Grammar vs Non-Grammar in NI: new report highlights consistently stark social differences in pupil intake

Testing Times – Northern Ireland Post-Primary School Transfer without Tests in 2021, a new research report from Stranmillis University College’s Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU), examines some of the lessons from the ‘non-testing’ year of post-primary transfer in Northern Ireland, when AQE and GL tests were postponed and eventually cancelled as a result of Covid-19 public health concerns.

The issue of post-primary transfer by means of academic selection has been the focus of a highly polarised policy debate in Northern Ireland (as in other jurisdictions) for many years.  With the cancellation of transfer tests for P7 pupils in 2020-21, grammar schools were forced to develop a range of alternative admissions criteria, quite different from previous years.

This timely research project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, seeks to capture the learning from this unique year, by examining the range of admissions criteria adopted by grammar schools, assessing the impact of these on the social and demographic background of pupils accepted into grammar and non-grammar schools, and evaluating the impact on the distance for pupils to travel, in comparison with previous years.

The study found that:

  • Grammar schools exercised their freedom to set their own admissions criteria in the non-testing year, prioritising having an older sibling already at the school; having already registered for the AQE/GL tests in that year; being the eldest/first/only child in the family; having a sibling who was previously enrolled at the school; and attending a listed feeder primary school.
  • Additional information provided to parents alongside the admissions criteria frequently highlighted grammar schools’ commitment to academic selection as the principal method of entry to their school, and their intention to revert to academic selection in subsequent years. A majority also referred to fees payable.
  • Analysis of the (non-testing) 2021-22 year 8 grammar and non-grammar school cohorts compared to the previous year 2020-21 showed very minimal differences in terms of gender, newcomer children, level of deprivation, distance travelled to school, and the percentage of the cohort with Free School Meal Entitlement and Special Educational Needs (including with statements). Figures for ethnicity and children in care were too low to allow a comparison to be made.  System-level attainment data for the cohort were not available.
  • While there was little change in the demographic composition of the year 8 cohort transferring to post-primary schools in 2021-22, the data reveal very stark differences (consistent over the past four years, including the non-testing year) in the pupil cohorts entering year 8 in grammar schools when compared to non-grammar schools. Using the 2021-22 year 8 cohort by way of example, these differences relate to:
    • Free School Meals (grammar: 15.8% vs non-grammar: 39%)
    • Special Educational Needs (grammar: 5.6% vs non-grammar: 25.2%)
    • Newcomer children (grammar: 1.1% vs non-grammar: 5.8%).
    • Level of Deprivation (grammar school intakes are skewed towards the higher (less deprived) MDM deciles and non-grammar school intakes are skewed towards the lower (more deprived) MDM deciles, though important differences were noted by school management type).

Speaking about the report, Director of CREU and Principal Investigator of the research, Prof Noel Purdy, said “We hope that the findings presented in this report will help unlock the current policy paralysis around academic selection in Northern Ireland, and encourage fresh evidence-based discussion among all interested parties (politicians, policy-makers, school leaders, parents and children) around the future of post-primary transfer in Northern Ireland.”

The full report, including executive summary, can be downloaded here.

An online event launching the report will take place 2.00-3.30pm GMT on 25th April 2023. You can register for this free event here.


  • The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit
  • About CREU: The Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU) was launched in 2018 with the core aim of engaging in a focused portfolio of innovative interdisciplinary research into educational underachievement in Northern Ireland. See:
  • Previous Covid-19 / education research reports by the Stranmillis CREU team can be found here:
  • Contact details: for further information, contact: Prof Noel Purdy Email:

Call for children and young people to share experiences of ‘Growing Up Online’ in major Northern Ireland study

Safer Internet Day 2023 takes place on the 7th February 2023, with celebrations and learning based around the theme ‘Want to talk about it? Making space for conversations about life online’. The celebration sees thousands of organisations getting involved to promote the safe, responsible and positive use of digital technology for children and young people.

In Northern Ireland, we are celebrating by putting children and young people’s views and experiences at the heart of the day by launching an important new research study.

Entitled ‘Growing Up Online: Children’s online activities, harm and safety in Northern Ireland’, this mixed-methods research is being undertaken by a team from the Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU) at Stranmillis University College, Belfast, and is funded by the Safeguarding Board for NI (SBNI). It aims to identify and understand children and young people’s online activity; the perceived impact of emerging risks and harms; and current online safety provision, including educational initiatives to safeguard and protect children online.

The project aims to reflect the experiences of children and young people, member agencies of SBNI, and other partner organisations, to produce an evidence report with recommendations for policy and best practice.  The findings of the research will be used to inform the delivery of the Northern Ireland Executive’s Online Safety Strategy Action Plan.

An important element of the project will be the involvement of children and young people as co-participants in the development of the qualitative research methods, through the formation of two Children and Young People’s Advisory Groups in schools.

Speaking about the project, Director of CREU Dr Noel Purdy said, “We are delighted to be carrying out this very timely and valuable research for the Safeguarding Board NI into children’s online lives. We are looking forward to engaging directly with a wide range of children and young people through the online survey but also face to face through a series of focus group interviews over the coming weeks.  Together we hope that our research can help all of our children and young people to enjoy and stay safe online.”

Bernie McNally, Independent Chair of the Safeguarding Board for NI (SBNI) said,“The vision of the Online Safety Strategy for Northern Ireland is that children and young people are informed in order to enjoy their online spaces safely, knowledgably and without fear. For this to happen, we need to understand the real needs and experiences that impact young people’s lives. Through this research we want to give young people from all walks of life the space to express their views, which will be listened to and taken seriously in the development and delivery of online safety policy and practice.”

If you work with children and young people, we invite you to encourage all those aged 8-18 to visit and complete the survey before midnight on 28th February 2023.

To find out more about the project, contact


Stranmillis announces appointment of new Visiting Professors

Following the retirement of Prof. Elizabeth Wood and Prof. Colleen McLaughlin  as Visiting Professors at Stranmillis University College, the College is delighted to announce that Prof. Lynn Ang from University College London (UCL) and Prof. Adam  Boddison, CEO of APM (Association for Project Management) have been appointed as our new Visiting Professors 2022-2024.

A picture of Stranmillis University College's new Visiting Professors meeting the team from CREU, in front of the steps of Stran House.
From left to right: Mr Mark Shields (CREU), Dr Karen Orr (CREU), Prof Adam Boddison (APM), Prof Lynn Ang (UCL) and Dr Noel Purdy (CREU)

Prof. Ang  is Pro-Director and Vice-Dean of Research and Development at IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society, leading and managing over 150 staff and 5 research centres, including the Centre for Doctoral Education. She brings with her extensive international experience in the Higher Education sector and is a Principal Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy. Professor Ang’s expertise is early years and primary education with specialist interests in early childhood education, early learning, educational, social and global inequalities, teacher education, workforce development, policy development, and the interdisciplinary fields of early childhood education and international development. Her research is focused on the social, cultural and policy influences on education in preschools, schools and home-based settings.

Prior to his current role as CEO of APM, Prof. Boddison has been CEO of of nasen (National Association for Special Educational Needs), Chair of the Whole School SEND Consortium and a Founding Director of the Centre for Professional Education (University of Warwick). In addition to his leadership and organisational management skills, Prof Boddison brings expertise in inclusive education and early years, special education needs and disabilities and online learning.  Prof Boddison was awarded the OBE for services to children and young people with SEND in the King’s New Years Honours.

Welcoming the appointment of the new Visiting Professors (who visited the College before Christmas), Stranmillis Principal and CEO, Prof. Jonathan Heggarty commented, “Professors Ang and Boddison bring a wealth of experience and expertise which the College can tap in to as we continue to grow and develop our research and scholarship activity, building on our existing strengths.  We look forward to working with them over the coming years.”

Forgiveness, Friendship and an Unforgettable Trip…

Beginning in Autumn 2020, a research team from Stranmillis University College led by Jill Magennis and Dr Anita Gracie, have been participating in an international research project into ‘Forgiveness Education’.

Funded by the John Templeton Foundation, the project aims to assess the impact of the implementation of Forgiveness Education (FE) in educational settings within the three culturally distinct regions of Israel/Palestine, Taiwan and Northern Ireland. It is expected that the findings of the project will be shared towards the end of 2023.

In July this year, research and school partners from Northern Ireland were invited to the USA to attend and participate in the Forgiveness Education Conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We asked Jill Magennis who led the team to US to report back on the event and the experiences of the school partners involved in the project.


On 16th July 2022 a group of teachers and educational partners from schools throughout Northern Ireland, alongside myself (Jill Magennis) and Mark Shields from Stranmillis University College, set off to Madison, Wisconsin in the USA for the International Forgiveness Education Conference.

Forgiveness Education is a concept that has been developed over a period of 27 years by Dr Robert Enright, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a licensed psychologist, and the founding board member of the International Forgiveness Institute.

Forgiveness Education acknowledges that to forgive a person who causes an unfair hurt is to see their inherent worth, to extend loving thoughts, feelings, and actions toward the person; and, to respond with the gifts of kindness, respect, and generosity (International Forgiveness Institute, 2022).

In a recent meta-analysis of 20 studies on Forgiveness Education, findings suggested that interventions, focused on learning about the forgiveness process, had helped children who experienced hurt from unjust actions. They benefitted by learning to forgive and deal with feelings of anger, leading to healthier relationships (Rapp, Wang Xu, & Enright, 2022).

The research team at Stranmillis (Jill Magennis, Dr Anita Gracie and Dr Barbara McDade, supported by Research Assistants Dr Anne Rowan, Dr Anne-Marie Millar, Dr Mark Ballentine, Dr Franka Winter, Dr Susan Logue and Catherine Boyle), along with 17 primary schools, their principals, teachers and pupils, have been engaged with a research project looking at the impact of the Forgiveness Education curriculum amongst teachers and children in Primary 7.

This international conference, hosted by our research partners in the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was the culmination of months of hard work and dedication.  This international research has also been taking place in Israel and Taiwan and during the conference we enjoyed listening to educators and researchers from the United States, Israel, Taiwan and the Philippines.

Philip Lavery, Vice-Principal, Mount St Michael’s Primary School, Randalstown, and Cormac McCabe, Vice-Principal, St Malachy’s Primary School, Castlewellan, represented the Northern Ireland team by sharing two insightful presentations from the work that has been happening in their schools. The videos, photographs and stories were a particular highlight. The conference was testament that despite coming from many different parts of the world, forgiveness has a common meaning across different contexts and cultures.

Some of our partners in both the Controlled and Maintained sectors reflect below on their experiences of the Forgiveness Education project.

Jennifer McCann, Principal of Newcastle Primary School, shares her thoughts on her involvement in the research project to date:

[W]hen I first read the email about Forgiveness Education, little did I know I would spend time in USA at an International Educational Conference on Agape Love and Forgiveness.  If truth be told, I had no idea what Forgiveness Education or Agape Love were! Fast forward 18 months from that initial email, training, several staff and pupil surveys, 14 lessons delivered to P7 and I found myself in the presence of some highly esteemed educators and practitioners from around the world, relaying their experiences of Forgiveness Education and Agape Love.  As well as Northern Ireland, Israel and Taiwan were represented.  It was very interesting to discover that Forgiveness Education remained the same despite the very different social, economic and educationally diverse platforms from which it was delivered. It was a privilege to meet Dr Robert Enright, the Founding Board Member of the International Forgiveness Institute who displayed such a passion and enthusiasm that he has devoted much of his working life to this subject. As with any conference its success is in main due to the people who attend.  I must pay tribute to my colleagues from schools across Northern Ireland and Stranmillis University College who helped make this an unforgettable experience; special friendships and memories were made!”

Fiona Kearney, Principal, St. John’s Primary School, Swatragh, reflects on what forgiveness means:

”[Forgiveness is] something we say and take for granted but do we stop to think about what it means when we forgive or are forgiven? A chance to reflect on our Forgiveness project at a work conference in Madison, Wisconsin…what’s not to like? Then you stop to think about why you have agreed to meet up with a bunch of strangers at Dublin Airport in the holidays. A nicer bunch you couldn’t wish to meet…before long we were like family or old friends. The conference was a challenge in the form of long days and intense listening but the range of thought provoking individuals and their experiences gave much food for personal and professional reflection. My highlight was Sylvester Jackson’s story. A tale of redemption from America’s prison system, gave insight to what is needed from the ghetto to government. The trip organisers are owed a debt of gratitude for their skills in balancing travel arrangements, as well as work, rest and play. This was a unique experience and I for one will not forget the opportunity to learn more about the true meaning of forgiveness and the chance to make new friends. Go raibh maith agaibh! Thank you!”

Fintan Murphy, Chief Executive, Catholic Schools’ Trustee Service reflecting on the conference, said it was:

an opportunity to hear from educators and academics from the USA, Israel, Taiwan and N. Ireland on their experience of the delivery of, and impact of, Forgiveness Education. What all held in common was an overwhelmingly positive experience of their engagement with the programme both in terms of a change within themselves, but also the change that it provoked within their students. From whatever perspective people approached forgiveness education there was a commonality of purpose evident at the Conference and that was the need to spread the word that this approach brings positive benefits to all who engage in the programme.”

Looking ahead, Fintan comments that “at a local level I await with anticipation the formal publication of the research which was undertaken by Stranmillis University College into the project and hope that the Forgiveness Education Programme, which has been used in schools in NI for 20 years, continues to flourish and spread among all our schools”. 

Jayne Millar, Head of Education Support, Controlled Schools’ Support Council offers some insights into her experiences and participation in the conference:

We have much to be proud of. The presentations delivered by both Cormac McCabe and Philip Lavery on their Year 7 pupils’ experiences in trialling the Guided Curriculum were truly inspirational.  The excellence, dedication and courage of our teaching profession were demonstrated clearly on the world stage”.

Jayne continues:

 “[T]he opportunity to meet and share experience of education innovations with practitioners from Israel, Taiwan and the Philippines, helped me to appreciate the many similarities in challenges within our education systems, as well as the uniqueness of Northern Ireland. What was perhaps of most interest to me was the question of impact.  The pioneering research of Dr Robert Enright reaches well beyond schools into families and communities.  The conference highlighted evidence of improvements in the emotional health and well-being of children, young people and adults as they learned to forgive”.

Jayne echoes Fintan’s words when she adds that “The research programme, led by SUC, has the potential to contribute to a number of important and inter-connected initiatives in schools.  Teaching children to cultivate the virtues of love and forgiveness may help them to deal positively with the injustices of life and is highly relevant to programmes widely supported and promoted by CSSC such as Shared Education, Anti-Bullying, Restorative Practice and Trauma Informed Approaches. For me it resonates with the work of CSSC in ethos development within controlled schools which prioritises a values based approach to the teaching and learning environment”. 

The trip was filled with happy memories of time spent in both Madison and Chicago. We enjoyed a tour of Wisconsin State Capital building, visiting Memorial Union at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an outdoor music concert hosted by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

On our return journey we visited the University of Chicago Laboratory School originally set up by educational pioneer John Dewey. Here we learnt more about his approach of developing children’s confidence, curiosity and creativity through a tour within the lower school facilities.

We are indebted to our partner schools for giving up part of their summer holidays to represent both their schools and Northern Ireland at this international conference.

Stephen King, Principal of Newtownbutler Primary School (previously teacher in Currie Primary School), comments on the learning for the children in his class:

The beauty of the programme is that every child regardless of their academic ability was able to embrace the programme and fully contribute to the lessons and interact throughout. It provides opportunities for each child to reflect in their own way and removes the fearof them having to share their thoughts/ideas with their peers if they didnt want to. This gave children the freedom to write/create at ease and in my opinion allowed us to get the best from them”.

There were a wide range of schools included in the Northern Ireland sample, including some from disadvantaged areas.

One aspect we are interested to explore is how schools from different backgrounds benefitted from the Forgiveness Curriculum. A previous study by Gambaro, Enright, Baskin and Klatt (2008) found a forgiveness programme improved classroom behaviours and led to higher levels of achievements for young people aged 11-13 years.

Our 17 partner schools engaged in delivering 14 PDMU lesson on the theme of forgiveness from September 2021 to June 2022. We are thankful for how they did this with such high levels of enthusiasm and creativity. The time taken to prepare the lessons and their thoughtfulness in delivering the lessons have not been taken for granted. We are also very thankful for the hard work of the P7 pupils, without whom none of this would be possible.

During our school visits, as a team we particularly enjoyed seeing the array of wonderful work on wall displays and in the children’s journals as well as observing their ability to discuss the different PDMU concepts explored in this programme. The considerable time taken to complete the surveys throughout the project and also the interviews with teachers and children were very important aspects to explore ways forward and we await the findings with anticipation.

Dr Robert Enright opened the Madison conference with some words from Aristotle who taught us that “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”. This was echoed by Dr Robert Enright himself who continued, “through forgiveness we offer goodness of some kind: kindness, respect, generosity or love.

We greatly appreciated each of the schools for their pivotal role in helping to educate children’s hearts through the Forgiveness Education Curriculum.

Anita, Mark and myself are grateful for the new partnerships and friendships formed throughout this research project to date. This opportunity has allowed us to explore these ideas more fully together and we look forward for future collaborations and sharing the findings within the next 12-18 months. Watch this space…

Jill Magennis BEd (Hons), MEd, PGDip, SFHEA is a Senior Lecturer in Early Years Education.


Gambaro M. E., Enright R. D., Baskin T. W. & Klatt, J. (2008) Can school-based forgiveness counseling improve conduct and academic achievement in academically at-risk adolescents? Journal of Research in Education, 18, 16-27.

International Forgiveness Institute (2022) What is Forgiveness? — International Forgiveness Institute. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 31 October 2022].

Rapp, H., Wang Xu, J., & Enright, R.D. (2022) A meta-analysis of forgiveness education interventions’ effects on forgiveness and anger in children and adolescents. Child Development, 93, 1249-1269.


‘Professional Buddies’: the role of Home-School Community Liaison Coordinators and Parent Officers in tackling educational underachievement across Ireland

A new report from CREU which seeks to gain a clearer understanding of the role of Home-School Community Liaison Officers (HSCLs) across the Republic of Ireland in comparison with the similar Parent Officer role in Northern Ireland, was recently launched at the 2022 SCoTENS Annual Conference, which took place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Dundalk on 20-21 October 2022.

‘The BUDDIES Study’ was one of two research projects funded by the Shared Island-SCoTENS Research Partnership, announced by the Taoiseach Micheál Martin TD in December 2021.

Led by CREU’s Assistant Director and Stranmillis University College’s Head of PGCE Early Years, Dr Glenda Walsh supported by Stranmillis colleagues Dr Jill Dunn, Dr Ken Gibson, Dr Karen Orr and Dr Franka Winter, the cross-border project was undertaken in collaboration with Dr Seaneen Sloan of University College Dublin and Clíohdna Martin of Dublin’s Marino Institute of Education.

The HSCL scheme in the South and Parent Officer role in the North aim to support families in areas of high deprivation whose children are at risk of educational disadvantage. The purpose of the study was to learn more about the ‘lived reality’ of these roles across the island, at pre-school, primary and post-primary levels.

Some of the main findings of the study were that:

  • In terms of the policy context, the role of the Parent Officer in the North is much less formalized than that of the HSCL Coordinator in the South, where the role is clearly defined with a long history and high profile at a national level. While both are targeted to benefit pupils and families from disadvantaged social groups, pre-school and rural schools are excluded from the HSCL scheme in the South, while school phase and geographical location are not distinguished by the funding streams in the North. However, in the North it is at the discretion of the Principal/Senior leader whether they invest in the role of Parent Officer or something else.
  • In terms of practice, the study found that being warm, sensitive, caring, approachable and empathetic, as well as genuine, trustworthy and a good communicator, were deemed essential characteristics for the HSCLs/Parent Officer to ensure success in their role – a ‘professional’ buddy. HSCLs/Parent Officers also engaged in similar activities, such as relaxed events to nurture healthy relationships between teachers and parents as well as between parents themselves, to more structured activities to familiarize parents with the school and upskilling them to support their children’s learning at home. The range of activities carried out in both jurisdictions across all settings was found to be in line with best practice in the literature.
  • In terms of the value of the role, the study highlighted that HSCLs/Parent Officers were seen as essential North and South to making family engagement a success. HSCLs/Parents Officers improved communication between schools and familie, reducing barriers to learning by ensuring ‘the best school experience possible’ for the children, while increasing attendance and enhancing academic outcomes.
  • In terms of tackling educational disadvantage, it was found that one of the main impacts of HSCLs/Parent Officers was in helping to break down barriers and changing mindsets to address parents’ own negative recollections of schooling. HSCLs/Parent Officers were considered “vitally, vitally important” by families for the support they provided as the direct link to the schools. The study also showed that those in the role also helped teachers to fully appreciate the challenges of disadvantage, enabling all children, irrespective of their background, the opportunity to reach their full educational potential.

The full report The BUDDIES Study – BUilding BriDges, DimInishing Educational DiSadvantage: Examining the Role of Home-School Community Liaison (HSCL) across the island of Ireland can be accessed here.

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: