On the surface, Northern Ireland's education system looks splendid. An example to us all, even. It is routinely described by London newspapers as "world class", its GCSE and A-level results are consistently top of the UK pile, it performs well in international tests and graduate numbers have more than doubled in the past 15 years.
But scratch the surface and it soon becomes clear that all is not well in Ulster. It is no secret that the high-performing top end of the system hides a "long tail" of underachievement, but a series of recent developments and political and social changes have revealed the true depth of the problems.
They range from the structural (too many schools, not enough money and thousands of empty desks) to the academic (very many schools failing to meet GCSE targets and thousands of young people leaving without qualifications). The list is long and the solutions are unlikely to be simple, but most educationalists, including Sinn Fein education minister John O'Dowd, accept that "drastic changes" are needed.
After 30 years of the Troubles and a decade of stop-start devolution, politicians are only now starting to get to grips with a system that is still riven with sectarian and social divides.
To an outsider, the most obvious difference between Northern Ireland's education system and those in the rest of the UK is the dominance of selective grammar schools - three in every 10 secondaries - and the continuance of academic segregation on a scale not seen in England and Wales since the 1960s, apart from in the similarly sized county of Kent.
Officially, the Department of Education Northern Ireland (Deni) scrapped the secondary transfer test - still known colloquially as the 11-plus - in 2006, but schools designed their own and academic selection remains widespread.
As such, there is a huge disparity between the sectors. On average, 94 per cent of grammar school pupils gained five good GCSEs (A*-C grades including maths and English) last year, compared with 36 per cent in non- grammars. This means that the average non-grammar falls below the English system's floor target for secondaries.
Winners take all
Not only do grammars claim the highest achieving children, but as pupil rolls fall they are increasingly "digging deeper into the pile" to keep their numbers up and accepting less able pupils. Emigration is all too common in the province and the population is shrinking. This is having a drastic effect on the viability and performance of neighbouring secondary moderns, where the majority of Northern Irish children end up.
Caroline Karayiannis is principal of Movilla High School in Newtownards, a 400-pupil secondary. The school is underachieving and undersubscribed and its future is uncertain.
"There is a huge amount of competition locally and it's really hard to make parents see us as a viable option for their child," says Karayiannis. "Whereas in the past the grammars were oversubscribed and we picked up a lot of able pupils who couldn't get into their parents' first or second preference, now there are fewer pupils in the system and the grammars are picking up more of those second and even third preferences.
"When you are competing for children but your system is based on selection, you will have many children whose raw ability is much less than those who attend a grammar."
Consequently, many pupils who enter Movilla have low literacy and numeracy levels. Last year only 22 per cent of Movilla's students gained five good GCSEs, compared with 98 per cent at the nearby Regent House Grammar School.
Karayiannis thinks the current system is unfair. "There's no way of measuring value added," she says. "If a child enters school with a reading age four years below their chronological age, we work hard to help them succeed. If they gain a D grade in a GCSE that's a huge achievement.
"A grammar might take a 12-year-old with a reading age of 12 and get them a C. You have to ask whether grammar schools are moving their pupils on by the same amount.
"Our system doesn't allow us to make those sorts of comparisons. We measure our success not by exam grades but by what our pupils are doing three years after they leave. We have a high percentage that go on to further education, employment or training."
Tony Gallagher, professor of education and pro vice-chancellor at Queen's University Belfast, says the grammar school debate became "fractious" when it was first raised, leading to "policy paralysis" and the "poisoning" of other educational debates. However, since the last election the debate has started to open up, other policy areas are being given space to breathe and the contentious issue of selection has been "parked" for the time being.
"We are in a period of falling rolls, but the grammar schools are full to capacity and the secondaries (secondary moderns) are bearing the brunt," says Gallagher. "Schools that are already disadvantaged are having further problems piled on top of them. Clearly there's still a huge task ahead."
But there are positive signs. In June, the country's Catholic bishops promised to phase out academic selection in their sector. Their proposals call for all Catholic grammar schools to admit no more than 75 per cent of pupils through academic selection by the start of the 2014 academic year.
But Andy Brown, a teacher of 19 years and former president of the ATL education union, says giving up grammars completely will not come easily. "People in Northern Ireland have been asked to let go of a lot of things in recent years and to accept a lot of changes, and grammar schools are so embedded in our educational culture it's going to be difficult," he says. "We have come so far and jettisoned a lot of our old prejudices and we need to keep moving forward."
But old prejudices still exist, and the Troubles have left a lasting legacy of division in education. While communities are healing and coming together as never before, education is still divided along religious lines. About 4,000 children attend a denominational playgroup and more than 65,000 teenagers are in segregated secondary education, according to Deni figures.
The division has led to a duplication of schools that is simply unsustainable with a falling birth rate and less cash to go around. Although integrated education has been shown to dilute sectarianism among teenagers, there is still a long way to go.
"We have one of the most socially divided, segregated systems anywhere in the world," says Mark Langhammer, director of education union ATL Northern Ireland. "It's not just a ProtestantCatholic thing. We have too many schools and too many sectors."
Gallagher echoes those sentiments: "If you can think of a way of dividing kids we do it - religion, Irish-medium schools, single-sex schools, grammar schools, on ability and social background. There is a very complicated set of barriers and silos in the system."
A `wake-up call'
Meanwhile, other challenges are coming thick and fast. The most recent shock to Northern Ireland's education system came in March, when a viability audit by Deni identified more than 500 schools as being in some form of difficulty.
It found that 538 schools had issues educationally, financially or with pupil numbers - 46.5 per cent of primary schools, 83.8 per cent of secondary moderns, and 35 per cent of grammars. Most worryingly, 13 secondary schools and two primaries failed on all three measures.
The findings were a "wake-up call", says O'Dowd, who has written to authorities asking how they will improve. School closures have not been ruled out.
The audit came hot on the heels of the revelation that pupils in more than half of Northern Ireland's post-primary schools are failing to achieve the five "good" GCSEs target.
Last November, the government published the long-awaited report of a literacy and numeracy taskforce set up in 2008 to address similar concerns. Among a variety of other findings, it said that many teachers and school leaders are underperforming, and urged "swift action" to tackle the poor teaching found in one-fifth of primary schools and more than a quarter of post-primary lessons by the chief inspector's 2008-10 report.
"Students are being sacrificed by a system that isn't working properly. Too many of our schools are looking backwards," says literacy and numeracy taskforce leader Sir Robert Salisbury, who has headed schools in Bradford, Hull and Doncaster.
Not a `world class' system
So why is an education system routinely described as "world class" having such a crisis of confidence? The education minister is keen to set the record straight.
"I have never said we have a world-class education system," says O'Dowd. "It is a myth. We do not have a world-class education system but we do have world-class educators.
"It is a reasonable assumption to look towards the rest of the UK but I do not think we should be patting ourselves on the back because we are 1 per cent above the rest of the UK in terms of GCSE results. We should be measuring ourselves against other European countries."
But interesting comparisons between Northern Ireland's system and those of the rest of the UK can be drawn from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. In the 2009 Pisa tests, Northern Ireland came second to Scotland in the three measures of reading, maths and science, but its overall performance fell in comparison to the 2006 tests.
"There's a huge pattern of variability among secondary schools especially, mediated partly by the gender and denominational status of the school and social background," says Gallagher. "People focus on the bits that get good performance, but it's shocking that 20 per cent of kids leave school with the equivalent of one GCSE. That's been a persistent problem for many years.
"Very little of what's been done has shifted any of that. This pattern of inequality is not good for Northern Ireland because we are not making full use of our population."
"We are in many senses a fledgling democracy," says O'Dowd. "Only in the past couple of years have we got our hands on the wheels of power. We are struggling to rebuild a society. I and my predecessors have always said we need to make drastic changes.
"I think we now have a stable executive and ministers are in the position to make difficult decisions that have not been made before."
Plans are in place for systemic improvements. The overarching school improvement policy, Every School a Good School, was launched in 2009. It says that successful schools should be child centred, have high-quality teaching and learning, have effective leadership and be connected to their communities.
But for some this has come at a price. "The teaching unions have started to perceive it as a very top-down, command-and-control, data-driven performance system," says Langhammer. "We are hearing the same language you would in England about failing schools and teachers. We worry that it is introducing a `name and shame' culture, which we think is taking us away from teaching as a reflective profession."
This feeling extends to the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI). Two teaching unions, the Irish National Teachers' Organisation and the Ulster Teachers' Union, are engaged in a long-running policy of non-cooperation with ETI. Their members are instructed not to hand over any documents or data to the inspectorate, and if an inspector walks into their classroom they must stop teaching.
In March, the Belfast Telegraph claimed that this has plunged the inspection system into "chaos", as it has all but stopped the process in schools where the two unions have a sizeable membership.
But the government is unapologetic. "I don't want to see a top-down system evolving, but I think it is only right and proper the government is aware of the state of play within its schools on a regular basis," says O'Dowd. "I think it is only right and proper that the Department is regularly updated. It is not a case of watching over teachers, but making sure they have the resources to deliver, that our policies are working and life opportunities are being enhanced by those (policies).
"The vast majority of teachers are highly motivated individuals who work very well. But you will always have people who require further support. The small group who aren't delivering have to be identified as quickly as possible."
Despite the recent bad headlines, a mood of optimism prevails. Teaching is still seen as a desirable career, teachers are generally held in high esteem and there is a widespread belief that education still matters.
"We have an incredibly dedicated teaching cohort who are committed to giving the children the very best that they can and not the status quo. These people are not going to let education fall by the wayside," says Karayiannis.
And most promisingly of all, political agreement has finally been reached on the establishment of an all-encompassing Education and Skills Authority. The new body will take over the running of schools from the five existing Library and Education Boards - whose inconsistent approach to education policy and school improvement has long been a source of concern - and from the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools. It will also be the single employing authority for all staff. The minister wants the new body to be up and running by April next year.
Teachers are happy that they have a say in educational policy matters as part of the Strategic Planning and Policy Development Forum, which is made up of representatives from trade unions, education organisations and Deni. They also seem to be in favour of O'Dowd's appointment and the actions he has taken.
"We find him to be a fair-minded, listening minister, and somebody who has a good grasp of the system," says Langhammer.
But that goodwill will count for nothing if O'Dowd does not get to grips with the problems plaguing schools, and quickly. At a time of unprecedented change for Northern Ireland's education system, it urgently needs the kind of strong political leadership and focus it has lacked in the last decade.
How it all adds up
322,891 - Number of pupils in all Northern Ireland's schools in 2011-12 - 14,465 fewer than in 2004-05.
31,210 - Total number of schools in 2011-12.
23% - Percentage of primary and secondary school children entitled to free school meals in 2011-12.
Source: Department of Education Northern Ireland. www.deni.gov.uk
Who's in charge?
The complicated education system in Northern Ireland includes several different types of schools under the control of management committees, which also employ teachers.
Controlled (nursery, primary, special, secondary and grammar) schools are managed by their board of governors. The employing authorities are the five Education and Library Boards.
Maintained (nursery, primary, special and secondary) schools are under the management of the board of governors. The employing authority is the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.
Voluntary (grammar) and integrated (primary and secondary) schools are under the management of a board of governors.