Debunking the myth about ‘our world class education’

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Watch my challenge to the commonly held view, that Northern Ireland has a world class education system. There is a strong counter argument anchored in fact.

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I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.


  1. The big difference was, for my generation of Prods, is that we didn’t need an education because there were plenty of better paying jobs in the RUC, UDR, Army etc. It did strike me very force ably when I came back to NI how much things had changed. Where an RC name would have been remarkable it was now commonplace.

    Until Prods (UK) realise that they’re in competition with a Continent it’ll remain the same.

    Also Tesco isn’t part of the economy – all they do is mov money around. Exporting is part of th economy – do wr still realise that?

  2. Eamonn,
    Your analysis and comments are an excellent contribution to this long overdue debate.
    For too long those who blindly expound the ‘value’ of a system which fails a significant section of the population have been permitted to do so, unchallenged.
    The issue of deficit in Literacy and Numeracy attainment in primary education requires more honest assessment and examination of from where the failings derive.
    In Austria, for example, ‘early years’ education is ‘play/activity based’. Formal reading and writing skills are not taught until age 8/9. Levels of attainment at age 11 compare most favorably with systems such as Northern Ireland where childen are introduced to reading & writing at Key Stage 1 (age 5/6).
    In recent years, NI schools in disadvantaged areas have been encouraged to teach ‘reading recovery’ to children who have identifiable problems in this regard. Success of this initiative is measured by the ‘catch up’ of participating children; i e attaining comparable ‘reading age’ to children who have developed skills more easily at an earlier age.
    Unfortunately, not all children who experience learning difficulties in those early years are ‘undamaged’ by their apparent ‘failure’. Such variable rates of learning capability are not necessarily reflective of intellectual ability. Children develop learning capabilities at different rates of progress which is not taken account of by the present primary schools’ curriculum.
    The psychological cost to children who require special assistance at age 8/9 is compounded by the fact that valuable teaching resources are utilised, which could be more efficaciously applied elsewhere in the particular school.
    We need to ask why there is insistance to teach formal reading and writing skills at such a young age 5/6, when similar end of Key Stage 2 outcomes can be achieved without the ‘failure/recovery’ process and the necessary diversion of resources which disrupts and impacts the delivery of the curriculum.
    The imminent discussion about raising primary school entry age provides an ideal opportunity to consider the value of effective curriculum alternatives which have been proven in other European education systems.
    The benefits of implementing new thinking in this regard will accrue to the fluency of school management and more importantly to the protection of childrens’ confidence, to which all educationalists aspire.
    It is infinitely better to teach skills to a peer group when the greatest number of those children can attain simultaneously.
    I address the foregoing issue because it is acknowledged that there are more instances of need for literacy and numeracy teaching intervention during Key Stage 1, in socio economically disadvantaged areas.
    There is a correlation between incidence of learning difficulties and entitlement to free school meals.(A blunt measuring instrument but effective barometer of socio economic influences which affect a school’s population)
    The incontrovertible evidence that Protestant working class children are twice as likely to NOT attend university may be contributed to by a multiplicity of cultural or other reasons, but there is no disputing that positive attitudes to education are easier to establish in a pleasant primary school envirnonment.
    Parents who perhaps have no positive view of the value of education are more likely to encourage their children if they sense attainment and contentment.
    It is imperative that Structural Reform of the Primary Curriculum ensures the creation of interesting, equitable and effective learning environments where ALL parents are inspired by their child’s desire and enthusiasm to attend school each day. Absenteeism, truancy and parental indifference to education can be eradicated if the opportunity to address these policy deficits is grasped by the policy makers.
    The primary education system in Northern Ireland is a foundation stone of the entire educational system and represents the greatest influence in the formation of attitudes towards the value of education to the individual and to society.
    Perhaps political consensus on the need for radical reform of Education is most easily obtained through appraisal and analysis of the obvious failings of the primary school sector, especially in disadvantaged urban and rural  areas.
    ‘Throwing money’ at the problem will not bring resolution if there remains the existing disconnect between socially disadvantaged families and the schools/education system. Confidence can only be built though the development of a curriculum which takes account of the causes of such alienation from the system as is cultural in some families and communities. This phenomenon is not peculiar to disadvantaged Protestant/Unionist communities but it is more common than in comparable Catholic/Nationalist communities. Radical new thinking developed into a new primary school curriculum can effectively address the systemic injustice which is endured by both.
    The abolition of academic selection and the development of a streamlined All Ability Second Level Education system in Northern Ireland can deliver much better opportunities for ALL children when the spirit of the Common Curriculum (introduced 1985) is reflected in equitable resourcing across that sector.
    Special strategic focus on Communities whose schools have borne the adversity of funding discrimination of the ‘two tier’ system must be central to the forthcoming decisions on provision/resourcing of Second Level All Ability schools. Sustainability of schools is pre-eminent in all discussions, but so too should be the principle of paying the ‘community premium’ as part of any ‘economic appraisal’.
    Investment in Education whether it be by way of policy or financial budget represents the most significant contribution that political leaders can make to a society, macro or micro. Good decisions can improve the lives and opportunities of generations. Poor political decisions and lack of leadership in the past has forfeited opportunity and condemned communities to ‘no expectation’.
    It is the incumbent duty to our society, of our Political Representatives to acknowledge the inequality of the present education system. This generation of socially disadvantaged children can no longer be denied their Civil and Human Right to equitable and equal educational opportunity.
    Demand for the rectification of this systemic injustice is an issue which can unite voices across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland.
    Thank you for providing me with the opportunity to contribute to this debate. For too long policy input to the  failed Education System in Northern Ireland has been the preserve of the ‘unknowing’, or perhaps,the ‘uncaring’.

  3. An excellent piece Eamonn.  You are absolutely right, we do not have a world class education system but we could have.  Not by throwing money at schools but by working to address the deficits within and without the system.  Within the system we need to address issues of leadership, falling enrollments and failing schools.  Good leadership and inspection with support for failing schools can help.  Outside of the system, particularly in our poorest neighbourhoods, we need a greater understanding of the effects of poverty on a child’s ability to learn.  Poor diet, poor health, poor parenting are some of the factors that impact negatively.  They can be helped by community and schools working together to improve engagment and build awareness of the benefit of education.  We need to see a greater degree of ‘mixing’ within our schools.  You are right when you say all too often when a Prod does well for themselves they take off, move elsewhere and do not return to the community they came from.  Leaving many working class areas bereft of any socially balanced mix.  This is reflected in the school system where Protestant Grammars tend towards elitism.  If those who do well were to return, grow roots, invest in the community they came from you would see an improvement in achievement levels.  There is no greater encouragement for a child, than to mix with their peers from all backgrounds and so lift their aspirations for what they can achieve in the future.  This has been proven the world over where children from all backgrounds and abilities are educated together, those from better-off backgrounds continue to perform very well and those from less well-off backgrounds perform much better than if they had been educated seperately.  We need to improve our socially-balanced mix in our schools in order to improve outcomes for all of our children. 

    It is scandalous that our politicians have failed to get to grips with this issue for decades.  We have over 250,000 adults with numeracy and literacy problems in Northern Ireland and if we don’t sort the issue of educational underachievement we are just adding to these figues every year.  The impact this has on individuals, who cannot participate in the economy, on the community and on the economy itself, is wasting billions of pounds we can ill-afford.  We need action.

    Thank you for keeping the spotlight on this extremely important issue Eamonn.

  4. Nice piece and relevant for someone who has just left third level. The ability of some of my former classmates at university was shocking in regard to basic English and Maths skills. In my opinion there are far too many wishy washy subjects which deflect from key subjects like Eng,Maths and Science. It’s telling that the Protestant working class has been left in the lurch by parties only really concerned with consolidating their political dominance rather than really improving the lives of their constituents.

  5. Couldn’t agree more however in my view instilling confidence and positve reinforcement in the classroom and in other areas of school life is probably the key to motivating kids irrespective of polical or religious background.