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Revamping Northern Ireland’s education system at core of improving social mobility

Four in ten people believe Northern Ireland’s education system must be improved in order to improve social mobility, according to new research from PwC which assesses the impact of the pandemic on inequality.

Driving Social Mobility, which surveyed 4000 adults across the UK, found that a quarter of people in the region said they’d been held back from achieving their full potential because they’d not learned the right skills at school and hadn’t been better informed about career opportunities. 

Interventions in education were singled out as the most effective means to improve social mobility and reduce inequality. The top 3 recommendations are expanding apprenticeship programmes (44%), improving the quality of education in schools (40%) and improving access to higher education (22%). The findings chime with the recent OECD report as well as the focus on skills development in '10X Economy’, the Department for the Economy’s economic vision for the next decade in Northern Ireland.

The role of business

Across the UK,  the public is united in wanting business to play a key role in securing the social mobility of future generations by offering better work experience and career pathways.

In Northern Ireland, a majority of people said that their employer gives equal chances for people from all socio-economic backgrounds to progress at work (64%) however this was behind both Wales (69%) and Scotland (66%). Two-thirds (66%) think the government should work with local businesses to offer more hands on experience as part of the education catch-up process from the pandemic. 

People unanimously see the steps businesses can take such as providing work experience placements, providing non-graduate routes into employment, upskilling, and mentoring, as all playing an important role in social mobility.

Apprentices on PwC’s ‘Flying Start’ programme make up almost 10% of the firm’s 2500 workforce in Belfast. This includes the Technology Degree Apprenticeship with Queen’s University Belfast which is now in its 4th year and the recently launched Degree Apprenticeship in Customer Operations at Ulster University. These give students a fully funded degree, a salary, work placements and a job offer on successful completion of the programme.

Lynne Rainey, PwC NI Purpose lead, commented:

“It’s hard to think of something which has the potential to be as transformative as apprenticeships. From increasing awareness of career opportunities to opening doors to further education to improving productivity - apprenticeships benefit individuals, businesses and society. 

“Northern Ireland’s education system has long been able to produce students with fantastic exam results which are the envy of others but we need to apply the same ambition on ensuring the system works for all students.  

“Businesses like ours have an important role to play and I’m proud of our social mobility commitments, including the Degree Apprenticeships with our two universities, our paid work experience placements for people from less privileged backgrounds and helping disadvantaged young people develop workplace skills. However we know more can be done, particularly around the issue of supporting older generations to retrain and upskill, which we’re actively exploring.”

Focus on the future

There are concerns about the impact on future generations, with almost two-thirds (60%) of people in Northern Ireland believing the pandemic has made social mobility more difficult, while 56% agreed that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds have been further disadvantaged by the pandemic. 

While two out of three (61%) people felt they had more opportunities than their parents, only one in two (52%) people believed their children would have access to the same or more opportunities than they had. 

This contrasts with findings of the older generation who believed they had access to the opportunities needed to make their lives better, (55% in Northern Ireland which was above the UK average of 49%) who were also more optimistic about their future with 44% believing their lives will be better in a year’s time, second to Wales at 48%, and just above the UK average of 43%. 

The Rt Hon Alan Milburn, senior advisor at PwC and chair of the Social Mobility Foundation, said:

“This research is a stark warning that the pandemic risks putting social mobility into reverse. While older people have been the principal health victims of Covid, without action the younger generation will be the biggest economic and social losers from it. 

“COVID-19 has not only exposed the fragility of our care system.  It has also exposed the fragility of our society. Urgent action is needed to put jobs, education and skills for young people at the heart of the Government’s levelling up agenda. 

“But this is too big a job for Whitehall alone. The public wants businesses to more actively step up to the plate to create new opportunities for people to progress in life. A new national mission is needed to address deep inequalities in society.”


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