Better Futures for All – CREU goes to Stormont

As part of the University College’s Centenary celebrations, the Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU) held a symposium event at the Long Gallery in Stormont on Wednesday 23 November.

The event invited educators/practitioners, MLAs and guests to explore the question ‘How can civil society maximise educational opportunities for all and reduce educational underachievement?’.
Introduced by Principal Jonathan Heggarty MBE, the symposium began with some of the latest insights from CREU research, presented by Dr Noel Purdy, Dr Glenda Walsh and Dr Karen Orr.
This was followed by two panel discussions.

The first panel of education practitioners featured Joyce Logue (Longtower PS, Derry/L’Derry), Stephanie Gillespie (Shaftesbury Nursery School), Mary Montgomery (Belfast Boys’ Model School), Jackie Redpath (Greater Shankill Partnership), Máire Thompson (Hazelwood Integrated College) and Pilib Mistéil (Bunscoil an tSléibhe Dhuibh).

The second panel, chaired by Stranmillis Governor Peter Weil, featured Robbie Butler MLA (UUP), Connie Egan MLA (Alliance), Matthew O’Toole MLA (SDLP), Emma Little-Pengelly MLA (DUP) and Pat Sheehan MLA (Sinn Fein).

This  was the first major event organised by CREU outside of the College campus, and was attended by 80 delegates from partner and stakeholder organisations.

To find out more about the work of CREU, visit the website here:

How is Vocational Education and Training Assessed? CREU reviews European policy and practice in report

In Northern Ireland the debate around skills and rebalancing the economy has been the focus of policy over an extended period of time, leading to the publication of a series of significant policy papers by the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) including Success Through Skills – Transforming Futures (2011) and Structured to Deliver Success (2015).  More recently in 2021 the Department for the Economy (DfE)’s 10x Economy vision reminds us of the importance of drawing upon our rich heritage of business innovation and entrepreneurialism to recover, rebuild and rebound the Northern Ireland economy as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic and embark on an ambitious ‘decade of innovation’. This vision highlights the importance of Vocational Education and Training (VET) and the central role of Northern Ireland’s FE sector working in partnership with schools, employers and the HE sector in addressing a significant skills deficit in key areas.  Within this VET context, consideration of the relative merits of various assessment methods has been limited with a recognised need for greater consideration of policy developments beyond Northern Ireland.

A recent research report published by CREU (2022), The Assessment of Vocational Education and Training Qualifications: a review of European policy and practice, responds to that need and aims to assess policy developments in vocational education and training across the four jurisdictions of the UK, but also across Europe, to provide understanding and insight into assessment methodologies used for vocational qualifications and their perceived value.

The review addresses the following areas: different types of assessment and differences in how they are used in vocational qualifications (both levels and products); international best practice for assessment in vocational qualifications; views on the attractiveness and value of each assessment type; benefits or challenges of particular assessment types on progression and preparedness for higher education; views on the value or usefulness of different assessment types to determine occupational competence; and views on the usefulness of different assessment methods to meet employer need and provide confidence in vocational qualifications.

This review of research and policy highlights a range of key areas of debate: the role of BTECs in widening access; the tension between widening access and educational attainment in HE; the relative equivalence of BTECs and A-Levels; barriers to recruitment and retention of BTEC students in HE; the role of, and challenges for, universities in facilitating the entry and retention of students; comparative student performance in HE; the tensions between vocational and academic qualification pathways; and employment outcomes. The current educational landscape in England is also marked by the recent introduction of T Levels alongside A-Levels.

At assessment level the policy debate has addressed the relative merits of the BTEC assessment system; advocates defending the ‘older style’ BTEC system in terms of the reliability of internal assessment, progression and employability; critics viewing BTECs as over-valued, in need of re-evaluation, and requiring external assessment to both counter grade inflation, and ensure equivalence with A levels.

Comparisons are drawn from leading European VET models such as the dual-track VET approach found in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark and the Basque Country, and other school-based models evident across the rest of the UK, Ireland and Finland.

While much can be learnt from our European neighbours, significant questions remain around the transferability of particular models which tend to reflect the particular national and/or local conditions in different regions or countries.  The review highlights both the complexity of the assessment and policy landscape locally, nationally and internationally, and also the need for much more extensive research in this often overlooked educational arena.

Read the full report here.

Stranmillis University College leads review of Irish government’s Early Childhood Care and Education Programme

Stranmillis University College’s Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU) has been appointed by the government in the Republic of Ireland to undertake an independent review of its Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme. 

The ECCE programme offers up to two years of free pre-school education and, since it was first introduced in 2010, more than 800,000 children have benefitted from it.  

The core objectives of the programme are:  

  • to provide children with their first formal experience of early learning prior to commencing primary school; 
  • to promote better cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes for children; and  
  • to narrow the gap in attainment between more and less advantaged children. 

The review is being led by Head of Early Years at Stranmillis and Assistant Director at CREU, Dr Glenda Walsh, in collaboration with Dr Thérèse Farrell from Dublin City University.  

The project will assess whether the ECCE Programme is meeting its core objectives and will identify any changes or improvements that can be made, informing work to introduce a universal legal entitlement to pre-school in the Republic of Ireland. 

The appointment was made by the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Roderic O’Gorman. 

Stranmillis project lead Dr Glenda Walsh said: 

I am absolutely delighted to be leading this significant research project where the end product is all about getting it right for our youngest children. The key stakeholders i.e. early years educators, parents and the young children themselves, will play a huge part in every aspect of this study, informing the way forward on what works already and what aspects of ECCE need to be developed.” 

Dr Noel Purdy, Director of CREU, said: 

“Stranmillis has a long history of teaching and research expertise in the Early Years, and I welcome this latest funding awarded by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to Dr Walsh and her team.  I wish them well as they embark on this important review of the ECCE programme.” 

The Review will be completed towards the end of 2023. 

The research team from l-r: Dr Franka Winter (SUC), Dr Karen Orr (SUC), Dr Glenda Walsh (SUC), Dr Thérèse Farrell (DCU) and Dr Karen Hanna (SUC).

A Kestrel for a Knave – lessons on educational disadvantage

After re-reading Barry Hines’ 1968 novel ‘Kestrel for a Knave‘ with his son, in this new blog post, CREU Director Dr Noel Purdy reflects on some of the lessons from this gritty classic for understanding educational disadvantage.

Recently I have been re-reading Barry Hines’ 1968 novel Kestrel for a Knave with my twelve-year-old son.  For those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s the story of Billy Casper, a young working-class boy from Barnsley who finds and trains a kestrel (Kes). Adapted into the film Kes directed by Ken Loach the following year, both the novel and the film have developed an international fan base that extends far beyond its setting in Yorkshire, with the novel featuring on many GCSE English literature specifications over the years, and clips from the film now appearing regularly on social media channels. The enduring appeal of the story can be seen in a heart-warming 2019 BBC documentary by comedian (and former English teacher) Greg Davies and by the recent unveiling of a statue of ‘Billy’ in Barnsley by Dai Bradley (who played him in the 1969 film) in memory of Barry Hines who died in 2016.

The story itself is dark, gritty, unforgiving in its portrayal of a troubled family in a working-class mining community where prospects are limited, aspirations low and discipline harsh by today’s standards.  It is a world of cold, curtainless houses, fish and chip shops, betting shops, coal mines and violence.  The portrayal of school is also overwhelmingly negative.  We see an uncompromising disciplinary regime enforced by corporal punishment and exercised without conscience by the soulless headmaster Mr Gryce (an innocent messenger boy is caned by Gryce and is physically sick as a result); where teachers are portrayed as largely humourless (after calling out the name ‘Fisher’ as part of the class roll call, Mr Crossley fails to appreciate Billy shouting out ‘German Bight’ which caused him to make a mistake on the roll book); and where physical and verbal bullying are rife, meted out by both pupils and teachers.  Billy is bullied by his older brother Jud as well as other boys in school and there is little that Billy’s struggling mother at home or teachers at school are able or willing to do to stop it.  In a flashback near the end of the novel, we learn that Billy’s father had left home, having discovered his wife having an affair with ‘Uncle Mick’, meaning that Billy is also teased by other boys for coming from a single parent household and for his mother subsequently having other partners.  Even the humour of the football match scene where Mr Sugden, resplendent in his Bobby Charlton Manchester United strip, plays and cheats his way to victory, is bookended with cruelty as Billy is humiliated by being forced at the outset to wear oversized shorts that pull up to his neck, and is afterwards forced into freezing cold showers by Sugden who positions other boys to block his escape.  And of course, the story concludes with Jud killing Kes, Billy’s pride and joy, as a thoughtless act of revenge for Billy failing to place a winning bet.  The book is a tough, disturbing read.

And yet, I couldn’t help but search for some glimmers of hope in an otherwise joyless world of economic deprivation and low aspiration.  Aside from the new passion for life that Billy discovers through training the kestrel hawk, the only other glimmer of light I found is in the character of Mr Farthing, the sole teacher who seems to take any genuine personal interest in Billy, who gives him the opportunity to speak in front of his peers about training his hawk, and who goes to watch Billy fly Kes one lunchtime.  What we see here is the essence of pastoral care in education through the importance of relationship, the giving of opportunity to talk about his love of falconry, and the resulting sense of pride and mutual respect that emerge.  When Billy speaks in front of his classmates, he captivates them with his knowledge and passion, and he is able to spell out specific vocabulary without fault (“jesses”, “swivel”, “leash”) that he has learned from devouring the book on falconry he stole from the local bookshop.  For me at least, this is my favourite scene of the whole novel and talks to themes of pupil engagement, curricular relevance and opportunities to achieve against the odds and even flourish.  Mr Farthing represents probably the only positive adult role model in Billy’s life.

In terms of future prospects, Billy has few options.  His elder brother Jud has already gone down the local mine, but at his interview with the Youth Employment Officer Billy makes it clear that “I wouldn’t be seen dead down t’pit”.  In response he is told that “I’ve interviewed some lads in my time, but I’ve never met one like you.  Half the time you’re like a cat on hot bricks, the other half you’re not even listening.” On the way out Billy is handed a pamphlet entitled ‘Leaving School’ whose cover page shows “a man in square glasses shaking hands across a desk with a strapping youth in blazer and flannels”, representing a typically middle-class home counties stereotype, a million miles from Billy’s world in Barnsley.

So what can we learn of any relevance to today from a 1960s novel set in a small Yorkshire mining community?  More than half a century later, it is clear that the current cost of living crisis, coming on the back of a global pandemic, threatens to plunge a new generation of children (including many children from working families) into severe economic hardship in the months ahead, exacerbating existing stark social inequalities and forcing many families to make difficult choices between heating and eating.  Hunger, cold and economic hardship are just as real today as they were in 1968, and are closely correlated to educational underachievement.

Second, there are clear moral warnings against the cruelty, brutality and injustice of this portrayal of 1960s schooling where lack of aspiration pervades both the classroom and the staffroom.  The headmaster, Gryce, dismisses the current generation of young people as having “no guts…no backbone…you’ve nothing to commend you whatsoever”.  But there is also a chink of light through the example of Mr Farthing whose interest in Billy as an individual affirms the importance of relationship in education, and the possibilities afforded by engaging learners in curricular activities that have relevance to them.  Mr Farthing reminds us of the power of teachers to harness aspiration and instill self-confidence, even in times of economic hardship.

Finally, pastorally too, the story is significant.  As Dai Bradley said recently at the unveiling of the statue of Billy and Kes in Barnsley in November 2021, this short novel about a boy and his kestrel is known right across the world, and, importantly, “a lot of young people look towards Billy for support when they’re having problems in their early life through bullying or problems at school”.  For many, Billy represents hope and resilience, despite everything.

Others will know much more than me about gritty Yorkshire mining towns, and perhaps more about falconry too, but perhaps I could encourage you to re-read and rediscover (as I have done) the educational and social challenges of a much-loved story.



Education Workshop goes ‘Beyond the Stereotype’

A lively discussion involving around 50 representatives from churches, schools and a range of other key organisations with a role in education took place in Portadown, on Friday (25th March) with a view to helping our children and young people to reach their full potential.

The workshop at Seagoe Parish Centre was hosted by the Transferor Representatives’ Council (TRC) – representing the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church and Methodist Church in relation to education in Northern Ireland – and focused on a new research report from Stranmillis University College, Beyond the Stereotype: Approaches to Educational Under(Achievement) in the Controlled Sector in Northern Ireland.

The study, which was commissioned and funded by the TRC, aims to go ‘beyond the stereotype’ of the well-documented challenge of underachievement among Protestant working-class boys from disadvantaged inner-city communities, and to ‘cast the net wider’ to provide a broader and more representative picture.  Particular challenges in rural communities, which have not been reported extensively to date in previous studies, are identified with some school leaders speaking of the difficulty in motivating boys to work hard towards GCSEs.

Significantly, Beyond the Stereotype also finds that while pupils view educational achievement as largely related to success in external exams (such as GCSEs and A-levels), many school and community leaders (including employers) place greater value on a wider range of skills and abilities, and pupils’ mental and physical health, self-confidence, happiness and willingness to learn.

Dr Noel Purdy, who led the research through Stranmillis’ Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement, said: “We’ve certainly identified lots of challenges – there are big challenges facing controlled schools and indeed every school in Northern Ireland – but what we did see was a diverse, committed, community-orientated and innovative sector which is committed to maximising achievement for all children.  In other words, allowing all the children in schools to stand tall and achieve to their full potential.”

The TRC represents its member churches in all matters of education in the region, and oversees the appointment of over 1,500 governors to controlled schools.  The three churches transferred (hence the origin of transferors) their school buildings, pupils and staff into state control on the understanding that the Christian ethos of these schools would be maintained.

You can find out more about the TRC through its website at  More information on the work of the Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU) can be found at


CREU’s Dr Noel Purdy appointed as Chair of Irish Government’s Anti-Bullying Action Plan Steering Committee

Dr Noel Purdy (right) appointed as Chair of Irish Government anti-bullying action plan steering committee.

Dr Noel Purdy, the Director of Stranmillis University College’s Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU), has been appointed as Chair of the Irish Government’s Steering Committee to review its 2013 Action Plan on Bullying.

The Steering Committee met for the first time today at the Department of Education in Dublin, where the review was launched by the Irish Minister for Education, Norma Foley TD. It is intended that the review will take account of developments and relevant research since the 2013 Action Plan, considering areas such as cyber-bullying, gender-based bullying and sexual harassment.  The Steering Committee will comprise senior Department of Education officials, external experts and representatives of advocacy organisations.

Speaking of his appointment, Dr Noel Purdy said “I am very honoured that Minister Foley has invited me to chair this important review of the 2013 Action Plan on Bullying.  I look forward to working with colleagues in the south over the coming months to ensure that the revised Action Plan serves as a research-informed blue print to protect all children and young people from all forms of bullying.”

Dr Purdy is a longstanding member and former chair of the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum and has led a number of significant research projects on bullying, including cross-border studies on bullying and special educational needs, and a recent five-nation European project on cyberbullying among young people, the Blurred Lives Project.  He recently chaired the Expert Panel for Educational Underachievement in Northern Ireland whose final report and action plan A Fair Start was published on 1 June 2021.

To find out more about the Steering Committee, read the Department of Education’s press release here.