Why can we not see the wood for the trees when it comes to education?

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As I highlighted in my previous post, (https://eamonnmallie.com/2011/10/debunking-the-myth-about-our-world-class-education/) more and more thinkers in our society are facing up to the reality that we have been deluding ourselves about our ‘world class’ education. The real proof of the pudding comes in the work place, where I am regularly told by employers of the deficit in the emerging workforce.

William Wright of  Wrightbus, has drawn my attention to the fact that many seeking jobs on his site are literally ill-equipped with the necessary mathematical and technical skills to match the engineering demands on the factory floor.

On a visit to a Lisburn factory producing’pop-up’ properties for the animation world, the Managing Director explained to me that the expectations of the potential employees were simply not matched by the level of competency necessary for his output.

The Operations Manager of First Derivatives in Newry, explained to me that their company is advertising all over the world for high end specialists to fulfil their work force complement – simply because of short falls in education standards among graduates emerging from our local universities.

To underscore the ongoing problems within the outworking of our educational system, I speak from direct experience of dealing with, and coming in contact with scores and scores of aspiring journalists emerging from our colleges. They simply haven’t a clue about my profession. They have not been trained in the fundamentals of journalism, such as short-hand and the capacity to listen or to interrogate. The ability to cross examine or question an interviewee is the cornerstone of journalism. What are these students being taught, I wonder?

This is not a unique problem to Northern Ireland. In fact, the British Government is undertaking to pump millions into the rejuvenation of industrial skills to restore the country as a major industrial power.

What is remarkable is the silence of politicians (with few exceptions – Dawn Purvis included) right across the board here, who appear to be acting ostrich like in buying into the thesis that we have a ‘world class’ education system.

George Bain the former Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University, a Canadian by birth, spelled it out in black and white what should be done nearly ten years ago. He argued for the prioritisation of the emphasis being shifted away from the lionisation of the grammar school system. He was also pressing for a corresponding respect to be afforded vocational education, even on the same site as the grammar school. Where is the evidence that any heed was given to his international experience in this area?

When did you last see a page dedicated to photographs of scores of successful young electricians, plumbers, joiners etc in the Belfast Telegraph or the Irish News…..?


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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. Michael Strain on

    I agree wholeheartedly with your arguments, and support the campaign you have launched recently. As an outsider, I detect what might be at the heart of NI reluctance to recognise and acknowledge the destructive aspects of its historic ‘lionisation’ of grammar schools, and of its protection of what was once termed ‘white collar’ occupations (I’m referring to the woeful oversupply of public sector clerical and administrative jobs in NI) . Elitist assumptions and unexamined ‘attitudes’ are stonger here, stronger even than self-interest. Think, for a moment, Eamonn, about your own give away remark about providing vocational education “even” on the same site as grammar schools. It is as if, in some people’s view, some kind of social contamination could ensue from such a risky juxtaposition. Yet your suggestion would be taken for granted and be commonly found in many of the world’s industrially most successful countries. Integration of ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ education in NI is needed more urgently than religious integration, and could incidentally do more than anything else to promote a single system for all children and young people.