Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland cream of A-level crop, but other skills must be developed

Editor's Viewpoint

Once again congratulations are due to the students of Northern Ireland, their teachers and parents for the incredible results achieved in their A-levels.

They outshone their peers in other parts of the UK by a wide margin, with 30.4% getting A* or A grades in Northern Ireland compared to 26.3% across the UK as a whole.

That underscores the comment by former Education Minister Peter Weir that Northern Ireland's education system needs reform rather than revolution.

It serves the academically able very well but there are failures in the system.

One obvious area for treatment is the gender gap, even among those achieving the highest academic grades.

This year, girls achieving A* and A grades increased their lead over the percentage of boys getting the top grades.

This must be a concern, especially since boys in the rest of the UK overtook girls for the first time in 17 years.

Identifying the problem is one thing, finding a solution is another. Perhaps it is the shortage of male teachers at primary and secondary levels which means fewer male role models in the classroom, or perhaps it is a cultural issue where teenage boys have other interests or feel it is not cool to be seen as the class swot.

As a counterpoint, the performance of girls at A-level continues to amaze. They consistently outperform their male counterparts throughout their school years.

However, in the real world after university or vocational training, their talent is not always allowed to flourish to its full extent.

Having children and raising a family can stall careers and there is also a glass ceiling in many companies where men outnumber women in top positions.

The recent decision by the BBC to release the names of its top earners showed that there can also be a marked gender imbalance in reward for talent.

While applauding the achievements of our teenagers in their A-level performance, we must also be aware of the wider educational problems which continually show a marked difference in attainment between socio-economic classes and a marked underperformance by working-class Protestant boys.

The old argument that their forebears paid little heed to education because there were plenty of jobs for them in the shipyard, ropeworks or foundries, and that this indifference to learning has dribbled down through the generations - if it still holds true - is an indictment of the society in which they live.

Education is something that should be cherished.

It is vital in everyday tasks such as corresponding or running home finances, never mind equipping young people with other life skills such as social interaction.

There also appears to be an elitist cultural attitude that educational attainment is of greater merit than any vocational or occupational skills.

There often seems to be less resources devoted to turning out people skilled with their hands. That is an absurd position for a society to adopt.

At its most extreme, society would survive without the most learned archaeologist but would sink without a plumber.

As anyone who has hired a skilled tradesman will know, such occupations are financially rewarding.

We should cherish the skills of all young people and encourage them to follow the path which they think is best, whether that is through education or life skills. In the coming years after Brexit, we will need bright young people in all sectors of our economy.

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