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Time to face up to our education and skills challenges

Schools are back. Happy days! Relief is not a feeling I ever thought I would experience during the annual school uniform and school shoes shopping mission, but no matter how well our schools have done at keeping the work flowing, it obviously isn’t optimal. Like many, I’m relieved to see pupils back where they can get the best learning experience. Fingers crossed that we can get through a school year with minimal disruption. Having not been in school since late March, our students have already suffered large educational setbacks.

The move to home school and (in many cases) online learning was obviously making the best of a dreadful situation. As we move back to classroom learning, it is important to recognise that a learning loss is an inevitable consequence of the school closures and move to home schooling. A paper from the European Commission’s research centre suggests that the switch to home schooling is expected to have exacerbated existing educational inequalities. Students from less advantaged backgrounds, are especially likely to have fallen behind during this period. These students are less likely to have access to relevant learning digital resources (e.g. laptop/computer, broadband internet connection) and less likely to have a suitable home learning environment (e.g. a quiet place to study or their own desk). Additionally, the research suggests they may not receive as much (direct or indirect) support from their parents as their more advantaged counterparts do. In more affluent families, parents are more likely to be able to work from home, and are also more likely to afford private online tuition. Not only are COVID-19 and the move to remote learning and teaching likely to cause greater inequality in learning outcomes between socio-economic groups, the emotional wellbeing impacts are expected to have a greater detrimental impact among areas of high social deprivation.

There is a risk that the short-term impacts on our educational system and educational outcomes could have long-term consequences for labour market prospects.  For our economy, we can ill afford any worsening in our education outcomes and skills profile, given the progress that has been made in that regard in recent years and the challenges that still remain. Progress on skills is evident through international comparisons such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).  In 2018 (the most recent PISA study), the mean reading score in Northern Ireland was significantly above the OECD average for the first time.  Scores in mathematics and science are also above the OECD average. 

Further, more students are graduating with a better set of GCSEs, and more students are staying in education after the age of 16 to achieve at least three A levels.  In 2018/19, the percentage of school leavers achieving at least five GCSEs at grades A* - C or equivalent (including GCSEs in English and maths) was 70.8%. This represents an increase of 4.8 percentage points from 2014/15 when 66.0% of school leavers achieved this standard. The proportion of school leavers achieving three or more A-levels at grades A* - C or equivalent was 41.0% in 2018/19, an increase of 4.0 percentage points from five years ago (37.0% in 2013/14). 

That is welcome progress, and yet there are significant challenges below the surface of these headline figures.  For a start, the converse of 70% of pupils achieving at least five GCSEs at grades A*-C is that 30% of every school year aren’t achieving this basic standard of post-primary education. Over the next decade, this could equate to about 70,000 people coming out of education without having reached a basic standard. 

There is also a significant difference in achievement for those pupils entitled to free school meals.  Fewer than half (49.5%) of this cohort are achieving at least five GCSEs at grades A*- C including Maths and English.  It gets even worse if you are a male protestant who is entitled to free school meals.  38% of that group are achieving the GCSE standard.  We are often told we have a world-class education system.  That doesn’t feel like an outcome that would be associated with a world-class education system.

The Education Minister’s recently established expert panel on educational underachievement will report within a year with a costed action plan. Given the various papers and proposals that have been prepared on the topic over the last decade or so, there is an understandable air of cynicism around the initiative.  As the recent OECD Skills Strategy for Northern Ireland noted, skills are vital for enabling individuals and countries to thrive in an increasingly complex, interconnected and rapidly changing world. Countries in which people develop strong skills, learn throughout their lives, and use their skills fully and effectively at work and in society, are more productive and innovative, and enjoy higher levels of trust, better health outcomes and a higher quality of life. Getting skills policies right becomes even more critical for ensuring societal well-being and promoting growth that is inclusive and sustainable.