Chapter 3:
Skills for the Job

3.1 Fair Employment legislation and measures to tackle unemployment cannot be wholly successful unless all job applicants have an equal opportunity to develop the skills necessary to compete for the jobs. The skills which an individual brings to the labour market can greatly enhance his or her chances of finding employment. If recruitment and promotion are based on merit, marketable skills are the key to employability. For the economy as a whole, upgrading the skills base is a key element in attracting inward investment and developing the sectors which will sustain growth in the new Millennium. The acquisition of skills, through education and training, is integral to broadening employment opportunities. Each individual has a responsibility to develop his or her skills, commensurate with their abilities. There is also a responsibility on the educational system and training services to provide the opportunities for individual development.

3.2 The Government has repeatedly stressed, both at national and Northern Ireland level, the importance of education in its overall social and economic strategy. The education service aims to help people of all ages and abilities, and especially those disadvantaged by social need or disability, to develop the skills, competencies and flexibility needed for their working life. It should promote fair treatment for all and equality of opportunity for every individual to reach his or her potential. Additional support and resources are targeted at those young people whose educational needs are greatest and to take account of social disadvantage.

Pre-school provision

3.3 It is widely recognised that good-quality pre-school provision for children contributes significantly to their social, intellectual and emotional development. It enhances the child's ability subsequently to benefit from formal education. Together with family friendly employment, it helps the parents of young children to balance their family and work commitments, thus extending their own employment opportunities. The Government is committed to the provision of one year of pre-school education for all children under compulsory school age whose parents wish them to receive it. Considerable progress has already been made through the European Childhood Fund. Plans for implementing this commitment have been outlined in a consultative paper on the development of pre-school education places [1]. Some 2,200 additional places will be provided in 1998/99, an expansion of over 20% in a single year. In the first phase of the programme, the additional places will be targeted at children with the greatest social need and the oldest children in the pre-school cohort. Given the distribution of social disadvantage, the initial programme will impact particularly on Catholic children.

3.4 The compulsory age for commencing primary education in Northern Ireland is lower than in England and means that many 4 year-old pupils are already in full-time education. The statutory curriculum is designed to have regard to the educational and developmental needs of this age group and a special Primary One initiative ensures enhanced adult:pupil ratios. As the pre-fives initiative develops, inappropriate use of reception classes will be phased out. The Government does not consider that there are any educational grounds for raising the current school starting age and does not accept SACHR's recommendation to this effect [2].

The school curriculum

3.5 The Government accepts that a broader education framework, with particular emphasis on raising standards of literacy and numeracy, will be a necessary contribution to the development of the economy and increasing employment opportunities. Raising standards of literacy and numeracy requires action at several levels and the Government set out in February 1998 a new strategy, the School Improvement Programme, which will:
  • focus support in the early years of primary education, particularly for literacy;

  • establish literacy and numeracy support teams in each Board area;

  • improve the quality of leadership in schools;

  • phase in a reduction in class sizes for 4-7 year-olds to 30 or less;

  • promote the active involvement of parents in their children's education;

  • set Northern Ireland targets for literacy and numeracy at ages 8, 11 and 14;

  • encourage schools to set their own targets for literacy and numeracy; all schools will be given further advice on benchmarking, target-setting and improving attainment levels;

  • pilot literacy and numeracy summer schemes;

  • address under-achievement by boys;

  • provide effective remedial programmes for pupils in Key Stages 2 and 3; and

  • support those who have left school poorly equipped to benefit from further education or training.
The programme will specifically give special assistance to around 80 schools, objectively most in need through low achievement. This should impact particularly on high unemployment areas. There is current consultation on ways to integrate literacy and numeracy skills in all young people's post-16 education.

The schools system

3.6 Despite its small population, Northern Ireland has a complex system of schools provision which reflects both a sectoral division (controlled, maintained, voluntary and, latterly, grant maintained integrated and Irish-medium schools) and an established pattern of diverse post-primary provision (grammar, secondary and, in some areas, broadly-based schools catering for all abilities). This system has permitted a high degree of parental choice. Selection at age 11 is a significant feature of the Northern Ireland education system. SACHR has recommended a fundamental review of the arguments for retaining the current selection system, with public consultation[3]. Defenders of the system point to high levels of success in examinations and at university entrance, compared with areas of Great Britain with a comprehensive system. SACHR has itself pointed out that access to higher education is perceived as fair and is regarded by both communities, but particularly by Catholics, as a route of social mobility [4]. There is considerable evidence that parental resistance, both Catholic and Protestant, to the local amalgamation of grammar and secondary schools can be strong. The Government will respond positively to the wishes of parents to abandon selection in their areas, where such proposals are educationally sound and there is no unreasonable expenditure. The debate on this subject should be informed by objective information and the Government will commission major research on the impact of selection on the entire education system, including the implications for secondary schools of expansion in the number of grammar school places. Research has already been commissioned to evaluate arrangements in the Craigavon area where there is a system of junior and senior high schools and selection is delayed to age 14. In addition, the Department of Education will keep under review the procedures used in selection in the light of experience.

3.7 The Government accepts SACHR's recommendation that the number and location of grammar school places should be kept under review [5]. Since the introduction of open enrolment, the availability of grammar school places has been kept under review within the broad principle that sufficient grammar school places should be available in any sector in any area to cater for all pupils obtaining a grade A and about 80% of pupils obtaining a grade B1 or B2 in the transfer procedure tests. Where, over the years, there has been a shortfall of places against those criteria, additional grammar school places have been provided. The overall position will continue to be reviewed annually to ensure fair access to grammar school places in both the denominational and non-denominational sectors.
3.8 Higher education in Northern Ireland has expanded considerably since the early 1980s. The availability of tertiary education is undoubtedly a major factor in social mobility and a significant contributor to economic development. It is important that students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds should not be deterred from availing of opportunities in higher education. Currently Northern Ireland has a higher level of participation from the relevant social groups than the rest of the United Kingdom. SACHR expressed concern about the impact of changes in funding arrangements for higher education [6]. The Government has introduced a new student support system, including a means-tested contribution to fees. Students from low-income families will be exempt from tuition fees, with some 40% of new entrants estimated to be exempt. They will also be able to access the maximum level of loans, with repayments only commencing when, as graduates, they are earning over £10,000 per annum. These arrangements will apply on a UK-wide basis and will be introduced in October 1998. A PAFT analysis will be carried out on the new arrangements.

Compensating for disadvantage

3.9 There is a correlation between social background and educational performance. A child from a disadvantaged home environment is less likely to achieve examination success and progress to tertiary education. Often leaving school with few or no qualifications, a disadvantaged pupil is at risk of drifting into unskilled employment or long-term unemployment, thus perpetuating the cycle of deprivation. If they are to play a role in breaking that cycle, schools must be adequately resourced, with particular attention being paid to those which encounter most directly problems of social disadvantage and under-achievement among their pupils.

3.10 As part of the Targeting Social Need (TSN) initiative, the Department of Education for Northern Ireland has, for some years, been focusing additional educational resources at those schools in greatest need. Some 5% of the total schools budget is earmarked in this way, and in 1997/98 some £36m was targeted at controlled and maintained schools - some £14m going to controlled schools and £22m to maintained schools. At individual school level, these allocations have a significant impact. For example, an average sized secondary school of about 700 pupils with a high free school meal uptake can receive up to £150,000 per year more than a similar school with a lower uptake. The money is allocated on the basis of a combination of free school meal entitlement and other criteria measuring educational need. The Department of Education for Northern Ireland is currently consulting on how these resources might be targeted more accurately at the most needy schools, taking account of the new key stage assessment in addition to free school meal entitlements. It is, however, likely to be the 1999/2000 school year before any new arrangements can be introduced. In the interim, the amount allocated to grammar schools on the basis of free school meals has been reduced.

3.11 A separate programme for increasing resources in a limited number of schools, the Raising Schools Standards Initiative (RSSI), is about to come to an end. This initiative was based on the identification of secondary schools with particularly poor examination performance, and of the primary schools from which they drew their intake. Because of the linkage between examination performance and social disadvantage, the initiative has had greater impact on Catholic maintained schools, of which there are 50 schools and 21,000 pupils participating, together with 40 controlled schools with 13,000 pupils. RSSI has been monitored extensively by the Department's Inspectorate and the Institute of Education at London University, with a report to be published early in 1999. This has, however, already been confirmed as a successful initiative and the majority of participating schools have made clear gains. The new School Improvement Programme will supersede the initiative and take account of experience to date.

3.12 The SACHR report pointed to the scope for current schools funding arrangements to counteract the effect of additional resources from TSN and RSSI. Current funding formulae take account of the size of school premises, which can favour large voluntary grammar schools. The Government accepts that funding for premises should bear a closer relation to pupil numbers and the Department of Education has already taken steps to ensure that it is based on a 50/50 combination of pupil numbers and area of premises. The Department will be consulting on the extent to which there should be a factor for grounds and pitches in the funding formula.

3.13 SACHR also queried the apparent inconsistency between the targeting of resources on disadvantaged schools and the Department of Education's continued funding of preparatory departments in voluntary and controlled grammar schools [7]. Public funding has been limited to 40% of teaching costs in those departments. This means that the level of public funding to preparatory departments is significantly lower than to other grant-aided primary schools. Any new funding policy which would result in the transfer of significant numbers of pupils from preparatory departments to other grant-aided schools would, therefore, place additional financial demands on the education budget. Against that background, it has been concluded that the level of grant-aid to preparatory departments should be reduced from 40% to 30% of teaching costs.

3.14 The Government has inherited a situation in which there are several different methods of allocating schools funding in Northern Ireland, with variations between education and library boards and Department of Education funding to voluntary grammar schools and grant-maintained integrated schools. The Government is determined that there should be a common system of funding and is making progress in this direction. It is important, for the sake of fairness, that similar schools, whether controlled or maintained, in different parts of Northern Ireland should be funded on a similar basis, with a transparent system of calculation using a consistent formula.

Linking the education and training systems

3.15 The work of the education and training systems must complement each other. In Northern Ireland the same Minister is now responsible for both functions for the first time. Relationships between the Department of Education and the Training and Employment Agency are becoming much closer. A Strategy Policy Co-Ordinating Group brings together on a regular basis senior officials from DENI, T&EA and the unified Education and Training Inspectorate. There are proposals for closer co-ordination of the work of further education colleges and training centres. FE colleges are about to become self-governing and will be expected to target their efforts at under-usage of adult education provision. Adult education is an important element in enhancing employability for many people whose potential has not been fully realised by the schools system. The Government will place much more emphasis on lifelong learning and the constant improvement of skills as one way of enhancing employment opportunities. Learning throughout a person's lifetime can help heal social division as well as improve the individual's work prospects and self-esteem. Northern Ireland will, like the rest of the United Kingdom, work towards widening access to learning and encouraging those who have been excluded to re-enter the learning world. The aim will be to reverse the gap, in terms of job prospects and income, between those who have benefited from education and training, and those who have not.

3.16 This objective will require innovative approaches, including greater use of information technology, and will also seek to persuade individuals to take responsibility for their own learning and development. The Government's proposals in its current consultation paper constitute an imaginative and challenging agenda.[8] The creation of the University for Industry, supported by the Learning Direct national helpline, and encouragement to individuals and businesses to invest in learning will constitute a revolutionary approach to lifelong learning. Northern Ireland will play a full part, adapting the national agenda to meet its particular circumstances and needs.

3.17 Development work is currently under way on a credit accumulation and transfer framework for Northern Ireland (NICATS), under which credit will be awarded for the successful completion of modules within a qualification, which can subsequently be transferred. This would provide continuity between the school, further and higher education sectors, and will enable all learning, whether vocational or academic, to be linked and accredited. It is anticipated that the current NICATS project, if successful, will be taken forward by the year 2000, meeting SACHR's recommendation on the creation of a "credit culture"[9].

3.18 The Government also agrees with SACHR on the need for a strategic role for careers guidance within further education and training [10]. Since September 1997 the Training and Employment Agency has introduced formal partnership agreements with schools and further education colleges through the introduction of Service Level Agreements. This ensures that all young people have access to the Agency's careers guidance service. The impact of the Service Level Agreements will be evaluated.

3.19 The Government is pursuing legislation in respect of making part-time training available for all 16 and 17 year-old employees, with employers who do not provide the training themselves funding it at further education college. This will, however, have cost implications for employers; the implementation of the policy will, therefore, be related to the availability of resources. Northern Ireland policy changes in this area will follow the lead of the rest of the United Kingdom.


3.20 The Training and Employment Agency's key programme is jobskills, introduced in April 1995 to replace the previous Youth Training and Job Training programmes. jobskills is tailored to individual needs and trainees have the choice of the most suitable recognised training organisation to deliver their requirements. Training is directed towards the attainment of full National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) at levels 2 and 3, with incentives to attain goals. Jobskills has already more than doubled the success rate of trainees achieving NVQs. It incorporates many of the Dearing recommendations, being analogous to the proposed National Traineeships. Jobskills is probably two years in advance of comparable provision in Great Britain.

3.21 A key initial Jobskills target was to have 45% of its first cohort of trainees (those who entered training in 1995/96) achieving NVQ Level 2 or above by March 1998. This target has already been surpassed, with an achievement rate of 54% by January 1998. Subsequent targets will take into account the rates of success actually achieved by the first cohort and the Training and Employment Agency will set progressively more ambitious targets. In addition new emphasis will be given to encouraging employer-led Modern Apprenticeships to train young people to NVQ level 3 or above, along with the Key Skills needed to ensure adaptability and employability in the changing environment of the future.

3.22 With the end of the Youth and Job Training Programmes, targets for progression into "employment, further education or training" were discontinued in favour of targets based on NVQ attainment. The principle of setting "employment only" targets for training programmes is accepted by the Government. The New Deal for 18 to 24 year-olds will involve the setting of such targets. It is also accepted that the Agency's targets for programmes directed at long-term unemployment should be based on the proportion of the long-term unemployed in the relevant areas [11].

3.23For several years T&EA has monitored its programmes extensively in terms of uptake by religion, gender and people with disabilities. The breakdown of Jobskills trainees by community background has remained reasonably constant. In July 1997 43% of all Jobskills trainees were identified as Catholic, while 41 % of trainees in employer-led programmes were also Catholic. The T&EA will keep under review the balance of community participation in the various elements of the Jobskills programmes and will take any necessary corrective action.

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[1]Policy on Early Years Provision for Northern Ireland (Department of Health and social Services and Department of Education for Northern Ireland. September 1994).
[2]SACHR - Employment Equality: Building for the Future (HM5O. cm 3684. June 1997), p35.
[3]SACHR, p40.
[4]SACHR. p40.
[5]SACHR. p40.
[6]SACHR, p40.
[7]SACHR. p36.
[8]The Learning Age: a renaissance for a new Britain (Department for Education and Employment, February 1998).
[9]SACHR, p51.
[10]SACHR, pp5l-52.
[11]SACHR, p52.

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