Understanding the disparity of educational attainment
: The role of socio-demographic and school factors on GCSE attainment in Northern Ireland

  • Erin Early

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


In the mainland of the United Kingdom (UK), primary and post-primary attainment trends according to a pupil’s demographic profile and school level factors are well documented. However, when examining the Northern Ireland context, less is known due to the lack of available data for analysis. As Northern Ireland reflects a somewhat unique cultural, historical and political landscape, studies from the rest of the UK cannot be relied upon to fully understand the effects of socio-demographics and school factors on attainment trends in Northern Ireland. This study aimed to address the gap in the current literature by executing quantitative analysis on the first dataset in Northern Ireland to combine the Census (2011), School Leavers Survey (2010-2014) and School Census (2010-2014). Multilevel modelling examined the effects of sociodemographics and school factors on GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) attainment in Northern Ireland, namely socio-economic status (measured through eight indicators), religion, gender and school type. The data used for analysis provided the first opportunity in Northern Ireland to examine attainment trends for three whole population cohorts who sat their GCSEs in consecutive academic years (2010/2011, 2011/2012, 2012/2013). The data also provided an opportunity to examine socio-economic measures (namely maternal qualifications, paternal qualifications, maternal occupational status, housing tenure, property value and the Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure (2010) for income) that had not previously been available for analysis in educational research in Northern Ireland. When examining the within model effects, the analysis found attending a grammar school had the greatest effect on GCSE attainment, followed by gender (in favour of females). The socio-economic factors of a mother’s and a father’s education qualifications (degree level qualification), free school meal entitlement and housing tenure (residing in a privately owned property) reflected the highest socio-economic effects within analysis. This study also found religion had a varying effect on GCSE attainment. Most notably, the attainment difference between Catholic and Protestant pupils was negligible. Interaction terms were also executed to examine the multiplicative effects of factors on GCSE attainment, which is currently limited in Northern Ireland. As attainment patterns can be understood in various ways using different perspectives, two theories were used throughout to consolidate our understanding. Social identity theory predominantly explained attainment trends according to religion, gender and school type, whilst Bourdieu’s (1986, 1984) concepts of capital and habitus were predominantly used to understand the effects of socioeconomic status and school type. Based upon the findings, this thesis addressed current gaps in the literature and provided direction for future research and policy interested in educational attainment according to socio-economic status, religion, gender and school type, especially in the Northern Ireland context.
Date of AwardDec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorSarah Miller (Supervisor), Laura Dunne (Supervisor) & Allen Thurston (Supervisor)


  • Attainment
  • post-primary
  • socio-demographics
  • Northern Ireland
  • secondary data analysis

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