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School system in Northern Ireland (Belfast)

(64 Posts)
amahlert Fri 15-Apr-16 15:05:21

Hi, my family and I are considering relocating from the US to Belfast.
I really have no idea how the NI school system works.
I have 2 kids. One is 9 yrs old, 3rd grade, one is 12 yrs old, 6th grade (US system).
What is the difference between primary, grammar, and secondary school?
How would my kids grades translate into the NI system?
While my kids are catholic on paper, we are non-religous, and open to any good school.
Also, I have been reading about catholic, protestant, and integrated schools. Are those all public (free) or private? Are the public schools good? How much is the average tuition it they are private?
And last but not least, one of my kids is bi-racial (half black). Will that be an issue? I found several news articles talking about recent attacks on foreigners.
We would like to live in Belfast, close to the university.


30somethingandticking Fri 15-Apr-16 16:23:39

US grade 3 = UK year 4 but that is confusingly called P5 in Northern Ireland. Or at least it used to be. Grade 6 = UK year 7 but in NI I think that's called year 1 of secondary school.

Primary goes up to P7, which is 5th grade equivalent. Then kids go to secondary school. Pretty much no one goes to private schools in NI but non EU nationals may have to pay fees - I would check that directly with the schools. They have grammar schools (not the same as US grammar schools) for which you need to sit the 11+ for selection. Some are more selective than others. If you don't pass the 11+ you end up at a regular secondary school.

If you are going to live in the university area (which is nice) one option to look at is Methodist College (aka Methody). They have a large coed usually grammar school and a prep (which has low fees by UK standards - £4400 per year). The grammar school is free for EEA/EU nationals but non Europeans probably have to pay the fees, which are currently £7875 per year.

There are ogre good options in south Belfast like RBAI, Rathmore Grammar (RC I think), Wellington College and Hunterhouse. I don't know much about the integrated schools as they weren't big when I was growing up there. In practice the state (traditionally Protestant) schools have very large RC and non religious student numbers. You would not feel out of place as a RC or atheist at somewhere like Methody.

In terms of the race issue nowhere is perfect and NI certainly isn't. It's definitely getting better and again the university area is going to be reasonably diverse but you can never rule out some idiot saying something stupid.

30somethingandticking Fri 15-Apr-16 16:24:56

Some horrible typos in there. Typing on the run. Not sure where ogre came from.

SkodaLabia Fri 15-Apr-16 16:34:19

Could you possibly live anywhere else? NI can be exceptionally backward. Belfast is the most densely populated part, but way behind even the most rural parts of other bits of the UK; the tribal politics, lack of equal marriage and poor rights for women have me reconsidering living here.

Primary schools are, by and large very good, but it's hard to explain just how religious they are, even the non-Catholic ones.

For secondary age, your options are grammars or secondary schools. Grammar school admission is by test.

NI is not remotely diverse, I'd say there are about 10 non-white kids at DD's school of about 600 pupils.

whiteagle Fri 15-Apr-16 16:42:07

NI is not diverse. I was there recently and saw very few people who were not white - personally i wouldn't want to live in Belfast as it has too much of an edge for me that I don't like at all. It reminds me of Glasgow ( architecturally) but all the bad things about Glasgow - reglious symbolism, deprevation seem to me worse there. Apologies if this offends anyone - is purely my personal opinion after a couple of brief visits and I wouldn't choose to rush back. Have you google streetviewed?

Dapplegrey1 Fri 15-Apr-16 16:42:12

Op - I know you put 'free' but just in case there might be confusion, public school in UK generally means a private secondary school. Thus , people might say sneeringly "public school types" etc.
In UK non paying schools are usually called state schools - and even more confusingly there are now state schools which are called 'Free Schools'.
The public school thing here is for historic reasons, but is understandingly confusing to people from overseas.

MelindaGordon Fri 15-Apr-16 16:57:43

OP I grew up in NI and just moved from there last year to another part of the UK with three children aged 6, 9 and 12 so have experience of the primary school system and some experience of post primary around Belfast. Feel free to PM if you would like to ask more.

Schools at primary level are generally all good but things can change fairly massively at secondary level ime. It is true that it is predominately white but where you live will make a difference potentially. There are some great things about Belfast that we miss inspite of moving to another UK capital where we feel Belfast has the edge but even though it has changed beyond recognition to the city I grew up in, it's still got lots of problems and we didn't realise how much until we left. That said, my DH isn't from there but is a fan and considers it home.

amahlert Fri 15-Apr-16 17:14:54

Thank you everyone for the fast reply!

Actually, my kids and I are dual citizens, German and US. So EU status is there.
We always prefer the free state school option. My husband and I both work in academia, so private school tuition is usually not feasible.
We also prefer living close to work. My husband is fed up being stuck in rush hour traffic. ;-)
How hard is it to get into 11+ selection schools? If my kids go to a regular secondary school, can they still get university qualifications (A levels I guess is what it's called)?
We live in one of those states in the US with an abysmal school system. I do my best to keep them at a higher level, but if they need to repeat a year, so be it.
Getting the kids into better schools is one of the motivations for us to explore the job option in Belfast.

As to the racism, we have lived in places where my daughter was the only dark kid in the whole school, in another place, my son was one of 10 white kids at the whole school. Kids don't really see the color issues, it's mostly the parents that stir the fire.

My kids are tough, I just want to know if my daughter can safely walk to school without being attacked, or if we have to worry about flying rocks through the window. I know that the media can sometimes stir more fear that there needs to be or are they spot on?

wickedlazy Fri 15-Apr-16 17:24:13

Nursery starts at 3 or 4 (depends when birthday falls) then they start primary one when they're 4 or 5. Then right through to p7 age 10 or 11.

In p7, you complete the form that decides secondary admissions. There are protestant high schools, catholic high schools, and mixed schools. Enrollment criteria varies for each, an older sibling at school, proximity to school etc. Grammar schools are more academic and to attend these children must take the exam set by the school, and get a high enough grade to get in. We used to have the 11+, one test the pupils took whose grades determined where they went, but the council abolished that, and now if a child lists 3 potential grammar schools they want to apply to, they have to take 3 tests. Or they can choose to not take the test and not apply to a grammar.

The grammar schools are usually private, and cost a good deal more in fees, it varies from school to school. The GCSE exam board (who set the exams) is CCEA, but some schools use mainland exam boards, AQA, etc. It goes from first year to upper sixth (5th year, 6th year, upper 6th). Fourth year is the first year of GCSE's, fifth year is the second. At 16, children can choose to leave school. Or, if they get the relevent grades, they can stay an extra two years, and do A levels. (They can also do A levels at Belfast Met, a sort of technical college).

The "Education Authority" has replaced the BELB in Belfast has the department that oversees education.

League tables are a good place to start with secondary schools, published in the local papers and usually available online. Co-ed is common at primary level, but less so at secondary age.

SkodaLabia Fri 15-Apr-16 17:28:20

My perception of getting in to grammar schools is that they are for bright kids, but they're not like the super selective grammars that exist in England. Yes, kids still do A Levels at non-grammar secondaries.

You mention repeating a year, I don't know whether years ever get repeated here. Also, our end of year birth dates are different to England, just so you know. The cut off here is end of June, not end of August.

In terms of living close to work, Belfast is tiny, so if your DH is going to be working at QUB, there are lots of nice places you could live where he could walk or cycle in. Avoid Stranmillis or the Holylands though, they are student central and it's like that bit on the map that says "'Ere be dragons". Honestly, they're savages, nobody who lives there sleeps.

It's hard to know re the racism really, the stories that make the news are usually about people of an Asian background or who are [or who are perceived to be] refugees.

wickedlazy Fri 15-Apr-16 17:29:04

To attent university to obtain a degree, they must do well in A levels. Although of course Oxford or Trinity are much harder to get in to than say, Cardif. The main university here is Queens, and it's top notch. They apply through the ucas process. They can do 3 or 4 A level subjects, usually 7 to 10 GCSE subjects.

SkodaLabia Fri 15-Apr-16 17:30:00

Wicked, do grammar schools really charge fees? I'd never heard of that? Or do you mean places like Campbell College, a public school?

wickedlazy Fri 15-Apr-16 17:36:21

Yes they do, anywhere from few hundred pounds a year to a few thousand. Usually parents are billed per term. I know Sullivan, Strathearn and Bloomfield all charge. Some are listed as voluntary schools, some otherwise (don't know so much about that side of it.)

veryproudvolleyballmum Fri 15-Apr-16 17:39:21

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

veryproudvolleyballmum Fri 15-Apr-16 17:41:16

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Butterfliesprettybutterflies Fri 15-Apr-16 17:51:48

I'm not sure I agree with the "not diverse" comments above. Yes, you won't see that many different colours on the streets but you'll certainly hear a lot of different languages (many eastern european, south american, Asian) and I live in a much smaller city than Belfast!
I have a non-white daughter and I find that the attention we get is overwhelmingly positive and only ever that people are curious rather than hostile. It does mean that we stand out in our town a bit (everyone knows of the family with two blonde kids and one asian!) but I haven't found that anyone has been in any way negative.
We've only been living here a year after living abroad for many years (though DH grew up here) and my kids are younger so I've only had experience of primary so far. We chose a fee paying prep school which feeds the grammar school (which has excellent results and I'll be aiming for all my kids to go to eventually for secondary) for our eldest which we are very happy with (and blimy the fees are cheap compared to England or international school fees!) but our younger two will probably go to a state primary (for various reasons - personal rather than any problem with the private school) and I could have happily sent them to (almost!) any of the schools I looked around - only one was too religious for me and to be honest it probably would have still been fine if I could learn to bite my tongue once in a while
You will find that you are a bit of a curiosity and you won't have a ready made expat life to tap into like you would in London, but that can be a very good thing. We're really happy we made the move. You're welcome to drop me a PM if I can help with any more info.

wickedlazy Fri 15-Apr-16 17:53:58

Agree avoid the Holylands, the students there a normal university kids blowing off steam at the weekends, etc, but you don't neccessarily want to live too close to Campus! If your DC attend Queens, they will probably live there at some stage or have friends who do. smile

Transport is quite good, the pink metro buses and trains usually come in 10 minute or half hour intervals, the blue rural buses every hour or so.

Translink are in charge of transport, and rail and bus passes can be worth investing in long term.

veryproudvolleyballmum Fri 15-Apr-16 17:55:41

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

amahlert Fri 15-Apr-16 18:00:50

Do all schools have uniforms?

amahlert Fri 15-Apr-16 18:09:29

Do I understand correctly that most secondary and grammar schools schools are either all girls or all boy?
Do all girl schools have an all boy affiliate (or vice versa) close by or will I have to deal with 2 completely different schools?
Also, here in the US, a lot of the big university have an affiliated public (free, state) school where faculty and staff kids get preferred admission. Does QUB have that?

MLP Fri 15-Apr-16 18:21:31

"The grammar schools are usually private" - no they are not. They are mainly state schools. Yes, there are some fees bit they are minimal compared to private schools.

Exam results at most of the Belfast grammars (although not all of them) are generally pretty decent and pupils have a fair representation at Oxbridge and Russell Group universities.

I loved living in the university area, even during the troubles. It's nowhere near as backward as some people on this thread are making out. It's no London but it's more diverse and less backward than large parts of rural England, despite someone's comments to the contrary above.

wickedlazy Fri 15-Apr-16 18:29:12

Yes they are usually all girl or all boy. Grosvenor, Sullivan and Regent house are mixed as is Priory Integrated College, and others I can't think off. Usually non co ed state schools have a counterpart, Ashfield Girls and Ashfield boys, Boys model and Girls model, not sure about maintained schools, but I think they are often seperate too.

TeaPleaseLouise Fri 15-Apr-16 18:29:15

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

wickedlazy Fri 15-Apr-16 18:30:33

As far as I know all schools have uniform except the Steiner school.

MadeinBelfast Fri 15-Apr-16 18:38:58

There are loads of schools that are not single sex. If you lived south of Belfast I can immediately think of Stranmillis, St Brides, St Anne's, Finaghy and Dunmurry primary schools (and Fullerton which I think is a fee-paying primary school) for children up to 11 years old and then Methody, Wellington, Rathmore (RC) and Lagan College. There are more but these spring to mind as I know people who go to all of them and are happy with the education being provided. As far as I know QUB doesn't have links with any schools that would then give your children a priority place.
NI isn't very diverse compared to some places but it's not as bad as it used to be. I would say about a quarter of my child's class is non-white although that's at the higher end for my area (not Belfast).

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