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Northern Ireland's Schools Outperform Rest of UK - but Adult Education Record Still Poor

Originally Published 3 February 1999
A new report by the University of Warwick shows a marked difference between the standard of school education in Northern Ireland and the Province's record on adult education. The report notes that the Province's schools outstrip the rest of the UK in academic achievements, but also notes that the level of adult and vocational education is still substantially below the rest of the UK. In particular the researchers (Professor John Field, the UK's first ever Professor of Life Long Learning, and Lynda Spence) noted that:-
  • More NI young people stay in the education system after 16 (in 1996/97 76.7% of NI 16 and 17 year olds were still in full time education as opposed to only 63.2% in England) School leavers gain proportionally more qualifications than the rest of the UK:-
  Northern Ireland  UK
5+ GCSEs Grades A-C   51.3% 44.4%
2+ A levels 34.7% 29.5%

  •  Adult education in the Province lags behind the rest of the UK in 1995 24.3% of the NI workforce had no formal qualifications compared to England 17.2%, Scotland 16.1% and Wales 19.1%.
  • Gender difference is the provinces schools are very marked in 1997/8 only 71.5% of 16 year old boys were still in full time education contrasting with a figure of 91.4% of girls

The report obviously raises concerns about Northern Ireland's performance in adult education. The researchers point out that the Province suffers from the legacy of past under achievement. They also point out however, that it is still the case that proportionately fewer Northern Irish adults take up some form of continuing education and training. They are less likely to receive work-related training than their British counterparts; they seem to participate less frequently in general adult education. Far fewer people return as adults to take a higher education qualification. Library usage is also lower than in England, Scotland or Wales.

A variety of factors have caused this pattern including the emigration of many bright school leavers. However one of the most interesting factors may be a that the actual social characteristics of Northern Ireland that have helped promote high schools attainment (such as robust family structures, the importance of membership in churches and other voluntary organisations, and strongly shared values within the two main communities) may also militate against participation in adult learning, particularly for women but also for men. On the down side, it may have helped reinforce a climate of low aspirations; more positively, it provides a platform for a more supportive environment for lifelong learning that may complement the more conventional emphasis on individual and organisational measures.

For further details please contact:

Professor John Field
Professor of Life Long Learning
University of Warwick
Tel: 01203 523835