Belfast Telegraph

Education bigger than the grades on a paper

Northern Ireland is above the UK average for A* and A grades at A-level, but falls short when it comes to studying science and technology. We need a re-think, says Joanne Stuart

As young people come to terms with their A-level results and make decisions regarding their next step into third-level education, or into the job market, questions are being asked if the A-level system fully equips our young people for this transition.

The question, in reality, is not about the system itself, but rather about the support framework and whether this is fit for purpose to enable young people to make the right decisions regarding their career options, subject choices and education route.

Success at A-level is a welcome achievement and this year saw an increase in the number of young people studying A-levels in Northern Ireland.

Although there was a slight decrease in the number of higher grades achieved, Northern Ireland remains above the UK average, with 34.5% of students here attaining A* and A grades compared to the UK average of 27%.

However, there are other dimensions that are equally important to a successful career. The ability to communicate articulately, to be self-motivated, an ability to think creatively, work in a team, numeracy skills and an enthusiasm for work itself - these are all skills that will hold young people in good stead as they move forward on their chosen path.

In addition, students need to have a better understanding of the career opportunities available and the qualifications and skills that employers are looking for.

This will enable students to make informed decisions about their subject choices, decide on the right educational route and weigh up the opportunity costs and future financial and career benefits of choosing a particular path.

For those young people considering higher education, cost is an obvious concern.

The decision on the level of tuition fees in Northern Ireland has yet to be decided, but for the 30% or so of Northern Ireland students who currently decide to study in the other regions of the UK, it is a fact that fees will significantly increase in 2012.

It is important that young people understand that tuition fees and maintenance-loan repayments are deferred, meaning that no payments are due until students have completed their studies and are earning £21,000 or above.

Student loans are treated differently to commercial loans, such as bank loans or credit cards, with the repayment amount being related to earnings and not to the value of student loan incurred, with repayments starting at £7.50-per-month for a graduate earning £21,000. Careers education is an essential guidance throughout the mandatory education system.

Choices made at GCSE level impact on the choices that can be made at A-level, which can, in turn, impact on the choices for third-level education, whether through further education colleges, higher education institutions or entering an apprencticeship.

We also need to look at how the performance of schools is measured. If the measure of success is only the number of students who go on to university and the grades achieved at A-level, then that will drive a certain behaviour.

Schools have to be given more recognition for equipping young people with the skills they will need in the 'real' world and helping them to choose the right options.

Even though we are above the UK average in grades achieved at A-level, the telling difference comes when you delve into the subjects that are being studied.

It is accepted that science, technology, engineering and mathematics are all areas in which we need to increase our skills-base, yet if we look at the subjects being studied, Northern Ireland falls well short of the UK average which has seen increases across all the STEM disciplines.

Chemistry and physics, which rose by 9.2% and 6.1% respectively in Great Britain, both saw a decline in Northern Ireland. Even mathematics, which is the second most-popular A-level subject here, had an increase of only half that of GB.

It is even worse when we compare ourselves internationally.

The Nuffield Foundation carried out an international comparison of 24 countries, which showed (based on 2010 figures) that England, Wales and Northern Ireland were the only ones in which fewer than 20% of students study mathematics after the age of 16.

Matrix, the Northern Ireland science industry panel, through its Horizon programme, identified five key sectors highlighting the technologies and markets that could create social and economic benefits for Northern Ireland.

The economic future will not be achieved without the supply of STEM skills and knowledge and that has to start with the attraction of young people into STEM disciplines at school.

This has been identified in the Success through STEM strategy and businesses, as one of the key stakeholders, have a leading role in the STEM implementation steering group, which I chair, and recognise that businesses must be involved in all aspects of STEM promotion, from partnering with primary schools to develop children's interest, through supporting careers guidance, facilitating CPD for teachers and developing skills within schools.

But, without incentives or targets for schools to encourage more uptake of these subjects at GCSE and A-level, the impact will be diminished and progress will be much slower than those countries we are competing with in the global marketplace.

In Northern Ireland we have the highest participation rates of young people in higher education, but with the challenging economic environment, growing graduate unemployment, increasing tuition fees and competition for university places, it is even more important that young people are provided with the information and careers guidance to understand all their options.

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