High marks and hidden illiteracy — the education dilemma in the North

High marks and hidden illiteracy — the education dilemma in the North

Northern Ireland's education system celebrates high exam marks but hides a shocking secret — a significant portion of its population struggles with illiteracy, affecting daily life and politics. Those who do well often emigrate

Last month Northern Ireland’s media and educators were chuffed again about the high marks children got in A levels and GCSEs.

Northern Ireland does better than any other region of the UK but we also do worse.

Our shocking illiteracy levels are published, but you would think they were secret judging by how society functions around that deficiency without noticing it.

Nearly a fifth of our population, 17.4 per cent have very poor literacy.

That means they could not read the ingredients on the back of their packet of breakfast cereal.

They could not follow the subtitles in a foreign movie.

They struggle to read the road signs as they drive or to fill in forms for benefit applications.

And in our proportional representation list system which might have a dozen candidates standing for election in any constituency, who have to be numbered in order of preference, they probably would struggle to read the names. This may in fact account for low turnout in our elections which in turn accounts in some measure for the sectarian consolidations that characterise our politics.

We have a selection system which divides children at 11 years of age. Those that pass an examination and prove their suitability for an academic education are directed towards the grammar schools and those who fail are, theoretically directed to a system better suited to them.

In practice, the grammar school kids get their A levels and go to university, as do many of the children in the better secondary schools, but a huge number just trudge through a drab system until they are legally allowed to leave it.

Matthew O’Toole is one of the few politicians to have noticed this and to see its political relevance. He is a nationalist MLA representing the SDLP. He’ll be the leader of the opposition if Stormont is ever restored.

Speaking at a recent meeting of the New Ireland Commission which gathers evidence for why we need a united Ireland he cited how the south does better than the north at teaching young people.

We have, he says, “a relatively narrow strata of top achieving school leavers … followed by a shamefully long tail of people leaving school with poor, or no qualifications…”

And even the ones who do well contribute less than they might to the region that nurtured them through a preferential system.

“Thiose with no qualifications] are quite literally left behind as high numbers of those fortunate, usually grammar educated students, leave Northern Ireland either to go to university, or to find work after they graduate.

“And so,” says Matthew, “we repeat the vicious cycle of failing to adequately educate enough of our young people, and exporting a high proportion of those who do succeed.”

That’s one reason why we have a trashy economy.

We get mobs of disaffected kids rioting every year and wonder why they haven’t anything better to do with their time — but we don’t educate them.

And there are other reasons for educating our children properly beyond lifting the economy and improving political debate. It would be a good thing for its own sake. I would prefer that we had an education system which operated on the same principle as the NHS and directed its resources and energies primarily at the areas of greatest need. In that case, if we were doing any selecting at all we would be finding those children who are most disadvantaged within the system and helping them first instead of demoralising them and sending them to the back of the queue. We brag to the world that we have a superior education system yet a grasp of elementary grammar is a challenge even for several of our MLAs. It is routine to hear some of them using phrasing like “should have went” or “I done. . .”

Some would says that is just our regional working class dialect and it is snobby to criticise it, but given that one of the objectives of the education system is to teach standardised spoken and written English, this lapse into dialect by our ministers must be indicative of failure within that system.

No doubt many teachers and principals are delighted to have schools of clever, well mannered children whose parents believe in education and support them. But this is like clinics selecting healthy patients to ease their workload.

Our grammar school system is like a private school system for those already advantaged, and one paid for by the state, through the taxes of the very people who are rejected.

And what sort of society comes from mass illiteracy such as we have created through a failure to concentrate on the weakest?

Today we look at the calamitous out-workings of social media, the fostering of prejudice and conspiracy theories. The antidote to that is universal education.

But maybe educated people would ask difficult questions and be harder to corral within such definable political camps as we have today. The result might be too democratic for some to stomach.