Belfast Telegraph

Why EU says we 'could do better' on kids' education


By John Simpson

Northern Ireland presents a range of contrasting performance measures. Even though economic and social standards fall short of our ambitions, average living standards are high when placed in an international setting. Internationally, the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland rank very high in the normal league tables.

In the recently updated assessment of social progress, compiled by the European institutions, the UK and Ireland rank as 11th and 12th in a study of over 180 countries. The UK and Ireland, assessed on social progress, rank higher than any of the other 28 EU countries, except Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands. When the temptation is to be critical of local standards, the criticism looks less deserving in a wider comparison.

Of course, using comparisons with other EU regions in the search for greater progress is the norm for policymakers and politicians.

European statistical comparisons, based on the 272 internal regions that are the sub-divisions of the 28 member states, point to issues where local achievements and performance leave unwanted deficiencies. In the 272 EU-wide regions, the island of Ireland subdivides into three: Northern Ireland, the border, midland and western region of Ireland, and southern and eastern Ireland.

The assessed rank order of the three regions on this island is a critical starting point for an examination of why they differ.

In rank order they are:

Northern Ireland 65th

Border, Midland and Western 114th

Eastern and Southern 52nd

This confirms the usual perception that all three regions here fall well behind the more successful parts of the EU but nevertheless were ahead of the EU average, and doing better socially than on conventional economic measures.

The Social Progress index is an additional analytical tool to sit alongside, but not replace the more usual comparisons of GVA, or gross value added per person. The Social Progress index has been built up by examining evidence on 12 different thematic components. Each of the 12 is a summation of further detail from about 4 (or more) sub-headings.

Expressed briefly, the Social Progress index builds a score for a number of things, including meeting human needs, such as nutrition and health care, foundations of well-being, and areas such as personal and human rights.

The fine detail of the scoring system is not needed for the publication now issued. This publication uses a 'broad brush' categorisation to code whether a category is either a strength, neutral or a weakness.

All three regions in Ireland score much better on providing the foundations for wellbeing than meeting basic human needs or offering available opportunities.

Perhaps surprisingly, Northern Ireland attracts a weaker score on access to basic knowledge. This draws on the results from secondary education enrolment and early school leaving rates along with poor secondary completion rates. In the 12 thematic headings, all the others produce middle of the road scores. One helpful feature is that Northern Ireland scores well on ecosystem sustainability.

The two regions, sub-dividing the Republic of Ireland, have generated much more varied scores with some strengths and some weaknesses. Both of these regions score even better than Northern Ireland on ecosystem sustainability as well as for tolerance and inclusion. The worst score from either Irish region came from water and sanitation standards.

Southern and Eastern region scored 215th from the 272 regions and the Borders, Midland and Western region scored 175th.

These critical scores mirror the recent acknowledgement that Irish water and sewerage standards are critically deficient. This study usefully broadens the understanding of the links between economic and social progress. Also, the ability to make inter-regional comparators is a useful discipline to challenge domestic administrations.

Does that mean that EU money has been well spent?

Belfast Telegraph