The education system of Northern Ireland is separate and distinct from that of England and has an extremely complex structure, involving nine non‐departmental public bodies. These bodies operate independently, collaborate with the Department of Education (DENI), and are the responsibility of the Minister of Education, including: Belfast Education and Library Board; South Eastern Education and Library Board; Southern Education and Library Board; North Eastern Education and Library Board; Western Education and Library Board; the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools; the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations, and Assessments; the Staff Commission for the Education and Library Boards; and the Youth Council for Northern Ireland. Other statutory and voluntary groups contribute to the administration of education in Northern Ireland: Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta (the Council for Irish‐Medium Education), the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland, and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education.
At the time of writing the Minister for Education and head of the DENI is Caitríona Ruane. She is a member of Sinn Féin and has worked as a human rights and community activist, lobbying the United Nations and the European Union on human rights in Northern Ireland. She was an International Observer for the first free and fair elections in South Africa when Nelson Mandela became President. In 2007 the new Minister for Education faced major challenges over the evolution of a single education authority and the end of the Eleven Plus. In 2006 the Bain Review (Schools for the Future) was published. The report focused on provision for 14–19‐year‐olds and recommended an end to academic selection and increased collaboration between schools. The current Transfer Tests are due to end in autumn 2008 and the Assembly has to create new procedures for pupils transferring in 2010 and future years.
Will Haire is the Permanent Education Secretary and principal adviser to the Minister. His presentation to the Members of the Legislative Assembly in April 2007 gave an overview of the challenges facing education in Northern Ireland. Key issues are strikingly similar to those currently being debated in other parts of the UK (14–19 qualifications, development of ‘functional skills’, inclusion, special education needs, English as an Additional Language, and falling pupil numbers).
The current education system in Northern Ireland reflects the needs of different community groups (Catholic, state, integrated, and Irish‐language), while the new legislation proposes to address the needs of geographical areas. Schools will be expected to share lessons and some will become specialists, offering expertise in specific areas of the curriculum.
At the present time the Department of Education in Northern Ireland is responsible for: strategic planning and management of education, curriculum content and delivery, allocating funding to the education and library boards, and covering capital costs for most schools. The five education and library boards oversee the needs of specific areas, fund controlled schools and satisfy the running costs of maintained schools. Other responsibilities include: providing milk and meals, and free books and pupil transport, enforcing school attendance, advising on the school curriculum, providing recreational services, employing teachers in controlled schools, and employing non‐teaching staff in controlled and maintained schools.