Educational attainment disparities in Northern Ireland: The use of administrative data to understand these complexities

Category: Blogs, Data Insights, ADR Northern Ireland, Children & Young People

Written by Erin Early 25 February 2021

Academic attainment is central to educational discussions. After a year of periodic school closures, home learning and the expectation on parents to home school daily on top of their own work pressures, it is even more pressing. For pupils in the pivotal assessment years of compulsory post-primary education (Year 11 and Year 12 in Northern Ireland), the disruptions to the education system have also affected GCSE assessment structures and grading. Debates around how to mitigate the worst effects of the pandemic on children’s education have highlighted that some pupils, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, were likely to achieve lower GCSE grades than their peers due to their socio-demographic profile and school factors, bringing greater scrutiny to the role of socio-economic status in educational attainment inequalities.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic has heightened both the awareness and the urgency around this, placing greater pressure on policymakers to act, the centrality of socio-economic background was already evidenced in previous research on educational attainment. In January 2020, just months before the pandemic and school closures in Northern Ireland, the predominance of socio-economic background in education was once again in the news, this time as a key aspect of the agreement leading to the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The New Decade, New Approach Deal highlighted the need for the Northern Ireland Executive to establish “an expert group to examine and propose an action plan to address links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background, including the long-standing issues facing working-class, Protestant boys” (page 7). This not only emphasised socio-economic status as a key indicator of educational outcomes but incorporated the socio-demographic factors of a pupil’s gender and religious affiliation, which reflected previous discussions of Protestant working class boys’ underachievement in education in Northern Ireland.

Why is all this worth discussing? One answer is that an individual’s educational attainment is influential on their later life trajectory and outcomes. Understanding what leads to educational attainment disparities, who is negatively affected and how disparities can be mitigated to improve the outcomes of those underachieving, are therefore important questions to answer in order to build an education system structured by equity and to ensure that no social group is at risk of underachievement.

Our research, highlighted in this Data Insight, sought to understand what influences educational attainment in Northern Ireland. For the first time, the Northern Ireland Household Census, School Leavers Survey and School Census were linked to provide a population wide dataset to examine the GCSE attainment of Year 12 cohorts according to pupil- and school-level factors. The study investigated how a pupil’s socio-economic background, gender, religious affiliation and attended school type (grammar/non-grammar school) influenced GCSE outcomes, both as individual factors, and collectively, through their interactions with one another. It provides evidence on the complexity of educational attainment disparities, which must be accounted for to improve the outcomes of all pupils, regardless of their socio-demographic background or attended school.

However, underlying the current debates around educational attainment in Northern Ireland is a lack of access to the data needed to explore the wide range of factors that impact educational attainment. The research highlighted here and in the newly published Data Insight was the first record linkage dataset for education in Northern Ireland. While it is a timely and necessary contribution to discussions, it must not be the last. More must be done to open up access to administrative data for education researchers to address the most pressing problems in Northern Ireland’s education system, educational attainment included.

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