Education in Northern Ireland has somehow become a matter of political contestability. This is unfortunate and regrettable because education is such a critical component of ‘Building a Better Future’ - as the Programme for Government proclaimed.
Building a Better Future
Education in Northern Ireland has somehow become a matter of political contestability. This is unfortunate and regrettable because education is such a critical component of ‘Building a Better Future’ - as the Programme for Government proclaimed. One problem is that some political positions treat education as a free standing issue, disconnected from the economic strategy and the social inclusion agenda. Such as view is unsustainable in the 21st century. This article is about the education system as a whole – not the specific learning needs and outcomes of the individual which is the responsibility of teachers and parents. It is the whole system which politicians need to focus on develop and implement policies and structures to deliver a better educational, economic and social outcome for all.
Another problem is that many regard education as a personal service about which they are experts because they have all come through the system. Some want to preserve the ‘wonderful experiences’ and benefits which they have had. Others want to ensure that future generations will have a much better deal than they had. In Northern Ireland education is a public funded service which needs to be judged on its contribution to society as a whole and not just to the individual and certainly not to specific interest groups.
education is a profession with highly trained and experienced practitioners who are expert in seeing the broader picture in education and its connections to economic and social development. Such people need to be listened to as objective contributors capable of seeing the strategic perspective – not as advocates for one ideology or another.
A further problem is the lack of hard information or evidence that the general public has about the context in which education operates and the issues which it has to address in helping to create a new economic and social order.
What then can we do to modernise our education system and address these problems?
Politicians need to see education as a capacity builder for the economy and society – not as an end it itself.
We need an education system which, while retaining high standards and securing the pastoral, spiritual and aesthetic aspects of learning, also links coherently to the vision and needs of a vibrant economy and a more inclusive society. We must provide those relevant and motivating courses for young people of all abilities to afford them real opportunities to contribute to and benefit from our economy and society. This means challenging in each of us the stereo typical view that ‘academic’ is better that ‘vocational’. We have got to grow the private sector, be more entrepreneurial and less risk averse because the job for life is no longer an option. Young people are going to need informed, objective and realistic careers advice and guidance which is consistent with economic demand and emerging skill needs.
Start as we mean to go on.
In order that young people benefit fully from education positive support for learning must begin in the early years. The system must prevent failure rather than try to respond to it. This will require a robust well funded and connected strategy involving education, health and social services aimed at supporting parents, families and communities, identifying relevant deficits early and putting in place timely and appropriate ameliorations. .
There are some key facts within the public ought to know about to understand the changes needed in the education system. Facts are very different from opinions of which there are many regarding education. ‘Education at a Glance 2007’ is the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey shows how education systems in 57 countries perform on a series of assessments given to 15 year olds to determine their competence in addressing real life challenges involving reading, mathematics and science
So what does this research tell us about performance?:
While the performance of individual pupils and some schools in examinations in Northern Ireland is excellent the system as a whole has room for improvement.
how does our system perform as a driver of the economy and an influence on social inclusion?
The co-relation between our education system and the current needs of the economy is weak. There is a clear need to grown the high skills required of a modern competitive economy and to efficiently use the outcomes of education for our young people.
On the economic front indicators show strengths which must be consolidated and built upon, particularly through a well educated labour force but there are also significant underlying structural weakness which must be addressed;
Over reliance on a public sector which is expected to contract;
An under developed private sector;
Wages only 80% of UK average and the differential relatively unchanged since 1996;
25% of the population with low levels of literacy;
41% of working age population on benefits and not in work;
low level of business start up, research and development spending and adult training and education;
Reliance on £6 Billion subsidy from Westminster which, we are told will reduce.
If we do not modernise the education system we will not improve the economy and it follows that we cannot reduce poverty and improve social inclusion. The Director of the Economic Research Institute for Northern Ireland (ERINI) in presenting evidence to the Shadow Assembly on the need to prioritise the economy stated “... continuing to do what we have always done will by and large produce the results we have always achieved’. Since the education and training system is a key driver of the economy it follows that our education system must also change otherwise we will simply prepare young people for a world which no longer exists.
In blunt terms we have a low skilled, low productivity and dependent economy which is unsustainable. Our current education policies have contributed to this situation and therefore must be changed.
Employers too have to do more in training staff and providing work experience for young people. There is no point in employers complaining that young people do not have the skills they require when instead of being specific about those skills they ask for a non-specific degree or 5 GCSEs at grade C+. We all have a part to play; Government, Schools, Colleges and Universities, Training Organisations, Employers, Parents and Young People themselves. Young people must develop employability skills – not just acquire qualifications - in order to present themselves as multi-skilled, flexible and innovative potential employees ready to change the world!
Government has got to see the longer-term benefits of investing in reducing poverty and social exclusion so that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds can be encouraged to embrace education and benefit from it. It has then to connect the education system to the emerging economy so that we have the skills in the workforce needed to create a high value economy which will raise salaries and encourage our talented young people to remain in Northern Ireland to contribute to and benefit from increased prosperity for all. The reality is that at this time we do not have a high skills, knowledge based economy capable of competing in a global market – nor a world class education system. We will only improve this situation by raising standards for all. In particular there is a need to focus on equality by providing extra support to those whose families have not traditionally benefit from education.
Can we, therefore, have a sensible and informed debate about education as a capacity builder for our society and economy?
That debate needs to focus on the kind of education system our society and economy needs and then on the types and locations of schools and further education institutions needed to deliver that system. It requires politicians to see the big picture of connected services working together to realise the aspirations of the Programme for Government to create ‘A Better Future’.
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best article i have read for whilehow can those of us in the primary sector help to address some of these issues eg promoting the world of work and vocational opportunitiescan do so much of this but hampered with the selection at 11 and preoccupation in ensuring progress in maths and english need to get the balance and legitimise time spent on creative/enterprising activities to motivate children and encourage their thinking about the business/vocational worldthe tensions between the revised curriculum and the testing arrangements will ensure we will be caught between two stools and and faced with competing pedagogical ideologies it will take strong leadership to respond to the issues you have so outlined abovewell done
Congratulations on this very intelligently written article. It provides lots of food for thought!
An insightful and thought-provoking piece which harkens back to an age when education was seen for what it is: the means by which we can all grow as a positive and just society that gives to each person an empowerment to use his/her talents to ensure a good life for them and a more prosperous and just community. Let's hope that those who have power will have the vision to do something along these lines!
A great thought provoking article outlining clear strategies which need to be implemented to advance our existing educational system. As teachers however, we need to keep the primary focus on the learner, which may mean foresaking our own ideologies to benefit them at their current stage of learning.