on the most able and advantaged pupils who are likely to do well in a bid to improve their school’s scores.


Education Minister John O'Dowd

Education Minister John O'Dowd

Education Minister John O’Dowd told The Detail that one of his top priorities is to tackle educational underachievement and he claimed department policies are already having an impact.

The Minister said: “The percentage of pupils getting the benchmark of 5 or more A*- C grades at GCSE (or equivalent), including English and maths has increased from 53% in 2006 to 59% in 2010, while literacy and numeracy levels are also improving across all age groups.

“However, I acknowledge that much remains to be done to ensure every child fulfils their potential and we certainly cannot afford to be complacent.

“It is true that there remains a disparity between disadvantaged pupils, as measured by free school meal entitlement. They are half as likely to leave school with either 5 good GCSEs including English and Maths, or with two or more A-Levels. These disparities are simply not acceptable.”

“It is important to note, however, that we also we also have examples of schools serving disadvantaged communities achieving high levels of academic success for their pupils and I am working to ensure that all schools in all communities deliver the best possible educational outcomes.”

Mr O’Dowd said that it would not be appropriate for him to comment on targets set for schools in England.

And he concluded: “Much good work has been done in recent years to raise standards. If we are to equip young people with the skills and qualifications they will need to find employment and help drive the economy back into a period of sustained growth, this work must continue and I am committed to ensuring that it does.”

• Detailed information on the exam performance of every post-primary school in Northern Ireland is available by clicking here.

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