How do we unlock Northern Ireland’s tremendous potential?

sceconomyfinal8_tcm77-354487-2I still remember the spring of 2001. The palpable excitement I felt about something I’d dreamed of since my adolescence and, with sixth form drawing to a close, was finally in a position to realise: leaving Northern Ireland.

I was one of the almost 18,000 who emigrated that year, a number that rose to just over 25,000 in 2012-13. And whereas net migration in Northern Ireland was positive the year I left, it has since turned negative (and skews even more so when you look only at those of working age).

Now I cringe to think of the almost venomous loathing I’d developed for the place of my birth by the time of my departure. Youthful exuberance and, no doubt, immaturity produced a hostility to the province that in hindsight seems more than a little embarrassing.

And yet, disproportionate or not, that hostility was a reaction against a political climate that, from my perspective as an 18-year-old looking to get ahead, choked the life out of any prospect of the kind of opportunity and life quality that I knew was readily available only a plane ride away.

The grass was (much) greener and it still is.

There’s nothing new about this. The ‘brain drain’ debate in Northern Ireland has been hashed and rehashed a thousand times over.

And still the alarm bells ring.

Two thirds of those who leave Northern Ireland to attend university choose not to return when they graduate. Inexplicably, there are those who see the problem as one of course provision: if only Northern Irish universities provided more specialized courses, it would be able to retain more talent.

Newsflash: it’s got little to do with the courses being offered. What counts is what’s available after university. And here, Northern Ireland falls woefully short.

The statistics are terrifying. In comparison to the three other nations in the United Kingdom, NI has the lowest labour productivity, a full 18% lower than England, it has the highest unemployment rate, the lowest Disposable Household Income per head, over £3k lower than England, and almost 28% of  those employed work for the public sector, compared to 17% in England.

It’s all the more astonishing then that issues like flags and marches are a more potent political flashpoint than the attractiveness of the province to its best and brightest. For all the progress made in the last two decades, priorities remain desperately askew in a place that can little afford it.

But the picture isn’t entirely bleak. The building blocks for a prosperous and attractive future are there. Last year NI outpaced England and Wales on GCSE grades A*C, with 76.5% making the cut vs 67.9% and 65.7% respectively for the latter. A-Levels are a similar story, with 30.7% of Northern Irish students getting A* and A grades in all their subjects, vs 26.3% in England and 22.9% in Wales.

Northern Ireland is a place with tremendous potential.

But what virtue is there for a society in building young people for success and then not providing them with the opportunities to avail themselves of that success when they leave school?

In this networked age it’s easier than ever before for young people to look beyond the confines of their physical communities and national boundaries for the life they want to live. And once those same young people have departed, it’s easier than ever for them to stay connected with relatives at home without having to actually be physically present.

For places like Northern Ireland that makes the problem of brain drain all the more acute, and compounds it with each passing year.

There’s no single solution. Myriad factors are at play, not the least of which is a deeply dysfunctional political leadership rendered all the worse by its obsession with matters of national identity that in every practical sense are meaningless: no referendum on NI’s place in the Union or relationship with Ireland is on the horizon.

But there is one simple truth, Northern Ireland has an alcoholic-like dependence on the English taxpayer and public sector employment. And it needs to be shaken off if the province is to stand any chance of developing the kind of private sector economy that will make it attractive to the many who will otherwise leave.

For sure that’s an easy statement to make, and the development of a dynamic private sector requires broader changes to the business environment in Northern Ireland. But until dependence on public spending is seen as a big part of the problem rather than a central part of the solution, the factors which encourage flight by talented young people will remain and get worse.

Don’t get me wrong, from purely selfish perspective I benefited greatly from Northern Ireland’s capacity to drive people away. But with age comes a maturity I lacked at 18, a recognition that even though emigration should always be a choice, it shouldn’t be a necessity for those who want a better life.

This is the first in a series of articles where I’ll explore Northern Ireland’s dependence on public spending and propose steps that must be taken if the province is to shake off the shackles of that dependence and build the future its people deserve (and need).

In the meantime, I wish the very best to all those booking flights to a better life elsewhere.

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  • Bryan Magee

    I don’t really appreciate the somewhat self-indulgent biographical aspects of this piece, but I do welcome evidence-based discussion of how to improve NI’s productivity, so I hope that is coming up.

  • mickfealty

    I think Shane’s just being honest. As a semi regular on Nolan some will remember Shane’s delivery has in the past betrayed that sense of frustration.

    Better out than in as the English of my acquaintance are wont to say.

    That out of the road, I’d love to hear some evidence based challenge here so we can force Shane out of his US hiding place and get the ball rolling a good discussion.

    It’s provoked on Twitter reader to offer a piece on Invest NI. I’d really like to get this move on from the OP quickly…

  • Bryan Magee

    Shane mentions universities.

    I think these should be seen not just in terms of educating people, but also as places that provide high quality research-intensive employment, and positive externalities to the tech sector.

    Up to now the NI Executive has been happy to “import” higher education services – i.e.for a large share of NI-domiciled students to get their education elsewhere. There is a restriction in the number of places called the “MaSN”. It’s cheap in the short term to do this, because you don’t have to pay for the course provision.

    But perhaps we should expand NI’s number of university places, financed by higher tuition fees (the fees system in England has actually had no detrimental impact on the access issue). Expand the universities in two places – Belfast (UU and QUB) and West (Coleraine/Derry). I think that we can attract people to come to study in NI as well as attracting people to stay.

    Its not in itself enough: case in point is the North East of England. It has good universities: Durham and Newcastle University, and attracts a lot of people to go there to study who don’t stay. But I think it’s part of the picture.

  • cimota

    Does this place actually have tremendous potential? Because if so, we’ve been squandering it. It’s taken the last six years at the coal face to explain exactly how we avoid opportunity, how we dodge the market trends and how we competently and consistently seize defeat from the jaws of victory.

    If this place has great potential, it’s sure playing the long game in hiding it.

  • Bryan Magee

    The FT cites Belfast as an example of how cities with devolved institutions are better at attracting inward investment – using data from the last 5 or 10 years. Arlene Fosters department seems to be doing a reasonable job in helping ti attract jobs. Unemployment is 6%, not bad.

    One of the things I commend Shane for is acknowledging that while he couldn’t wait to leave NI, there is a lot of movement into NI so that the net out migration has been roughly zero on average over recent years. In that regard, his piece is more empirically informed than David McCann’s effort on the same topic.

  • Morpheus

    “Unemployment is 6%, not bad.

    Maybe we should have this as Picture of the Day?

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/B0KxX5cIMAAufM3.jpg

  • Morpheus

    When it comes to Universities then we really need to start looking at providing the courses online to increase the talent pool in Northern Ireland – similar to what they do at MIT, Harvard etc.

    How difficult is it to record lectures, save them online and allow registered fee-paying students to access them from home? In a world with email, Skype and instant messaging it is not difficult for lecturers to interact with students if need be. Same exams, same coursework, same standards. Our universities could multiply the number of people studying for reputable qualifications overnight and start a conveyor belt of qualified talent attracting businesses and jobs.

    Time to start thinking outside the box because what’s in the box is obviously failing.

  • Bryan Magee

    Compare with European averages, Morph.

  • Jon Hope

    I’m emigrating after Xmas. Before if I can. I’ve been itching to leave for months but it’s just been a case of getting loose ends tied up.

    A large number of my friends have already left. They left for University and never came back or they saw a chance to get out and took it.

    It’s not that this place is too small, small is fine. It’s not that it’s a bit of a fixer-upper, that’s fine too – you can grow your career within a growing environment. It’s that it shows no sign of that growth in the medium-long term.

    NI is *fundamentally* uncompetitive. It lacks the connections of comparable UK cities or the favourable tax rates and security of Dublin, yet it competes for FDI directly with them. It papers over the cracks by – get this – advertising itself as a low-wage economy and then subsidising wages directly.

    If you don’t see how short sighted that is, think about it this way. As soon as they’re successful in attracting jobs salaries automatically start to inflate, then they compound the problem by artificially inflating salaries with an attractive govt subsidy. They’re subsidising *across* their core value proposition.

    Things can radically change in the space of a few years but the likelihood of that seems slim here. There will be no rapid movement to growth as the South has seen, no radical emergence like, say, Estonia because there’s no incentive for anyone to make it happen.

    Either that just doesn’t bother you that much or you get up and leave.

  • barnshee

    Wher`s you bin boy?

    The worlds universities are already on line– unbelievable range of courses on line FREE (or a modest price if you want the rigmarole of a paper copmpletion certificate)
    Try https://www.coursera.org/

    Or direct (I recommend the Corpotae Finance course at the University of Navarre)

    The two UNIS in NI are poor in comparsion

  • Bryan Magee

    I agree there is a market for Mass Online courses, and I agree NI unis can and probably should enter that, but most academically oriented 18-21 year olds will still want the experience of going to a University.

  • Bryan Magee

    There is not such thing as uncompetitiveness in economics: everyone has a comparative advantage.

  • Bryan Magee

    Good, sane, post.

    The figures on public sector empolyment in NI are higher *in part* because NI has not privatised some of the jobs that were privatised in GB. Think bus drivers, train drivers, water company employees, the port of Belfast.

  • Ian James Parsley

    The key here is to recognise the brain drain (at least, the brain drain that’s problematic) is at age 21/22 rather than 18.

    The reason is correctly identified. There are few challenging career paths here. The best pay is in the public sector, ideally a desk job in the Civil Service or administering Health or Education. Not exactly exciting stuff!

    I wouldn’t make too much of NI’s economic numbers – they’re not quite as bad as they look. Median income is relatively high, only about 10% behind the UK average (noting that almost everywhere in the UK is 10% behind, given the strength and size of the South East). Unemployment is middling. Poverty is actually marginally lower. The cost of living is lower (not least because we pay half the domestic taxes).

    The issue is challenging career paths and a generally closed, parochial outlook. I can’t help but think we are doing many of the right things there in Skills, actually. But a broad popular understanding that we cannot go on reliant on “public spending” (i.e. English subsidy) has still not yet been developed. The dishonesty of politics and willingness to allow people with closed minds to access influential positions remain serious problems.

  • In the meantime, I wish the very best to all those booking flights to a better life elsewhere

    As a region / state / country (whatever floats your boat) NI has its share of problems. The unemployment, the poverty, the sporadic violence are certainly not to be overlooked. But it has some excellent things going for it too – vibrant culture, beautiful green spaces, greater family support networks than many other places, friendly & down to earth people, some great schools / libraries / museums / public spaces, miles of unspoilt coastline. I’d hate to sound like a tourist ad but it’s not a bad aul place really. Are things still London and Dublin centric in terms of employment opportunities? Certainly. But that’s a problem for people all over England / Scotland / Ireland, not really unique to NI.

  • fixed!

  • Perhaps due to my Belfast resident status I am lacking the requisite tech skills and challenging career path opportunities needed to comment?!

  • Morpheus

    I know about online courses, hence why I mentioned MIT and Harvard.

    I won’t be so keen on free courses though, free is often equated to worthless.

  • Morpheus

    They can still go – God knows I loved it – but removing as many barriers as possible to get as many people as possible recognised, reputable (industry lead) qualifications is the way to go for me.

  • Shane Greer

    Bryan, you’ve touched on something I’m keen to explore further. A lot has been made of the fact that while a lot people leave NI, a lot of other people come in to settle. However, my instinct (which may be disproved by the data) is that the education/skill level of those moving to NI is significantly lower than those who are leaving.

    Needless to say, I’m looking forward to getting my hands dirty with some spread sheets on this one!

    Any thoughts on data sources I may not have thought of?

  • Shane Greer

    But even courses were provided in that way, indeed even if that were done with a corresponding broadening of course provision in NI, the post-university landscape would remain the same.

    To Bryan’s point above, it’s very much a parallel with NE England. People may go to study, but they don’t choose to stay. And why would they when there are so few opportunities, and the life that can be enjoyed elsewhere is so much better?

    That’s the challenge.

  • Shane Greer

    Thanks for the comment, Bryan. The biographical aspects you refer to were an attempt to provide some context to my own decision to leave, which I believe reflects the frustration many feel with Northern Ireland when they consider whether it’s a place they want to build a life in.

  • Bryan Magee

    One thing you should look at is the data on return rates after 6 years from DELNI, which shows that around 50% of NI people do return by that point. There are some more who return after 10 years away to have children and look after parents and such.

    Regarding whether the people moving in are better educated, I think you may be right, as some of it is the polish migrant phenomenon. Though not all of them are poorly educated. I don’t think its easy to get data on that.

  • Shane Greer

    But part of the issue is, surely, that those things haven’t been privatized? Inevitably that’ll mean they’re less efficient, and protected from ineptitude by the security of not having to fight for people’s custom.

    Witness NI Water’s failure to even consider the impact of freezing weather on infrastructure not that long ago.

  • Shane Greer

    It may not be unique to NI, although I’d argue the problem is more acute due to the dysfunctional political leadership and obsession with historic disagreements that should be a matter of mere academic interest to anyone sensible.

    The real shame, for NI, is that it produces a lot of well education, talented, highly skilled people, and through a backward looking mentality and ineptitude fails to provide competitive opportunities to them.

    NI has a lot going for it on the fronts you mention, but so long as people can get all that, avoid the violence and dysfunction, a receive a better pay check elsewhere, they’ll continue to leave.

  • Ian James Parsley

    It just so happens that when it’s all put together, England loses and NI gains.

    Indeed public spending in NI is £1500 per head higher than the North East of England, despite roughly equal incomes.

    So, an English subsidy, in other words!

  • Shane Greer

    One big question is how supportive of the status quo England will be in the medium term. Particularly. in light of the political fall-out from the Scottish referendum. If I were a betting man, I’d wager NI’s public sector economy is far from unassailable and will see substantial reductions in the future. All politics is local, and NI is far from local to people in England.

  • Well, I think you are definitely right, people will continue to leave. And that’s a shame, I think, because the grass isn’t always greener for a start but also if we are to continue to see social progress, improvement, innovation and solutions instead of problems, then we need people to stay and work at it. And, likewise, we need new people from different countries to come here too and contribute to making this a better place to live.

    I think you have hit the nail on the head here “obsession with historic disagreements that should be a matter of mere academic interest to anyone sensible.”

    However, when you are looking at a strangely schizophrenic and barely post conflict society I don’t think any of us can truly claim to be sensible and to be outside of the metanarrative that has defined this place for so long. But we can try. And we can progress. And we can educate our children together. And we can welcome multiculturalism. And we can ask for more and for better from our elected representatives.

    Although I wish your first post hadn’t ended on such a negative note, I think there is a lot of potential here and I really look forward to the rest of your series on Slugger and your ideas on how to unlock it.

  • barnshee

    “I know about online courses, hence why I mentioned MIT and Harvard.

    I won’t be so keen on free courses though, free is often equated to worthless.”

    MIT and Harvard are on FREE as well

  • Shane Greer

    Thanks. And I completely agree with your points. I firmly believe Northern Ireland has tremendous potential, and although it will take time, and perhaps the natural passing of the current generation of leaders, there is every reason to believe a bright and prosperous future awaits. It’ll take courage and, as importantly, optimism, but the raw materials are there.

  • Shane Greer

    I guess we’ll have to wait and see, although I agree totally about the North/South divide. I lived in Liverpool for four years, and the North really is a different world to the south, and much closer culturally to, say, Scotland than London.

    Nevertheless, the union is more divided today than in living memory. The net result, I believe, is that the tolerance for redistribution between nations (or rather from England to NI) will diminish significantly.

  • Shane Greer

    As a classic liberal I certainly take the view that monopolies or quasi-monopolies are to be as distrusted as government, and there’s no doubt organizations like Thames Water are fundamentally inefficient as the public sector overall. But that’s a that’s due to a lack of real competition rather than privatization per se. A debate for another time, perhaps.

  • Shane Greer

    A British form of federalism? Oddly enough, that’s what one of my articles for Slugger is going to advocate for.

  • $33309652

    Just to add.
    You missed a critical point.
    You compared the low productivity of the 6 Counties to England.
    At been 18% less.
    And you think that that is bad.
    And Ok. It is.
    But I will say to you know it’s worse than bad,.
    England has the lowest productivity in Europe.
    And if the wee 6 isn’t even up to already poor English levels.
    Than what chance in the Global economy.
    The major factor here is the people of the wee 6 compare themselves to England.
    That’s not good enough anymore.
    It’s time to be more outward looking.
    It’s unlikely that the Brits will pick up the bill to keep the wee 6 sheltered for much longer.
    They didn’t shelter you from the Wall street crash. Admittely there wasn’t the vast welfare state.
    And the Tories are bringing those days back.

  • Jon Hope

    With respect, that’s like saying “there’s no such thing as a flawed product, every product is competitive in its own way”. Which is true in a sense, it’s just that the market for chocolate teapots is too small to make a sustainable business out of.

    As currently constituted, NI is a flawed product. The subsidy given to businesses to invest here is the entropic cost of maintaining it as such.

  • Jon Hope

    This is true but I don’t think it’s binary. Whatever stage you’re at in your career I suppose you want to feel that there’s an achievable ‘next level’ and a number of ‘outs’.

  • Ian James Parsley

    No it’s not being “kept from them by the Home Counties”, it’s being kept from them by Northern Ireland and Scotland, who have received a favourable settlement (for a very long time, due to all sorts of things from basic political considerations to long-term lower population growth).

    If you’re suggesting the economic outlook isn’t *that* bad, or that there’s an issue of overall UK regional policy, you’ll get no argument from me. After all, I *came back* at 22!

    But whole point of the thread is that there are people from here who leave. I am arguing that I do *not* think that is for economic reasons (you can easily live as well in NI as anywhere else in the UK as taxes are lower and spending higher), but for reasons for career ambition and perhaps social openness (if I were gay, for example, I’m not sure I’d choose here – and I’m ashamed about that).

    In other words, I think we’re broadly arguing the same point!

  • Brian Walker

    An excellent discussion if I may say so. But looking ahead.. What’s the betting on Westminster permitting a lower level of corporation tax as part of more devolution all round?. Having followed the debates for a decade I’m a sceptic about the supposed benefits particularly without a north-south economic development strategy
    and with a Barnett squeeze all but inevitable .

    I’m even more sceptical about the ability of the Executive to take up the offer. I’d be delighted to be proved wrong.
    What we also need is think tank capacity for new ideas which are so terribly lacking. By comparison. Despite all the hullaballoo of US interest and economic conferences, the growth strategy of the 1960s which bought us 20 years of FDI was a model of enterprise.

  • Ian James Parsley

    You had it bang on until the final point!

    Year-on-year public spending in the UK last month *rose* 5.4%.

    But “Stop Tory Spending Rises* isn’t a great slogan…

    The very reason we are having to reduce our budgets is the very waste you speak of. We should be able to deliver the same level of public service on 18% less budget, even at the comparatively low UK standards – by your own figures.

    We control our public services, not the Tories. So how about it, eh?!

  • Ian James Parsley

    I hear this “next generation of political leaders” line all the time.

    In fact, we heard it in the last generation!

    Yet, what right now is the Queen’s University Student Union’s political debating priority? Improving skills? The rise of China? Maintenance of the Health Service in an ageing society perhaps?

    No, it’s the constitutional question!

    Maybe the generation after next??!!

  • Ian James Parsley

    I occasionally do recruitment work where I am paired for the day with someone who works for a professional services firm in Belfast. On the last three occasions I have been paired with someone originally from England. Brain drain?!

    Actually, NI’s migration rates are fairly even since the cease fire – which is remarkable given the world’s foremost global city with its mass of multinationals is just an hour’s flight away.

    What’s more, I have no difficulty with having a significant Northern Irish diaspora in that city. Does no harm at all, if it’s used effectively.

  • $33309652

    No.
    The Tories have just today announced the deficit has risen.
    Ergo they will need more cuts.
    And most people expect that any cuts that have been done since 2010 are small time.
    The Big ones are earmarked for after 2015.
    And with the deficit rising instead of falling.
    You can bank on it.
    The UK has a deficit of 6% GDP. and they want to zero that., I think between 2015 and 2020.

  • Ian James Parsley

    And how, pray, did the deficit rise?

  • $33309652

    Tax receipts are less than forecast.

  • Ian James Parsley

    As a matter of fact they are, yes – but they’re still higher than they were last year.

    So why did the deficit rise?

    It doesn’t suit anyone to admit it, but the deficit rose because public spending rose (and far faster than inflation)…

  • Ian James Parsley

    You seem to be arguing at crossed purposes. It’s quite obvious, based on what you say (and I believe to be correct), that England is subsidising NI. In fact it makes it worse, as an NI resident’s income tax may even be paid in many cases on income made in London or elsewhere!

    In fact, the subvention has *doubled* in the past 15 years – incredibly, given that covers the post-Agreement “peace”!

    But I suspect your point is this: people move, get used to it!

    Like I say, I’m fairly relaxed about losing a few good people to a global alpha city where they create a useful diaspora and are only an hour’s flight away anyway.

    That doesn’t mean we haven’t plenty to do here. For a start, it renders us reliant on links to the rest of the UK and thus makes the constitutional question redundant. But also, places like Scotland have managed more or less to pay their way despite the pull of London; there is no reason we couldn’t do likewise.

    I do think our prospects are better than ever, as it happens, if only because we will now be forced to confront our ludicrously bloated public sector, which sucks all the potential out of the place!

  • $33309652

    What did they spend the money on.
    More waste at the MoD? And of course the NHS is ringfenced.
    But going back to my original point. The Tories aim is to demonise people on benefits. just like what happens in the gud ole USA.
    Of course the Tories helped destroy the industrial jobs that this former “working” class used to rely on. but that’s by the by..
    Also I have heard they have spent almost as much on bureacy in implementing their bedroom tax than in what they saved.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you for posting the image, Morph. Its what I’m seeing when I look. Some people should actually go and look at what unemployment actually looks like in the real world.

  • Shane Greer

    A fair point, Ian. but with each passing generation the connection to past events and paradigms lessens. That doesn’t mean success is inevitable, but it certainly stands a better chance.

  • Shane Greer

    Completely disagree. The industrial jobs disappeared because the enterprises that supported couldn’t survive in a free market. And if the market in the intervening period had evolved in such a way as to make those enterprises viable, you can be certain some enterprising individuals would have set them up. They haven’t.

    And as for benefits, it’s difficult to say what goes on in the minds of any individuals. But I think it’s a stretch to say the goal is demonization when the goal is clearly to reduce the amount spent on benefits. We can debate the means by which that’s achieved, but let’s not misstate the aim.

  • Shane Greer

    A small addendum. The NI Science Park this morning released this fantastic infographic which speaks directly to NI’s enormous potential. The pace of growth should be viewed in the context of the overall size of NI’s knowledge economy (it’s easier to grow quickly from a small position than a large one), but fundamentally the raw material for success is there. NI, and it’s political leadership in particular, just needs to do much more to harness it.

    http://www.nisp.co.uk/2014-infographic/

  • $33309652

    Neither could the banks have survived without Billions propping them up.
    But no such monies was pumped into the traditional industries.
    Other European Countries did help their industries get on their feet.
    Not Britain.
    And the ideology at play was they were unionised industry whose workforce voted labour. Ergo Why should the Tories back them.
    It was a political decision of attack and divide the left wing. Which worked extremely well for the Tory party. They kept power for 15 years.
    But the Country itself suffered as a result.
    Ah, well too bad eh?

  • Shane Greer

    The merits of bailing out the banks is a separate issue and worthy of debate, but it’s an entirely different issue altogether. Ideology was squarely at play with the coal mines etc, but not in the way you suggest; rather it was a commitment to delivering the UK from socialism.

    It’s easy to paint political decisions in petty terms, it’s harder to accept that people with markedly different political views to your own are pursuing those ideas for broadly the same underlying reason; the belief that the execution of their ideology will make for a better society in which everyone will do better.

    The noted Professor of psychology and psychiatry Drew Westen wrote a wonderful book, The Political Brain, on the nature of the partisan mind, and it illustrates quite wonderfully how those with entrenched partisan views are utterly incapable of rational thought when it comes to ideas that challenge their position.

  • barnshee

    ER the MOD gets about 3% of the “Money” — a flea bite

  • barnshee

    “But no such monies was pumped into the traditional industries.”

    Two examples with money pumped in

    1 British cars were frankly shit workmanship. I owned enough of them The Japs and Germans produced reliable cars which started first time and didn`t drop oil on the garage floor -end of British car industry until reinvigorated by Jap and German production methods.

    2 British motor cycles–pigs to start (Kick) and shit production quality.

    According to the Brits they had nothing to learn from
    Engineering dept at QUB hired by the Japs http://daro.qub.ac.uk/pages/news/obits/professor-gordon-blair

    and everybody loved kick start !!

    Yamaha employ Dr Wilson added electric start– end of British Motorcycle industry

    Unions (and management) destroyed huge swathes of British manufacturing

  • Chris Browne

    “Last year NI outpaced England and Wales on GCSE grades A*C, with 76.5% making the cut vs 67.9% and 65.7% respectively for the latter. A-Levels are a similar story, with 30.7% of Northern Irish students getting A* and A grades in all their subjects, vs 26.3% in England and 22.9% in Wales.”

    I always get very uncomfortable with us pointing to our educational prowess as an advantage. Our slender lead over England is mis-leading. For a start, those percentages mask 2 very different sample sizes (England – 766,715 and NI – 31,600) and look at 2 quite different post-primary systems. We have excellence in the grammar sector, in part down to academic selection, that drives the top grades up, but there is a long tail of underachievement throughout the rest of the sector. Surely until we ensure that our entire post-primary pupil cohort are given the best possible education (and not just 30% in grammars who will leave anyway), we are not optimising our potential and creating a broad knowledge based workforce for the future?

  • Shane Greer

    A point with merit, Chris. While I certainly think NI’s historic preference for academic selection (notwithstanding relatively recent efforts to undermine such selection) is something to be proud of, and which clearly works, there is much to lament about those who find themselves on the receiving end of poor education. It’s another example of wasted potential.

    However, I’d challenge your assertion that those with grammar education will leave anyway. That’s only the case so long as N. Ireland fails to provide opportunities appropriate to the aspirations of those individuals. That, more than anything else, is the challenge the provinces political leaders must rise to.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Federation is to my way of thinking the way forward to maximise the talents of the 4 nations in a hostile world. I shall await yr article with interest.

  • Chris Browne

    Fair enough on your second point, Shane. I know of many who would come back to NI if the opportunities/ salaries available in the mainland were available here.

    On your first point, I would disagree that academic selection (in its NI format) is something to be proud of. You say it clearly works, but you are looking at the grammars in isolation. If you look at the system as a whole, surely it has to be recognised that there is excellence in the grammars at the expense of the rest. I would think that failing to optimise the potential of 100% of your pupil population, rather than solely a particular subset of it, is not an economically expedient approach. When you then consider issues around the social background of the majority of those who attend grammars (e.g. through measures such as FSM), those problems are further exacerbated, IMO.

  • Shane Greer

    Great point, Chris, and a very fair one. On reflection I should have made this distinction in the piece. As it happens, I was at a breakfast this morning which discussed the very division in eduction you mention.

    The challenge, as I see it, is how you improve standards in non-grammar schools without forcing some kind of comprehensive system that undermines the eduction of those who would otherwise benefit from grammar education.

    As someone who attended Lagan College, that has grammar and non-grammer streams, I can attest to the benefit that comes from running streams of different academic levels alongside one another. But it’s difficult to see how this could be implemented across the state system without the political will. And, of course, that all completely ignores the other big division, with over 90% of school children in NI attending non-integrated schools.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on how you address the challenge.

  • mickfealty

    Be good if you felt you could do a piece for us BYC?

  • hugodecat

    Having worked for one of those water companies in England, I can assure you there is a huge drive for lean, efficient, commercial practice. Share price and comparison to the rest of the industry matter hugely. Diversified businesses are growth areas ( water companies offering deals on energy and telecomes etc). In addition. The regulator sets your price plan, you can’t just. Stick the price up. There is a massive difference in culture and behaviour within these companies and state run organisations

  • Chris Browne

    I agree that we do not want to move towards the English comprehensive system, but I guess that points to one of our major problems as a region. We don’t look far enough afield for excellent comparators for many of our public services, including education. We seem to think that some variation of the English system is all that is possible.

    I agree that some element of streaming can be a necessity and a huge benefit for those that are a part of it. However, the extreme streaming that we see in NI, based entirely upon a test at an arbitrary and inappropriate age, is only damaging for the majority of pupils.

    I have always looked to the German structure as a good exemplar, combing all levels of academic and vocational abilities, tailoring the educational experience to the unique skillsets and interests of different pupils and linking well into employability. It is by no means perfect, though.

    I totally agree on the segregation on religious grounds. It is entirely unacceptable. I don’t necessarily think that introducing more ‘integrated’ schools is the solution, although it may have worked well for some. We need to address the fact that this division is built into the system and not only politicians have the power to change that. Parents, churches, schools etc. all have a responsibility here.

    On another point, I think we need to be more realistic about what we perceive to be excellence in our education system here. In your recent video chat with Mick Fealty, you said that the performance at A Level and GCSE in the top grades here is ‘significantly’ better than England and Wales. That is not true. The difference is miniscule. You also noted that we have two great universities. Where is the evidence for that? Some of us have convinced ourselves for years that NI is some shining light in education and training policy, but that is simply not the case.

  • Zeno3

    The numbers employed in the Public Sector are dictated by the size and dispersion of the populated Area.
    England has almost 60 million people living in an area just over 10 times the size of NI.
    The population of England is 29 times the size of that in NI.
    Do the sums. You can not provide the same level of Healthcare, Education, Social Care etc etc over the vastly different geographical areas for the same cost per unit.
    Wales has the same problem. Scotland have 70% of their population living in one relatively small area which makes it easier. NI has Six local government districts – the Belfast Metropolitan area, Belfast,Castlereagh, Carrickfergus, Lisburn, Newtownabbey and North Down, and they have a population of around 595,000 which is under 1/3rd of the NI Population.
    You can cut costs but people will have to travel very long distances to access Health and Education which are the largest costs in our budget.

    Lets stop cutting jobs based on the nonsense idea that we can operate on the same costs as vastly different geographical and population areas.