Editor: Women should be equally represented in boardrooms, governments, the workforce, and in all walks of life but, sadly that is not what is happening today. You just have to look at social media to see the barrage of insults, threats and demeaning language used against any woman who shares her opinion. There is an urgent need for the female loyalist voice to speak the truth of your lives. Otherwise this absence of voices especially in public policy will continue to reflect the male priorities, points of view and aspirations. It is therefore with great pleasure that I share with you Emma Shaw’s opinion piece on educational underachievement following the Department of Education’s call for evidence to address this issue. Emma has worked and researched this topic in great detail.
The topic of education underachievement is not a new subject in Northern Ireland politics, with the new working group set up to look yet again at the issue, can we expect a different outcome than before? Is the definition of insanity not continuing to do the same thing even though we know we will get the same results? While it is great to have this issue at the forefront of the assembly’s political agenda, I can’t help but feel that it will simply be another example of DUP tokenism. I have no doubt that there are people on the working group who will advocate for meaningful change, but they will face an uphill battle with many of their contemporaries.
There has been significant work already carried out on the topic of underachievement within working class areas, academics and politicians alike setting forward policy recommendations in an attempt to have an impact on this scandal. The main issue remains the same, there is a severe lack of political willpower to actually take steps to address the issue, politicians continue to use it as window dressing when they speak about how they represent the working class.
During my time at Queens’ University, Belfast I conducted research on education underachievement in East Belfast. Where my research differed from that which had come before, I sought to include the opinions and views of the students themselves. I was tired of hearing that working-class children have no aspirations, and most are happy to just ‘sit on the brew’, that was not my experience growing up with those around me and it was certainly not the case with the young people that replied to my survey (546) with the top three career choices of Medicine, Teaching and Media/Creative Arts (Shaw, 2019). Young people from low income backgrounds face barriers that those sitting at Stormont cannot comprehend. Many of these young people do not see Higher Education as an option because they think it is more of the same type of schooling they’ve encountered at High School and this is where Universities like Queens’ and Ulster should actively engage these schools to showcase the offerings and support they have. I am tired of hearing that Queen’s is a cold house for Protestants and Unionists, while it may be true that working class PUL students are a minority, in my experience at Queens’ there is work going on behind the scenes to attract students from the PUL community but more needs to be done. This is where former students like myself can serve as a bridge between the University and the PUL community to encourage students (if they so choose) to attend University. Let me be clear, I do not think that University education is right for everyone and I want to see Further Education colleges students be able to access the same funding that Higher Education students can through Student Finance, with tuition and maintenance grants/loans.
There are a multitude of issues with our education system in Northern Ireland, the main ones in my opinion are; the lack of adequate funding for schools to be able to offer all the services that they are expected too; a severe lack of strategic leadership from the Education Authority and; the heavily segregated nature of the NI school system. Our education sector needs investment, not only in resources, teachers and institutions but in meaningful partnerships that bring businesses, learners and educators together with a cohesive and strategic vision for the future of Northern Ireland. There are some examples of partnerships between, schools and colleges or schools and employers but this is done sporadically and usually left for the school administration to arrange. In my opinion the Education Authority lacks innovation and needs dragged into the 21st century. The curriculum needs to be flexible so that schools have the autonomy to adapt to what is the right fit for their students and with the current system we do not have that, schools are too focused on having to teach to the exam curriculum. What COVID has shown us is that teachers have the capacity and knowledge of their students and should be trusted to be able to present an overall reflection on how a student has performed across their time at school, students should not be subjected to high stakes testing that serves as a predictor for their future.
With the Tory government recently putting a focus on “levelling up” the country and ensuring that adults can also further their education it is time for politicians to “put their money where their mouth is” as my Granda would say! Now more than ever our workforce needs to be able to adapt to the changing employment sectors, especially post-Covid (when we eventually get there) but throwing money at the issue will not be enough. We need strong, strategic and cohesive leadership at the head of the ship and right now in Northern Ireland neither the First Minister nor the Deputy First Minister can offer this.