Wot knowledge-based society?

Defenders of Northern Ireland’s education system often claim its one of the best in the world.

Indeed, in their promotional materials, InvestNI make the (unreferenced) claim “the education system in Northern Ireland is recognised as one of the best in Europe, consistently outperforming all other UK regions in academic qualifications“.

What to make then of the just-published report from the Asssembly Public Accounts Committee, which notes that the proportion of unqualified workers in Northern Ireland is the highest in the UK and a major hindrance to the development of a knowledge-based economy?

The report, ‘Improving Adult Literacy and Numeracy’, says that more than one in five (22%) of our workforce have zero qualifications, with many having low levels of literacy and numeracy – all of which harms Northern Ireland’s economic competitiveness:

The Committee notes that the current economic thrust of the Executive’s Programme for Government, based on Northern Ireland’s development as a knowledge-based society, cannot be fully realised while significant numbers of the working population have no qualifications and many experience low levels of literacy and numeracy.

Neither does the situation do much for the life opportunities of the tens of thousands failed by our fractured school system, which delivers for some, but fails many others.

This was a theme also reflected in the recently published report by Dawn Purvis’ task force on educational disadvantage and the Protestant working class. This report, like others before it, noted that the problem of under-achieving children – and an underqualified workforce – requires a response that demands more than just fixing the education system itself: “systemic educational improvement will require comprehensive, long-term responses to inequality“.

Will Northern Ireland’s post-May 5th Executive be up for the task of addressing the problem that outgoing Assembly members have identified?

  • IJP

    Well, the simplistic answer is that we produce the best educated school leavers but then they, well, leave – with the worse educated ones left behind.

    Of course, your implied point that we don’t really have the best education system also stands. The elite we do produce are mostly educated to be lawyers, accountants, teachers, civil servants – no harm in any of those per se, but none of them involves any wealth creation.

    Our education system is fundamentally not set up to turn out wealth creators. Any attempt at doing so – and I’ve been involved with many at the fantastically (potentially) innovative Priory College in Holywood – is knocked back.

  • Banjaxed

    In relation to the Dawn Purvis commissioned report, I found it absolutely remarkable that not one representative of the larger unionist parties went on air to comment on its findings. What does that say to the working class unionist who can merely watch while his/her kids have nothing else to look forward to but their giros?

    Yet the spectacle of how both UUP & DUP and their camp followers worked themselves up about the abolition of selection test helped to raise the temperature of the education debate, if only for those of a more middle class persuasion and aspirations . Had they even considered how to improve the lot of those who, even before that decision was reached, had slipped through the academic net? As usual, they preferred to raise the Sinn Fein bogey rather than deal with the problem itself. They truly are the kings of the trivial pursuit. Shame on them.

  • Crubeen

    An excellent idea would be to ensure that no child leaves primary school without a sound grasp of the three “Rs”. That could see an end to the grocer’s apostrophe … among other defects. A return to traditional teaching methods is indicated … a few more spelling books, emphasis on learning facts and figures rather than “discovering” life’s intricacies, abolition of the use of calculators as a primary tool for simple arithmetical calculations, the re-introduction of discipline in schools (as in real life), rote learning of the multiplication tables etc etc.

    At the top end and for bright pupils the education system is first rate. The requirement is to improve it for the others and that will not be achieved by the forced introduction of mediocrity, which is the current PC agenda. We need to keep the excellence that already exists and improve things for those who do not and cannot achieve that excellence.

    There are a lot of “qualified” people around … and too many of them are functionally illiterate or sadly lacking in intelligence. A qualification, in and of itself, is nothing unless there is a quality underpinning it. There are more “qualified” people than enough around and they have “qualified” because standards have been reduced so that more “qualifications” can be achieved or awarded. That’s all fine and dandy in the name of equality but not so in the name of effectiveness … because these “qualified” people all too rarely can actually do the job they are supposedly “qualified” to do. I have, for example, in my possession a statutorily mandated document that was prepared by a semi-literate functionary, reviewed (presumably) and published by fully qualified (self-styled) “professionals.” Is this the desired end result of “education?”

    We can get rid of underachievement and inequality by introducing qualifications that require neither academic nor technical accomplishment but will be left with incompetence at all levels, a result that is well on the way to being achieved. In the alternative we can focus on improving skills inculcation by improving primary education in the first instance and secondary education thereafter with the emphasis on subjects that are of relevance, firstly, to economic development and secondly of social value.

    Exams have been dumbed down so that as many people as possible get a pseudo academic qualification. Instead of meaningless and useless qualifications could we not, for example, inspire or require people to get skills? What we need are high standards in education that are reflected in high standard qualifications and it’s up to each candidate to earn that qualification.

  • andnowwhat

    I think we have to accept nature, a lot of people are not academic.

    Now, we should look at our education system and address if it is it right to shoehorn non academic pupils in to an inflexible education system.

    What I am saying is that less academic students should be able to work on skills that are more useful for their realistic future employment. It should also be insured that they have solid, basic literacy and numeracy skills.

  • fordprefect

    I went to skool and it never affected my edshukation, i am pretty brite?

  • orly


    When was the last time you sat a GCSE, A-level or similar and how many do you possess?

  • Greenflag


    “The elite we do produce are mostly educated to be lawyers, accountants, teachers, civil servants – no harm in any of those per se, but none of them involves any wealth creation.’

    That applies to all ‘elites’ in neighbouring countries as well .

    ‘Our education system is fundamentally not set up to turn out wealth creators.’

    How could it be when the system itself was established and is managed by those who have come through the system as it is .

    Can wealth creators be ‘produced ‘ in schools or universities anyway ? My own life experience tells me that most successful ‘entrepreneurs’ and I mean those who built their own business from nothing -did not come out of the universities -indeed many barely made it past their leaving cert or O levels . Personal motivation , ambition, drive , and yes even greed and the competitive spirit are all part of the make up of ‘entrepreneurs’ . But even more important is the nature of society around them . If they live and are educated in a society where ‘success’ is seen as being a doctor or lawyer or an accountant or where the public sector is so dominant as it is in NI – then that ‘force ‘ acts like a black hole and escape from it is – to say the least more than a challenge .

    One would think that today’s globalised economy should provide more opportunities for local entrepreneurs and while it does for some it’s no panacea either .

    With youth unemployment at it’s highest ever rate in the UK and Ireland the main function of higher education seems to be to keep the unemployment lines smaller than they would be otherwise and to export a better educated emigrant .

    No easy answers here. We saw in the celtic tiger years a huge spurt in entrepreunership in the Republic due to the growing economy . It’s even more difficult to develop ‘entrepreuners’ to the extent they can be in an economy which is stagnant , declining or seen as marginal and too state sector dependent.

  • Greenflag


    ‘What I am saying is that less academic students should be able to work on skills that are more useful for their realistic future employment.’

    And therein is posed the question where is the ‘realistic ‘ future employment to come from ? Everywhere in the western world the young are being told that unless they have a ‘degree ‘ they will be condemned to a lifetime of minimum wage jobs etc . The result of this in the USA is that it’s estimated that some 7 million Americans are overqualified for the jobs they hold and yet even President Obama is preaching the ‘education ‘ mantra .

    Today one hundred years ago some 140 young women mostly immigrant Italians and Jews were burned to death -locked in – in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York . We like to think we live in society where such exploitation doesn’t exist anymore . Alas it does -it’s just been exported to Bangla Desh or Pakistan or India where employees are treated even worse than the workers in NY garment sweatshops were in 1911 and in real terms allowing for inflation and purchasing power actually paid less than the ‘immigrants were in 1911 .

    Heres a link for any who might be concerned about who will protect their children and grandchildren from similar exploitation in our ‘western ‘ future ?


  • Crubeen


    More years ago than I care to remember I got 9 “O” levels and 3 “A” levels. Curiously enough my eldest also has something similar except that they are called GCSEs. Even more curiously she secured substantively higher grades than me … even though our IQs are remarkably similar (135/140) and, in this regard, I am handicapped by early onset of Auldtimer’s Disease whereas she is in full possession of her faculties.

    In the name of addressing inequality everything has been dumbed down. We have loads qualifications and hordes of qualified people … most of whom actually don’t know what it is they are supposed to be doing. Even though greatly qualified they are somewhat challenged in that cognitive range that reconciles and appllies theoretical knowledge to practical situations. That is why they jargon speak rather than exercise any communicative skills. That is why they have spin doctors to instruct them in what it is they are to say. That is why they reduce and think they can reduce all human activity to tick boxes …

    When qualified professionals present as functionally illiterate as in such written expressions of “I seen” or “You our (You are)” I think that the educational system is not performing well.

    Too much of Government is run by incompetent people and the major problem is that being incompetent they are incapable of realising that they are incompetent.

  • orly


    Why would IQ matter? It’s not really a very reliable indicator of anything.

    I agree that the quality of English is pretty poor in some instances. I understand when to use things like “you’re” and “your” but my use of apostrophes can sometimes fall down. You do see some comical efforts though especially on the interwebs.

    Overall though I received a pretty good education and it certainly wasn’t easy on the whole.

    In Maths for example I’m pretty good at stuff like statistics, probability, mental arithmetic and all the every day stuff but I only got a C grade at the intermediate level because I don’t really get all that nonsense like trigonometry or calculus. Didn’t really hurt in the end when I did mechanical engineering and then software engineering in college, computing at university and then a teaching diploma. I only ever passed 6 GCSEs though.

    I agree that rote learning has its place but you shouldn’t just dispense with “discovering intricacies” as you term it. We actually need more of it. The ability to think about a problem or task from different perspectives is something sorely lacking in this part of the world. More often than not the curriculum/syllabus is reduced to a tick box world that force teachers to become rigid rather than allowing themselves, and their students, to actually investigate and learn.

  • JAH

    The lack of comments on this topic tells its own story.

    There is a bit of a conspiracy on education in Ulster. Those who passed the 11 plus (and how many were coached, an option working class kids are completely denied but which is never mentioned) perpetuate the myth that the education system is great because it is for them. And bloody awful for the rest.

    The figure of 22% without qualifications is no surprise, For many kids from working class areas they were simply not educated and huge numbers left school with nothing despite Ulster topping the results for GCSE and A level.

    It wasn’t until the much maligned league tables appeared that the true picture emerged at just how bad education was in many Schools.

    Of course thsre are no longer published so it is nigh on impossible to gauge what is happening now. But it is worrying if the results from the Boys Model are any indication:
    Year 12 GCSE results
    5 A* – C = 54%
    5 A* – C (with English and Maths) = 22%
    7 A* – C = 24%
    7 A* – C (with English and Maths) = 18%

    If this School was in England it would be in special measures so why isn’t here (and I only pick on the Model as iy serves the remaining Protestant population of the area).

    Those results are atrocious. And it’s a picyure those fighting for the 11 plus are happy to sustain.

  • orly


    One of the arguments for the EU is that we can bring in low skillers on the cheap.

    Why not just have our own and make them work?

    I’ll get me coat…

  • IJP

    @ Greenflag It’s not true in neighbouring countries, necessarily. People from the better schools in England more typically end up “in the City”, and thus in the private sector (whether financial services really create wealth is a different question, admittedly); the academic schools in Germany churn out higher and middle managers for business (notably, the non-academic schools churn out precision engineers and such like).

    @ Banjaxed That problem is much the same in neighbouring countries – a recent referendum essentially to stop selection in Hamburg failed heavily due to a massive middle-class turnout, just as it would’ve done in NI.

  • Pigeon Toes

    As Mr Pigeon Toes often comments “they know the square root of a banana but couldn’t peel one”

  • This thread is really two separate debates – (1) have we got a workforce which can benefit from investment in knowledge-based industries? (2) How to improve the lot of the lowest educated?

    On the first question, the fact that only 13% of Northern Irish graduates obtain full time employment in Northern Ireland really speaks for itself.

    The second question is the harder one for finding solutions. In fact, there probably aren’t any. The inequality is not in the education system. It is the parenting or lack of it in the homes. There will be a similar proportion of education failure, whatever system is introduced.