Academic selection limiting intergenerational mobility

Northern Ireland’s continued use of academic selection is leading to a much lower rate of intergenerational mobility compared to that in the Republic of Ireland, a report has found.

The Education Across the Island of Ireland report, published by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in March 2023, states that “it is reasonable to conclude that the continued use of academic selection in Northern Ireland is likely to be a contributory factor limiting the extent to which the Northern Irish educational system facilitates intergenerational mobility”.

The report further explains that 29 per cent of young people in Northern Ireland are able to attain a higher level of education than their parents, compared to a figure of 38 per cent in the Republic. A figure which will cause concern for those in the Northern Ireland education sector as the rate of students leaving education early in Northern Ireland is 14.1 per cent, more than double the rate in the Republic, which has an early school leaving rate of 5.6 per cent.

The ESRI states that it can measure the relative impact of social mobility more formally by use of a model that regresses student educational outcomes on parental education. The marginal effect of the impact of low parental education on the probability of a child having a poor educational outcome is about twice as large in Northern Ireland as is the case in the Republic.

With regard to early school leaving, an individual in Northern Ireland whose parents have a “low education” is 27 per cent more likely than their peers whose parents have higher educational attainment to be an early school leaver. The same marginal effect, the report asserts, equates to only 13 per cent in the Republic.

The report also examines educational mobility based on parents’ level of education in the two jurisdictions which it states is based on the educational level of the parent with higher attainment. The report makes it clear that educational mobility is much more prevalent in the Republic of Ireland than it is in Northern Ireland for those whose parents at the lowest levels of parental educational attainment, 77 per cent of young people in Ireland educationally upgrade compared to 58 per cent in Northern Ireland.

At the other end of the spectrum, when parents have high levels of educational attainment, educational downgrading is also stated as being “somewhat more likely” in the Republic of Ireland. However, the report adds that it is “likely that the grouping of parents’ education into three categories and in particular the grouping together of upper secondary and post-secondary may be hiding some upward mobility”.

“Given that post-secondary qualifications are much more common in [the Republic of] Ireland than in Northern Ireland, we believe there to be more educational upward mobility in [the Republic of] Ireland than can be clearly distinguished [in this report],” the report explains.

With respect to patterns of educational attainment, the ESRI finds that substantial divergence has occurred over time, with educational attainment improving more rapidly in the Republic relative to Northern Ireland in the last 15 years.

In 2019, the proportion of people aged between 25 and 29 with low levels of educational attainment was approximately 11 per cent higher in Northern Ireland than in the Republic, whilst the proportion of people in said age category with high levels of educational attainment was approximately 9 per cent lower in Northern Ireland

The ESRI report said differences were not evident in 2005, meaning that Northern Ireland’s pattern of lagging behind neighbouring regions is fairly recent. The report confirms that, in addition to lagging considerably behind the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland is performing unfavourably compared to the United Kingdom’s constituent countries, particularly Scotland.

Northern Ireland, the report asserts, currently has the highest rate in the UK or Ireland of people with low qualifications, and Wales is the only region in the area with a lower proportion of people with higher-level qualifications.

To solve Northern Ireland’s educational attainment decline, the ESRI has recommended that the targets for what should be the minimum level of educational attainment expected as the norm in Northern Ireland changes over time.

Currently, the ESRI asserts, the ability to retain children to the point of completing an upper secondary education is seen as a key objective in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

“Early school leaving is particularly important as the long-term ramifications for individuals in terms of their labour market outcomes but also of their overall wellbeing are well documented. Adopting the OECD definition of early school leaving, we find that it is more than twice as prevalent in Northern Ireland as it is in [the Republic of] Ireland (14.1 per cent compared to 5.6 per cent),” the report states.

“Furthermore, while coming from a more disadvantaged background is a significant predictor of educational failure in both jurisdictions, the impact was more pronounced in Northern Ireland. The marginal effect of the impact of low parental education on the probability of a child having a poor educational outcome is about twice as large in Northern Ireland as is the case in Ireland.”

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