Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Education Research Forum (NIERF)

A Northern Ireland Education Research Forum has been established. The purpose of this group is primarily to exchange research information, knowledge and skills to inform analytical thinking on current and emerging issues in relation to education. In common with the Strategic Forum for Research in Education (SFRE), its direction is towards building research-capacity and enhancing evidence-informed policy and practice.

Two members of NIERF represent Northern Ireland on the SFRE Planning Group:

  • Stakeholder: Mrs Karen McCullough (Department of Education)
  • Academic: Dr Ruth Leitch (Queen’s University Belfast)

Input to the reports for SFRE events is coordinated through this local group.

The specific aims of the Forum are:

  • To discuss relevant education research currently being undertaken/planned by group members;
  • To highlight the current key policy areas/issues for the Departments/Education and Skills Authority (ESA) and those emerging for the future;
  • To discuss and share ideas/developments relating to research and methodological issues;
  • To identify and explore opportunities to improve the effective understanding and use of research findings and the dissemination of these to a wider audience.

Further details about NIERF, its terms of reference, membership, the minutes of meetings and details of events are available here.

Background (2008-2009)

As outlined in SFRE Report 1, the approach to education research at the Northern Ireland strategic level has until recently generally be viewed as ad hoc and fragmentary (Gardner & Gallagher, 2007).

In Northern Ireland there are two Government Departments responsible for education:

Both Departments recognise the value of high quality, up-to-date research in developing, implementing and monitoring policies. Building on this, DEL issued its first Research Agenda in 2004, followed more recently by its Research Agenda 2007-2009.

In 2007, the Department of Education (DE) commissioned a project to review its monitoring, research and advice mechanisms and one of the recommendations in the report of the project was that, as a means of engaging with the academic community, the Department should establish an education research forum.  This group, NIERF, was established in the early part of 2008 and comprises representatives from each of the HEIs, the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) and both the Department of Education (DE) and of Employment and Learning (DEL).

Northern Ireland Education Research Forum activities

NIERF has committed to a series of symposia events to fulfil its aims and address the need for a more co-ordinated approach to education research. These planned events will engage differing knowledge creation and evaluation communities in Northern Ireland with the goal of improving understanding of research priorities and improving quality in education research, policy and practice.  Its first event is a symposium organised for the 30th April 2009 at Stranmillis College which will bring together a number of key stakeholders in the Northern Ireland education research community to discuss issues around the development of a coherent strategy for education research and development in Northern Ireland. The key policy speaker at the event will be Mr Will Haire, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Education.   
Research Institutions in Northern Ireland

The Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in Northern Ireland include the two universities: University of Ulster and Queens University Belfast, and two University Colleges: St Mary’s University College and Stranmillis University College. The Open University also has a presence in Northern Ireland. Each local HEI has its own research strategies and areas of research strengths, methodological expertise and focused activity. Three of the HEIs (Queen’s University; Ulster University and Stranmillis University College) were returned in the recently published national Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).

Education research within HEIs tends primarily to be supported through research councils, charities and philanthropic bodies, with some local funding from governmental departments. There is also a range of local charities/NGOs who commission and – in some instances - undertake small-scale research projects. Funded research is also undertaken by private consultancy firms (such as PricewaterhouseCoopers).

Research-capacity building

The HEIs in Northern Ireland are committed to building research capacity regionally and nationally.  Links with the Research Capacity Building Network of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme have been instrumental.  For example, Queen’s University Belfast now hosts an ESRC Regional Training Centre (2006-08) which runs events by groups such as QUALITI (Cardiff).

A number of projects have been initiated that have begun to contribute to the development of education research capacity. These include the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP), which recently funded four research projects in Northern Ireland, and the ESRC Placement Fellowship Scheme.
There are also regular sponsored research capacity-building events (by BERA; ESRC/TLRP). TLRP supported a Celtic Research Capacity-Building event at the University of Ulster in June 2008 and a showcase event at Queen’s University for the four recently completed TLRP projects.

Additionally, the Standing Conference for Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS) provides small grants for researchers in the four HEIs to meet and engage in research activities and projects with colleagues from the South of Ireland. For example, a recently funded SCoTENS project specifically focuses on building a community of practitioners who use arts-based educational research (ABER) in teacher education and amongst teachers in Ireland, North and South. 

Across the two universities there are a number of research initiatives, notably:

  • The UNESCO Centre, which received significant funding from Atlantic Philanthropies to support research and development work in education for pluralism, human rights and democracy. Total income for the five-year period (2002-07) has been just under £6million. Over 30 projects have been completed.
  • The Centre for Effective Education, recently established as a specialised centre for applied and interdisciplinary educational research, grew out of the previously successful NFER@Queen’s research capacity-building initiative.  The Centre for Effective Education is committed to improving outcomes for children and young people by ensuring that the design, delivery and evaluation of educational programmes and interventions are informed by the best available evidence. It is currently running 15 large-scale research projects, including nine randomised controlled trials, to a total value of just under £6 million.
  • The Research Forum for the Child which aims, through high quality, inter-disciplinary and international research, to provide a better understanding of the issues that affect children and young people. 
  • The Institute of Child Care Research (ICCR) conducts original research into child care needs and services.


 Research archives and repositories: building research knowledge

In support of practitioners,  the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland, GTCNI has developed Access to Research Resources for Teachers Space which is an education research database created to promote evidence-informed practice and policy making, and to encourage partnership between the local education research community and teachers.

Access Research Knowledge (ARK) is a joint initiative between Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster which aims to make social science information in Northern Ireland available to the widest possible audience thus supporting research. The ARK in Schools project specifically supports students and teachers at post-primary level who wish to use the Northern Ireland specific data available within the ARK website
CAIN web service (Conflict Archive on the Internet) is a site hosted by the University of Ulster which contains information and source material on Northern Ireland (1968-present).

Last updated April 2009

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