Creating a high skilled economy – it begins in school

Northern Ireland’s economy has a number of weaknesses. At the heart of these is the shortage of skills – higher levels of skills moves an economy up the value chain, leading to improved productivity and greater wealth. 

Too many of NI’s school leavers have lower levels of qualifications and skills than are needed for the modern economy. This reduces their prospects for obtaining well paid jobs, while some will become long-term unemployed or economically inactive. NI has the UK’s highest rate of economic inactivity. 

A recent report from the Pivotal think-tank considered these challenges and how we should strengthen the education and skills environment for 14 to 19 year olds. Solutions include greater focus on vocational skills, strengthening the careers guidance system and providing strong role models. But at the heart of the difficulties lies the issues around the selective school system, dividing children at a young age between those regarded as potentially academic and those not academic. 

There is a related concern around the academic streaming of school pupils. Around a third of school leavers in NI who go on to university do so in GB, not in NI. Most of those do not return. Meanwhile, many businesses here are disadvantaged by the shortage of graduate level skills, whereas many NI graduates go into the public rather than the private sector. 

These structural weaknesses have been made worse by cuts to public funding of NI universities over recent years. Admissions are already controlled by the cap of student numbers in NI – a system abolished many years ago in England. 

This leaves a system in which large numbers of young adults depart NI for GB – some out of choice, others out of necessity because of shortage of university places. Few students from other places choose to study in NI, so there is little replacement of the lost talent.  

Northern Ireland is left with a labour market with significant skills weaknesses, while the social implications are also profound – through lower incomes, as well as families separated because children depart and do not return. Those who are unable to gain well paid work through having too few skills may also be more vulnerable to recruitment from paramilitaries and other organised criminal gangs. 

The skills environment is discussed with the chief executive of the Pivotal think tank Ann Watt in the latest Holywell Trust Forward Together podcast, which can be listened to here 

The Holywell Trust Forward Together podcasts are funded by the Community Relations Council’s Media Grant Scheme.     


Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council. 

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