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3. Creating a culture of lifelong learning in Northern Ireland

Abstract

Creating a culture of lifelong learning is crucial to ensure that individuals participate in learning after leaving compulsory education. Lifelong learning results in a wide range of benefits, including higher wages for individuals, higher productivity for firms and higher levels of social trust. This chapter explains the importance of creating a culture of lifelong learning in Northern Ireland (United Kingdom) and provides an overview of current practices and performance. It then explores three opportunities to create a culture of lifelong learning in Northern Ireland: starting the development of a culture of lifelong learning early in life; increasing adults’ motivation to learn; and removing barriers for individuals and employers to adult learning opportunities.

    
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The importance of creating a culture of lifelong learning

A culture of lifelong learning can be defined as the shared set of beliefs, values and attitudes, and resulting behaviours that are favourable towards learning across the life course (OECD, 2010[1]). Creating a culture of lifelong learning is crucial to ensuring that individuals actively participate in adult learning after leaving the compulsory education system. In turn, participation in different forms of adult learning has positive impacts on individuals, firms and society.

For individuals, participation in formal adult education and training can lead to better employability prospects, higher wages and upward social and/or occupational mobility (Midtsundstad, 2019[2]). For firms, training leads to higher productivity growth and is often a complement to innovation in the workplace (Acemoglu, 1998[3]; Dearden, Reed and Van Reenen, 2006[4]; Konings and Vanormelingen, 2015[5]). Participation in adult learning can also generate strong social benefits; higher-skilled adults typically report better health, feel more included in political processes and trust others more than low-skilled adults. Adult learning opportunities can help individuals achieve these higher levels of skills (OECD, 2016[6]).

The latest available evidence from the United Kingdom (UK) shows that obtaining a new qualification (e.g. a tertiary qualification or A levels) increases upward mobility for individuals (McMullin and Kilpi-Jakonen, 2014[7]). With regard to training, the latest available evidence from the UK also suggests that increasing training time by 10% within firms leads to a 6% increase in productivity and a 3% increase in hourly wages (Dearden, Reed and Van Reenen, 2006[4]).

In the case of Northern Ireland, creating a culture of lifelong learning is crucial in addressing three cross-cutting challenges. First, a strong culture of lifelong learning can help increase the levels of productivity of the workforce, which is significantly lower in comparison to other parts of the UK. Second, it can help support individuals and firms to respond to the challenges and opportunities arising from the UK‘s exit from the European Union (EU) and global megatrends. Third, although at the time of writing the full impact of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic remains unclear (see Chapter 1), some of the shorter term measures to create a culture of lifelong learning could contribute to economic recovery by making it easier for displaced workers to find new jobs through reskilling and upskilling opportunities.

The international evidence suggests that to foster a culture of lifelong learning in the long term, it is crucial that children and young people develop a positive attitude towards learning, along with strong cognitive and meta-cognitive skills (OECD, 2015[8]; Tuckett and Field, 2016[9]). This helps ensure that they have both the motivation and the foundational skills to participate effectively in adult learning later in life. In the short to medium term, initiatives to increase the motivation of adults can be combined with measures to remove financial and time-related barriers to access adult learning opportunities (European Commission, 2015[10]; OECD, 2019[11]).

Northern Ireland has already introduced strategies such as Success through Skills, Preparing for Success, Access to Success, and Further Education Means Success to make progress in many of these policy areas. Combined, they promote lifelong learning as an important part of the national skills landscape and propose initiatives to make education more flexible and accessible for adults (Department for Employment and Learning, 2011[12]; Department for Employment and Learning, 2012[13]; Department for Employment and Learning and Department of Education, 2016[14]).

This chapter focuses on developing strong attitudes to learning and foundational skills in children and young people up to the age of 16, when they complete compulsory education, so as to foster a culture of lifelong learning in the long term. Upper-secondary and tertiary education are covered in Chapter 2 because, though relevant in the development of a strong culture of lifelong learning, they play a crucial role in reducing skills imbalances as well.

In terms of short- to medium-term policy interventions, this chapter does not discuss in detail targeted education and training policies to help inactive individuals re-join the labour force, such as young people not in employment education and training (NEET) and the economically inactive. These targeted policy interventions are also covered in Chapter 2 because of their role in helping to address skills imbalances.

This chapter begins with an overview of current practices and performance indicators for creating a culture of lifelong learning in Northern Ireland. It then discusses three opportunities for creating a culture of lifelong learning.

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Northern Ireland’s practices and performance in creating a culture of lifelong learning

Current practices to create a culture of lifelong learning

For the purposes of this chapter, creating a strong culture of lifelong learning depends on current practices in compulsory education and access to formal, non-formal and informal learning opportunities in adulthood (see Box 3.1). Two departments play a crucial role in overseeing the initial education system and the adult learning system. The Department of Education (DE) is responsible for pre-school, primary and secondary education (Department of Education, n.d.[15]). The Department for the Economy (DfE) is in charge of further education (FE), including initial and continuous vocational education and basic skills programmes for individuals, higher education (HE) and firm-level programmes for employers. Other departments and governmental agencies also play a role in the adult learning system, such as the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), which is responsible for education and skills policy linked to agriculture, environment and rural affairs (DAERA, 2019[16]).

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Box 3.1. Formal education, non-formal education and informal learning

Formal education is provided in schools, colleges, universities or other educational institutions, and leads to a certification that is recognised by the national educational classification.

Non-formal education is defined as any organised and sustained educational activities that do not correspond exactly to the above definition of formal education. This includes courses through distance education, on-the-job training, seminars, workshops or private lessons.

Informal learning relates to typically unstructured, often unintentional, learning activities that do not lead to certification. In the workplace, this is more or less an automatic by-product of the regular production process of a firm.

Source: OECD (2011[17]), PIAAC Conceptual Framework of the Background Questionnaire Main Survey, www.oecd.org/skills/piaac/PIAAC(2011_11)MS_BQ_ConceptualFramework_1%20Dec%202011.pdf.

Overview of the compulsory education system in Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, learning begins with pre-school education. Through the Pre-School Education Programme (PSEP), funded by the DE, publicly funded education for children aged three to four is available at primary schools, nurseries, playgroups and other public, voluntary and private settings (Eurydice, 2019[18]). Primary schools are divided into Foundation Stage, Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 (ending at age 11). Primary schools are largely organised along denominational lines, but all must teach the statutory Northern Ireland Curriculum (Eurydice, 2019[18]). General lower secondary education is taught from ages 11-16 and includes grammar schools, secondary schools and a small number of fee-paying independent schools. At this level, students must complete Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4, with the latter leading to the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) qualification (Department of Education, 2019[19]). The Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) has responsibility for the curriculum in the compulsory education system.

Upon finishing compulsory education at age 16, learners have more choices in how to continue pursuing an education. The main academic route results in completing A levels, frequently leading to higher education courses (see Chapter 2). Students can also opt to undertake vocational pathways and apprenticeships through the ApprenticeshipsNI scheme.

Overview of the current arrangements for adult learning undertaken by individuals

In line with other OECD countries, adults in Northern Ireland can engage in formal and non-formal learning across all skill levels. They can pursue vocational, further and higher education at a variety of providers, including FE colleges and universities. Programmes to develop basic core skills are also available, and offerings are directed at adults through flexible study provisions.

FE colleges are the most popular institution for formal and informal learning opportunities with adult learners. Across all types of courses, 45 511 individuals aged 25+ were enrolled in FE colleges in 2017/18 (Department for the Economy, 2019[20]). These colleges are the main providers of higher education at National Qualification Framework (NQF) Level 4 (including Higher National Certificates) and Level 5 (including Foundation Degrees). The provision is fairly flexible, with several courses being offered part-time and during the evenings. Apprenticeships are another important option for individuals pursuing continuous vocational education. The ApprenticeshipsNI scheme provides apprenticeships at Level 2 and Level 3 for adults. In recent years, the scheme has also been extended to offer a number of Higher Level Apprenticeships at Levels 4+.

Three universities operate in Northern Ireland: Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University and the Open University. Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University both offer many of their degrees on a part-time basis, helping students to continue working while studying (Ulster University, n.d.[21]; Queen's University Belfast, n.d.[22]). Ulster University also runs the Centre for Flexible Education, which aims to make personal and professional development courses more accessible to adult learners. The Open University operates throughout the UK, and its degrees aim to provide a high degree of flexibility for learners; all courses are taught via distance learning, allowing adults to fit learning in around existing schedules (The Open University, n.d.[23]). Adult learners in Northern Ireland predominantly take higher education courses on a part-time basis, taking advantage of this flexibility: 10 705 adults aged 25 and above were studying part-time undergraduate courses in universities in 2017/18 compared to 4 105 in full-time courses.

The College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) is responsible both for further education and higher education in subjects linked to DAERA’s areas of competence. For instance, it is responsible for tertiary qualifications in subjects such as Agriculture, Food, Equine and Horticulture, but also offers a wide variety of vocational courses such as Level 3 in Horse Management and Level 3 in Land-Based Engineering (CAFRE, n.d.[24]).

Adults can also participate in formal and non-formal education at lower skills levels. FE colleges and a variety of other organisations offer a range of academic, vocational and leisure courses at NQF Level 1, Level 2 (GCSE equivalent) and Level 3 (A level equivalent). For those lacking basic skills in maths, English and information and communication technology (ICT), the Essential Skills programme, run by the DfE, provides free courses to improve competencies in these core areas. The Essential Skills courses are open to individuals 16 and over and are delivered by FE colleges and voluntary and community training organisations (NI Business Info, n.d.[25]).

Overview of the current arrangements for training offered by employers

In Northern Ireland, employers use a variety of external providers to organise both formal and non-formal training for employees. In line with the rest of the UK, commercial organisations such as private training providers are the main avenue for such training opportunities (see Figure 3.1). As in other parts of the UK and most OECD countries, most training constitutes non-formal education. Only 32% of employers in Northern Ireland offer training that leads to a formal qualification (especially Level 3 and 4 qualifications), in line with the rest of the UK (UK Department for Education, 2017[26]).

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Figure 3.1. External training sources used by all establishments in Northern Ireland and the UK, 2016
Figure 3.1. External training sources used by all establishments in Northern Ireland and the UK, 2016

Source: UK Department for Education (2017[26]) Employer Perspectives Survey 2016, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/employer-perspectives-survey-2016.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934127567

Employers can access three programmes subsidised by DfE or Invest NI to upskill current employees, which combined, cost approximately GBP 8 million of public funding (see Opportunity 3 for a detailed description). Invest NI provides financial support through the Skills Growth Programme, whereas DfE runs Skills Focus and InnovateUS. A number of pre-employment programmes are also offered, but these are discussed within the context of reducing economic inactivity (see Chapter 2). Employers also receive incentives for apprentices and contribute to a UK-wide apprenticeship levy (see Opportunity 3).

Performance in creating a culture of lifelong learning

The existing evidence suggests that Northern Ireland does not have a strong culture of lifelong learning. According to the Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), and Labour Force Survey (LFS) data, participation in adult learning by individuals is lower than neighbouring countries such as England (United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland, especially among lower-educated individuals. The Employer Skills Survey shows that businesses in Northern Ireland train their employees less intensively than businesses based in other parts of the UK, regardless of firm size. However, there is wide regional variation in Northern Ireland in terms of both the provision of training and the intensity of training.

Participation in adult learning by individuals

Participation in adult learning by individuals in Northern Ireland is lower than in other countries in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, according to both LFS and Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) data (see Figure 3.2). The data from the LFS show that approximately 10.9% of adults in Northern Ireland participated in education and training in the four weeks preceding the survey. This is lower than the EU average (11.3%), the Republic of Ireland (12.6%) and the UK as a whole (14.8%) and is significantly lower than top-performing countries such as Switzerland (32.3%) and Sweden (34.3%). Increasing the participation rate in line with the UK average would mean that an extra 39 000 individuals would be able to participate in education and training on a monthly basis.

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Figure 3.2. Participation rate in adult learning in Northern Ireland and other countries
Figure 3.2. Participation rate in adult learning in Northern Ireland and other countries

Source: NISRA (2020[27]), Labour Force Survey (database), https://www.nisra.gov.uk/statistics/labour-market-and-social-welfare/labour-force-survey; OECD (2019[28]), Survey of Adults Skills (PIAAC) (2012, 2015, 2019) (database), www.oecd.org/skills/piaac/.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934127586

Overall participation in formal and non-formal adult education in the past 12 months, using Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) data, is lower in Northern Ireland (48.8%) than the OECD average (49.5%), the Republic of Ireland (50.8%) and England (56.2%). Increasing the participation rate in line with England’s average would mean that an extra 72 000 individuals would be able to participate in education and training on a yearly basis.

While the gap in participation with the Republic of Ireland and the OECD average is lower than the gap with England, the intensity of participation lags behind. Individuals in the Republic of Ireland (122 hours) and across the OECD (121 hours) spend approximately 30% more time in adult education than individuals in Northern Ireland (94 hours). Conversely, individuals in England spend a similar amount of time in adult education (96 hours).

The lower participation rates are largely among male and lower-educated individuals (see Figure 3.3). Unlike in England, the Republic of Ireland and OECD countries on average, men (47.7%) are less likely to participate in adult learning than women (49.1%). Individuals without an upper-secondary qualification (23.4%) in Northern Ireland have a substantially lower participation rate than comparable individuals in the Republic of Ireland (28.5%) and England (32.4%), and slightly lower than the OECD average (24.7%).

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Figure 3.3. Participation in formal and non-formal education in Northern Ireland for specific cohorts, 2012/15
Figure 3.3. Participation in formal and non-formal education in Northern Ireland for specific cohorts, 2012/15

Note: Due to the low sample size, formal and non-formal education opportunities are considered jointly to compute a total participation rate.

Source: OECD (2019[28]), Survey of Adults Skills (PIAAC) (2012, 2015, 2019) (database), www.oecd.org/skills/piaac/.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934127605

Participation in training by employers

As foreshadowed in the current practices section of this chapter, in Northern Ireland, as in other OECD countries, employers play an important role in fostering participation in adult learning through the provision of training opportunities. The Employer Skills Survey shows that organisations in Northern Ireland are on average less likely to provide training than organisations in England or Scotland (United Kingdom) (see Figure 3.4).

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Figure 3.4. Training provision and intensity by employers in Northern Ireland and other UK countries, 2017
Figure 3.4. Training provision and intensity by employers in Northern Ireland and other UK countries, 2017

Source: UK Government (2017[29]), UK Employer Skills Survey 2017, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/employer-skills-survey-2017-uk-report.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934127624

Approximately 63% of establishments (including government bodies, charities and profit-seeking firms) in Northern Ireland have provided training in the past 12 months, compared to 66% of establishments in England and 71% of establishments in Scotland. The establishments that do provide training, however, seem to do so less intensively. Organisations in Northern Ireland average 3.5 days of training per employee; a value similar to Wales (United Kingdom), but below England (4.0) and Scotland (4.1).

Training varies substantially depending on firm size. As discussed in Chapter 1, Northern Ireland has a relatively high share of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In principle, this could mean that the underperformance of Northern Ireland could be driven by its comparatively high share of SMEs. The higher incidence of SMEs does seem to explain differences in training provision to a large extent, but not in training intensity (see Figure 3.5).

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Figure 3.5. Training provision and intensity in Northern Ireland and other UK countries, 2017
Figure 3.5. Training provision and intensity in Northern Ireland and other UK countries, 2017

Note: Fewer than 30 Northern Irish businesses with 250+ employees responded to this question in the Employer Skills Survey, meaning data for the category 250+ is suppressed for Northern Ireland.

Source: UK Government (2017[29]), UK Employer Skills Survey 2017, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/employer-skills-survey-2017-uk-report.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934127643

The difference in training provision between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is larger for businesses with 2-4 employees (49% in Northern Ireland vs. 53% in the UK). The difference is smaller for businesses with 5-24 employees (76% vs. 78%) and 25-49 employees (91% vs. 92%). Businesses with 50-99 employees (96% vs. 95%) and 100-249 (99% vs. 96%) have slightly higher rates of training provision in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK. Conversely, training intensity is lower for businesses of all sizes. The largest difference, both in absolute and relative terms, is observed for businesses with 50-99 employees (3.0 days in Northern Ireland vs. 4.5 days in the UK).

However, there is also high variation in training provision and intensity across different regions in Northern Ireland (see Figure 3.6). Three regions in Northern Ireland (NI East, NI South and NI North) perform below the UK average, both for training provision (on the x-axis) and training intensity (on the y-axis). Belfast performs above the UK average in terms of training provision, but below the average in terms of training intensity. The reverse is true for the West region. These results suggest that a region-specific approach might be required to strengthen training among employers.

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Figure 3.6. Training provision and intensity across UK regions, 2017
Figure 3.6. Training provision and intensity across UK regions, 2017

Note: Only regions in Northern Ireland and the region of Glasgow have been explicitly labelled. All other regions in England, Scotland and Wales are included in the chart with no labels.

Source: UK Government (2017[29]), UK Employer Skills Survey 2017, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/employer-skills-survey-2017-uk-report.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934127662

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Opportunities to create a culture of lifelong learning

This chapter describes three opportunities to create a culture of lifelong learning. The selection is based on input from literature, desk research, discussions with the Northern Ireland Project Team, workshops in Belfast, Derry/Londonderry and Dungannon, group discussions and a number of other meetings with stakeholders. The following opportunities are considered to be the most relevant for the specific context in Northern Ireland to create a culture of lifelong learning:

  1. 1. Starting the development of a culture of lifelong learning early in life.

  2. 2. Increasing adults’ motivation to learn.

  3. 3. Removing barriers for individuals and employers to adult learning opportunities.

The first opportunity aims to foster a culture of lifelong learning in the long term. The remaining two opportunities focus on short- to medium-term policy interventions.

Opportunity 1: Starting the development of a culture of lifelong learning early in life

In the workshops and group discussions conducted during the project, stakeholders considered that developing a strong culture of lifelong learning in the longer term will depend on educational experiences and parental support early in life. International and UK evidence confirms that children who develop a positive attitude towards learning and strong cognitive and meta-cognitive skills in compulsory education will have greater motivation and foundations to participate effectively in adult learning later in life (OECD, 2015[8]; Tuckett and Field, 2016[9]).

As discussed in Chapter 1, Northern Ireland has been a strong performer in developing cognitive skills in compulsory education. Skills of youth in Northern Ireland have been increasing in recent decades and are now above the OECD average in reading, mathematics and science. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), these skills are also being developed inclusively, and young people are improving their skill set, in line with the OECD average. However, building on the feedback received from stakeholders during the project, this opportunity presents two potential policy avenues that Northern Ireland can pursue to further improve foundational skills and attitudes to learning early in life. First, it considers how Northern Ireland could improve the curriculum and examination methods in compulsory education. Second, it examines how Northern Ireland could further increase support for vulnerable families in areas of high deprivation.

Improving the curriculum and examination methods would help ensure that all learners develop the right skills and attitudes to learning in the context of megatrends. On the other hand, increasing support for vulnerable children and their families could help reduce the number of low-educated and low-skilled workers in the future who, as seen in the performance section above, are less likely to participate in adult learning.

Improving the curriculum and examination methods in compulsory education

Despite its relatively strong PISA performance, it is important for Northern Ireland to ensure that the compulsory education system continues to develop strong foundational skills and attitudes to learning in the context of megatrends. Evidence suggests that this will require updating the compulsory curriculum and teaching practices, as well as examination methods.

The ongoing OECD Education 2030 project aims to identify what skills students should develop in order to succeed later in life in the context of megatrends, and how these can be delivered by the education system (OECD, 2019[30]). The project highlights that the school curriculum will play a crucial role in enabling students to develop the right skills and attitudes to learning (OECD, 2019[30]). In particular, the project stresses the importance of adopting a skills-based curriculum that puts a strong emphasis on digital and data literacy skills and social skills, on top of numeracy and literacy, interdisciplinary knowledge, and transformative competencies that can be used across a wide range of contexts and situations (OECD, 2019[30]).

The compulsory curriculum in Northern Ireland shows some broad alignment with these key themes. An in-depth review of the compulsory education system conducted by the OECD found that the revised curriculum introduced in 2007 put a strong emphasis on using ICT, thinking skills and personal capabilities (Shewbridge et al., 2014[31]). The review also found that the revised curriculum connected learning across different areas and placed a greater focus on skills and their application. The curriculum was not just good “on paper”, however. The OECD review team met with representatives of employers and the teaching profession and noted a high level of support (Shewbridge et al., 2014[31]).

Consistent with this feedback, stakeholders in workshops and group discussions conducted during the current project expressed satisfaction with the curriculum. However, a number of stakeholders considered that the curriculum does not place sufficient importance on the development of digital and data literacy skills. In particular, according to some stakeholders, the curriculum lacks a clear specification of different levels of digital and data literacy skills that should be developed across the different Key Stages. Going forward, Northern Ireland could take inspiration from fellow OECD countries, such as Sweden and Australia, to develop, as suggested by stakeholders during the workshop, a “digital spine” that runs through the whole curriculum (see Box 3.2). However, an increased focus on the development of digital and data literacy skills will require widespread access and effective use of ICT tools in the classroom (OECD, 2019[32]). According to previous OECD analysis, access to ICT tools in schools is relatively high in the UK (OECD, 2019[32]). Northern Ireland performs in line with the rest of the UK. Since 2000, the Department of Education (DE) has invested over GBP 632 million in providing ICT infrastructure in schools, making Northern Ireland a strong performer in access to ICT in education (Department of Education, 2019[33]). Yet, in line with other OECD countries, the UK has been less successful at using ICT effectively in the classroom (see Figure 3.7). Data from PISA 2015 show that when levels of ICT use at school are very high, student performance tends to be lower (see Figure 3.7).

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Figure 3.7. Use of ICT technologies and skills outcomes in OECD countries, 2015
Students’ mean scores in mathematics by quartile of the index of ICT use at school
Figure 3.7. Use of ICT technologies and skills outcomes in OECD countries, 2015

Note: The figure displays students’ mean scores in mathematics by quartile of the index of ICT use at school, but the results are similar for literacy and science. Insufficient sample size does not allow to disaggregate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The index of ICT use at school measures how frequently students make a variety of digital device uses at school: playing simulations; posting one’s work on the school website; practising and drilling (such as for mathematics); downloading, uploading or browsing material from the school’s website or intranet; chatting on line at school; using email at school; doing homework on a school computer; using school computers for group work and communication with other students; browsing the Internet for schoolwork.

Source: OECD (2019[32]), OECD Skills Outlook 2019: Thriving in a Digital World, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/df80bc12-en.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934127681

ICT use is defined through an index that measures how frequently students make a variety of digital device uses at school, for instance, downloading, uploading or browsing material from the school’s website, doing homework on a school computer and using school computers for group work and communication with other students.

To some extent, these results depend on how digital and data literacy skills are embedded in the curriculum. Australia is an exception to the high-use and low-performance pattern, possibly because, in the Australian curriculum, ICT use and the development of ICT capabilities are embedded at all learning levels and in all curriculum areas, not only in the technology-specific ones (see Box 3.2). Yet, the effect of technology on student performance also depends on the use of suitable teacher practices and pedagogies (OECD, 2019[32]). Technology has the most positive effects when used as an amplifier for teaching, enabling teachers and students to relate the knowledge and skills developed in traditional and non-traditional instruction (OECD, 2019[32]). Pedagogies have a crucial role to play in making this possible (see Table 3.1); they should rely on technology as a tool for enhancing student motivation and learning, rather than treat technology use as an objective per se (OECD, 2019[32]). Building on these insights, going forward, Northern Ireland should ensure that new and existing teachers have access to learning opportunities about pedagogies and teaching practices that enable them to make the best out of ICT tools. There are many examples of such pedagogical methods, including gamification, which integrates the pedagogical principles of play and games (including video games) in formal learning, or flipped classes, in which students are required to attain content, usually provided by ICT material, before the class (Peterson et al., 2018[34]; OECD, 2019[32]).

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Table 3.1. The role of pedagogies in shaping the use of new technologies in the classroom

Technology type

What pedagogies can do

General ICT

  • Use ICT as a complement to teaching practices

  • Enhance motivation “through” and not “to” technology

  • Promote digital literacy and ensure students have prior competencies to use digital tools

  • Encourage active learning and collaboration

Multimedia materials

  • Use sound instructional designs

  • Encourage multimedia authoring as a tool for thinking skills, communication and self-expression

  • Accompany students scaffolding the use of materials

  • Ensure content can be understood and learners can stay focused

Multi-tasking and interactive environments

  • Enhance awareness of multi-tasking and its consequences

  • Design and implement environments based on sound pedagogical approaches

  • Promote the use of knowledge frameworks to help students connect new information with prior knowledge

Gaming

  • Ensure the integration of video games into the instructional context

  • Ensure exploration and manipulation of realistic scenarios

  • Ensure students focus on the learning elements of games

  • Provide feedback to students and align games to their learning capacity

Collaborative and Web 2.0 environments

  • Ensure Web 2.0 principles are followed (e.g. student-generated content, interaction and collaboration)

  • Avoid transmission of content by the teacher/relegation of students to passive roles

  • Enhance students’ capacities to self-regulate and remain focused

  • Put forward new ways of collaboration and learning based on Web 2.0 tools, extending learning outside the classroom

Note: Precise definition of the technologies are available at (OECD, 2019[32]).

Source: OECD (2019[32]), OECD Skills Outlook 2019: Thriving in a Digital World, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/df80bc12-en.

As well as modernising the curriculum and teaching practices, Northern Ireland could consider revising the examination criteria for GCSEs. As part of its in-depth review of the compulsory education system in Northern Ireland, the OECD review team expressed concerns about the alignment between GCSEs and the skills-based curriculum (Shewbridge et al., 2014[31]). According to the OECD review team, pupil learning outcomes and objectives during Key Stage 4 seemed to be strongly focussed on preparing the students for good results in the GCSEs. Teaching would be governed by what would be required to pass the GCSE examinations and could potentially narrow or even undermine the strong skills-focus of the curriculum (Shewbridge et al., 2014[31]). These findings are aligned with the feedback from several stakeholders consulted during the project, who suggested that compulsory education is too frequently focused on preparing students to pass exams, rather than providing them with the skills to succeed later in life. Going forward, Northern Ireland could consider changing the examination criteria for GCSEs, to put a stronger emphasis on a range of diverse assessments, rather than a single summative assessment. Northern Ireland could potentially learn from the experiences of several OECD countries, such as Canada, to make further progress in this respect (see Box 3.2).

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Box 3.2. Relevant international examples: Improving the curriculum and examination methods in compulsory education

Introducing a digital spine in the curriculum: examples from Sweden and Australia

According to the 2019 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), an index that tracks the evolution of EU member states in digital competitiveness, Sweden is one of the highest performing EU countries in areas related to digital skills, coming second in the EU for its human capital dimension. In part, this is because of the prominence Sweden places on including digital skills in school curricula. In 2017, Sweden outlined a new national digitisation strategy with a specific strategy for teaching digital skills in the compulsory education system, called the national digitisation strategy for the school system. This strategy was centred around three focus areas: digital competence for everyone in the school system, equal access and use, and research and follow-up on the possibilities of digitalisation within schools. To implement this vision the project #skolDigiplan brought together Swedish Municipalities and the County Councils (SKL), the National Agency for Education, and stakeholders from within the school system and the business community to formulate a national action plan. Published in March 2019, the plan outlined 18 initiatives and activities to improve the teaching of digital skills in schools. The timeframe envisages that all these initiatives will be in place by 2022 with current implementation ongoing.

At the school level, an example of a framework for digital competence is the one put forward in Australia by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). For ACARA, ICT capability development is organised around several dimensions: managing and operating ICT (e.g. managing data, selecting and using software), communicating with ICT, creating with ICT (e.g. using ICT to generate ideas or manage digital solutions for issues arising in learning activities), investigating with ICT (e.g. finding and analysing information, verifying sources and reliability of digital data), and applying social and ethical protocols and practices when using ICT (e.g. recognising intellectual property, applying personal security protocols). Students’ proficiency is assessed in all these dimensions and across all school years, since the development of ICT capability is considered as a learning continuum. At the same time, ICT capability supports student learning in all subjects covered by the curriculum, for instance by using digital tools to create artworks and looking for and critically analysing online information about historical events.

Revising examination criteria: report cards in Ontario, Canada

Ontario’s schools issue a progress report card and final report card for each student each year. The contents of the report card templates vary for Grades 1 to 6, Grades 7 to 8, and Grades 9 to 12, and for public and Catholic schools, but all of them report on: Students’ learning skills and work habits (i.e. responsibility, organisation, independent work, collaboration, initiative and self-regulation) and students’ achievement against provincial curriculum expectations for each subject or course. Guidelines outline the policies and practices district school boards, schools and teachers are required to follow in these areas and provide guidance to support completion of the report cards. Report cards provide space for teachers to comment on what students have learned, their strengths, and their next steps for improvement in relation to their learning skills and work habits and their achievement of provincial curriculum expectations for each subject or course. At all grade levels, in either progress or final report cards, students are required to complete the statements: “My best work is” and “My goal for improvement is”. Parents are prompted to indicate whether they would like to be contacted by the teacher(s) to discuss the report card results.

Sources: Kitchen et al (2019[35]) OECD Reviews of Evaluation and Assessment in Education: Student Assessment in Turkey, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5edc0abe-en; European Commission (2019[36]), The Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/desi; Swedish Government (2019[37]), National action plan for digitization of the school system, https://webbutik.skr.se/sv/artiklar/nationell-handlingsplan-for-digitalisering-av-skolvasendet.html; Swedish Government (2017[38]), National digitization strategy for the school system, https://www.regeringen.se/4a9d9a/contentassets/00b3d9118b0144f6bb95302f3e08d11c/nationell-digitaliseringsstrategi-for-skolvasendet.pdf; OECD (2019[32])OECD Skills Outlook 2019: Thriving in a Digital World, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/df80bc12-en.

Recommendations for improving the curriculum and examination methods in compulsory education

2.1. Revise the compulsory curriculum in the light of megatrends to focus on the development of digital and data literacy skills. The CCEA should introduce a digital spine throughout the curriculum that specifies digital and data literacy competencies that need to be developed at different Key Stages. As in Australia, the range of skills could be organised across several dimensions, such as managing and operating ICT and creating with ICT, and ICT capability should support student learning in all subjects covered by the curriculum. The revised curriculum should be based on extensive consultations with stakeholders, such as educational institutions and employers.

2.2. Expand professional development opportunities in technology-friendly pedagogies for new and existing teachers to improve the use of ICT tools in the classroom. DE should expand professional development opportunities in technology-friendly pedagogies that are compatible with better ICT use in the classroom, such as gamification or flipped classes, both for trainee and existing teachers. For trainee teachers, DE should encourage university colleges and higher education institutions (HEIs) delivering the postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) qualifications to include technology-friendly pedagogies in their provision. For existing teachers, DE should directly implement continuous development opportunities on technology-friendly pedagogies. For existing teachers, DE could consider offering short-term modular courses through a blended delivery model that includes an online component (see Opportunity 3).

2.3. Consider revising the examination criteria for GCSEs, by placing a stronger emphasis on a range of diverse assessments, rather than a single summative assessment. The CCEA should consider introducing a range of diverse assessments to replace or integrate GCSE examination. As in Ontario, Canada, the system could be based on report cards aligned with the revised curriculum, that report on students’ learning skills and work habits, students’ achievements, their strengths, and their next steps for improvement in relation to their learning skills and work habits.

Strengthening support for vulnerable children and their families

Stakeholders in group discussions reported that several areas of high deprivation show self-reinforcing patterns of low skill outcomes and low aspirations for parents and their children. This is supported by evidence on deprivation gathered by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). Children coming from families with low levels of education are themselves less likely to achieve high levels of success at school. There is a positive correlation between the proportion of working age adults with no or low levels of qualification and absenteeism in primary schools (see Figure 3.8). In communities with fewer highly educated adults, children are less likely to attend school on a regular basis.

To help break this cycle, international evidence suggests that it is important to provide support to these vulnerable pupils and their parents at different stages of the education journey. In early years, disadvantaged children benefit strongly from attending high-quality early childhood education. During the first years of life, children require high-quality care, attention and stimulation. Poor learning environments at this stage can have a negative effect on the development of cognitive skills and attitudes that are important for success during adulthood (Berlinski, Galiani and Gertler, 2009[39]; Chetty et al., 2011[40]). Children from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to have the opportunity to develop such faculties in their home environments. This means that disadvantaged children receive the greatest benefit from attending high-quality early childhood education (Currie, 2001[41]; OECD, 2018[42]). Later in their education journey, disadvantaged children and families should receive targeted support and guidance. Early warning systems (EWS) can play an important role in helping teachers and other pedagogical and expert staff interpret and act upon various distress factors exhibited by pupils that may result in negative outcomes, such as being absent from school or leaving school early (European Commission; ICF GHK, 2013[43]). Building on the results of EWS, countries can also develop targeted policy interventions. For example, in France, the Programme for Educational Success (Programme de réussite éducative) provides tailored support, with the agreement of parents, to students aged 2-16 in urban areas.

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Figure 3.8. Self-reinforcing cycles of low skills outcomes among adults and low outcomes among students in primary schools, 2017
Correlation between absenteeism at primary schools and the proportion of working age adults with no or low levels of qualification across communities in Northern Ireland (UK)
Figure 3.8. Self-reinforcing cycles of low skills outcomes among adults and low outcomes among students in primary schools, 2017

Note: The two axes show the rankings of all wards in Northern Ireland. Wards are ranked between 1 and 890, with 1 representing both the greatest level of absenteeism and the greatest proportion of adults with no or low levels of qualification.

Source: NISRA (2017[44]), NIMDM 2017 - SOA level Results, https://www.nisra.gov.uk/publications/nimdm17-soa-level-results.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934127700

In many ways, Northern Ireland is already a strong performer in supporting vulnerable students and their families. Northern Ireland already runs a range of programmes that aim to strengthen access to early childhood education for disadvantaged children. The Sure Start Programme aims to prepare 2-3 year-old children in the most deprived areas for pre-school, by providing a comprehensive range of services including home visiting, healthcare advice, and play, learning and childcare experiences (RSM McClure Watters (Consulting), 2015[45]; nidirect, n.d.[46]). As anticipated in the performance section of this chapter, the Pre-School Education Programme aims to provide one year of funded pre-school education for every child whose parents want it (Education Authority, 2019[47]). Where providers are over-subscribed, priority must be given to children from socially disadvantaged circumstances (Department of Education, 2018[48]). As vulnerable students progress in their education journey, they are supported by the Extended Schools Programme (ESP), which provides financing for services before, during, and after the normal school day to help raise their standards of achievement through activities such as breakfast and homework clubs, after-school activities and support for learning (nidirect, n.d.[49]).

These programmes have generally had a positive impact on the children and families involved. Feedback from parents in focus groups across Sure Start projects indicated very high levels of satisfaction, with parents believing that the programme had significantly helped their children (RSM McClure Watters (Consulting), 2015[45]). Site visits from the Education and Training Inspectorate corroborate the positive feedback from parents, finding evidence that participation in Sure Start results in actual improvements in children’s speech, language and communication skills (Education and Training Inspectorate, 2018[50]). Similarly, evidence from annual reports of the ESP indicated that 91% of schools and participating clusters believe there is either “strong” or “some” evidence that extended schools are fostering health and well-being, and 90% considered that the programme has had a “significant” impact within the schools (Education Authority, 2019[51]).

Nonetheless, there are still ways to improve the effectiveness of these initiatives. The Sure Start programme is currently available in the 20% most deprived wards, based on the multiple deprivation measure constructed by NISRA (RSM McClure Watters (Consulting), 2015[45]). Wards are quite large catchment areas, with an average population of 4 000 people (NISRA, 2019[52]). If disadvantaged families live outside of one of the highly deprived wards, they are not generally entitled to receive Sure Start support. Going forward, Northern Ireland should consider improving the targeting of the programme, by organising support around Super Output Areas, which are more granular and have an average population of 2 100.

The ESP could benefit from a more systematic use of EWS to measure and monitor social disadvantage. The entitlement to free school meals (FSM) at school, which are granted to children from lower-income families, and/or designation as an area of social deprivation, represent the eligibility criteria for the allocation of ESP funding (Education and Training Inspectorate, 2019[53]). In a recent evaluation, schools reported that complexity in the nature of vulnerable pupils is increasing: evidence indicates that the FSM entitlement and social deprivation criteria, while reflecting a level of need in the most disadvantaged communities, are not exclusive indicators of need (Education and Training Inspectorate, 2019[53]). To improve the measurement and monitoring of social disadvantage, Northern Ireland could improve data sharing across the school system. The in-depth review conducted by the OECD highlighted that there is limited information sharing between primary schools and post-primary schools (Shewbridge et al., 2014[31]). Going forward, Northern Ireland could consider developing a centralised longitudinal database for the school system, as in Estonia (see Box 3.3). The database could then be used to develop a standardised system for identifying levels of disadvantage and monitoring the effectiveness of policy interventions, as in the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) programme in the Republic of Ireland (see Box 3.3).

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Box 3.3. Relevant international examples: Strengthening support for vulnerable families

Strengthening support to vulnerable families: Estonia’s Education Information System (EHIS)

The Estonian Education Information System (EHIS) is a database that collates all information related to education in Estonia. EHIS draws on data directly inputted from around 2 000 educational institutions and is connected to over 20 other state-run information systems, such as the population register and tax register. It is a personal-identity-based database, allowing the tracking of individual students over time, with data relating to early childhood education, general education, vocational education, higher education, hobby education, state examinations and adult education. This information is used by schools, the public, research institutions, services, government bodies and policy makers for a wide variety of purposes.

In the case of supporting vulnerable families, EHIS facilitates evidence-based policy making and enables easier monitoring of social disadvantage. For example, the Social Insurance Board uses EHIS data to identify and process the disabled parent’s allowance, family benefits and partial cancellation of study loans. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds can also directly apply for a higher education needs-based study allowance through EHIS’s public-facing portal. Thanks to the collation of information on EHIS, students are not required to submit any supporting documentation, with data about family and income being available automatically. This enables decisions to be made immediately – simplifying and speeding up the process for individuals in need of extra financial support.

Strengthening support to vulnerable families: The DEIS programme in the Republic of Ireland

In 2005, the Republic of Ireland introduced the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) initiative, which has become its main policy instrument for tackling educational disadvantage. DEIS integrated and streamlined existing programmes for schools and schools clusters in disadvantaged communities under the School Support Programme (SSP). DEIS developed a standardised system for identifying levels of disadvantage in schools to ensure support would be targeted towards those communities most in need. Based on these standardised indicators, the programme implements maximum class sizes, provides additional support for libraries and librarians and puts in place a range of measures to target underperformance in literacy and numeracy. DEIS is monitored and evaluated by the independent government-funded Educational Research Centre (ERC), which enables the impact of DEIS on students, families, schools, and communities at primary and post-primary levels to be assessed. Specifically, the ERC has measured achievement and retention in DEIS schools since 2005 and compares the data to non-DEIS schools. Their most recent report in 2018 focused on post-primary schools, finding that there was a significant positive trend in the achievement of pupils in DEIS schools overall, in English and mathematics, and that the extent of student improvement over this period was greater in DEIS schools than non-DEIS schools.

Source: E-Estonia (n.d.[54]), “Estonian education information system”, https://e-estonia.com/solutions/education/estonian-education-information-system/; EESTI (2019[55]), “Data from the Estonian Education Information System”, https://www.eesti.ee/eng/services/citizen/haridus_ja_teadus/isikukaart_eesti_ee_portaali; OECD (2020[56]), Strengthening the Governance of Skills Systems: Lessons from Six OECD Countries, https://doi.org/10.1787/3a4bb6ea-en; Department of Education and Science (2005[57]), DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools): An Action Plan for Educational Inclusion, https://www.education.ie/en/Publications/Policy-Reports/deis_action_plan_on_educational_inclusion.pdf; Weir, S. and L. Kavanagh (2018[58]), The Evaluation of DEIS at Post-primary Level: Closing the Achievement and Attainment Gaps, http://www.erc.ie/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Weir-Kavanagh-2018-DEIS-post-primary.pdf.

Recommendations for strengthening support for vulnerable children and their families

2.4. Improve the targeting of early childhood support programmes for vulnerable families. DE should work with NISRA to organise support offered within the Sure Start programme on the basis of super output areas as opposed to wards. NISRA should be responsible for supplying the data, whereas DE should be in charge of using them to re-organise the structure of the programme.

2.5. Strengthen information sharing across the school system to improve the measurement of social disadvantage and monitoring of related policy interventions. DE should centralise information from different schools in a longitudinal dataset (e.g. as the EHIS does in Estonia). By relying on this longitudinal dataset, it could develop a standardised system for identifying levels of disadvantage and monitoring the effectiveness of policy interventions, as in the DEIS programme in the Republic of Ireland. Going forward, the dataset should become interoperable with the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) database, which will link data from GCSEs, FE and HE institutions, in order to build a comprehensive picture of the impact that socio-economic background and early-years education have on labour market outcomes.

Opportunity 2: Increasing adults’ motivation to learn

Motivation is considered key for successful adult education engagement (Carr and Claxton, 2002[59]), and is an even more significant factor than socio-economic background (White, 2012[60]). Yet, existing evidence suggests that individuals in Northern Ireland are not strongly motivated to engage in adult learning, especially if they are older or have lower levels of education (see Figure 3.9). Approximately 46% of adults in Northern Ireland did not want to, nor did they, participate in adult learning, compared to 37% in England, 36% in the Republic of Ireland and 43% across OECD countries on average. The lower willingness to participate in adult learning extends to all demographic groups, but is particularly high among older individuals and individuals without a tertiary qualification (see Figure 3.9). Approximately 57% of adults without a tertiary qualification in Northern Ireland did not want to, nor did they, participate in adult learning, compared to 46% in England, 48% in the Republic of Ireland and 54% across OECD countries on average.

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Figure 3.9. Individuals who either did not want to, or did not, participate in adult learning across different demographic groups, 2012/15
Figure 3.9. Individuals who either did not want to, or did not, participate in adult learning across different demographic groups, 2012/15

Note: Due to sample size limitations, it is not possible to provide more granular breakdowns than those shown in the figure.

Source: OECD (2019[28]), Survey of Adults Skills (PIAAC) (2012, 2015, 2019) (database), www.oecd.org/skills/piaac/.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934127719

Investment in the early years will only help increase motivation to engage in adult learning in the longer term. Stakeholders in workshops and group discussions during the project felt that Northern Ireland should increase motivation to participate in adult learning in the short term by developing a shared vision. On the back of this shared vision, information on adult learning opportunities and benefits should be disseminated to individuals and through a variety of channels such as online portals, campaigns and career guidance. The development of the vision could also contribute to the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, by improving engagement in adult learning among displaced workers who may need to reskill and upskill.

The insights are consistent with international best practice. An in-depth analysis of adult learning policies by the European Commission has identified disseminating information through online portals, awareness-raising initiatives (e.g. campaigns, events and taster sessions) and effective guidance systems as effective policy levers for raising participation in adult learning among individuals (European Commission, 2015[10]). However, to increase motivation and participation rates among workers with lower levels of education, who frequently have low levels of basic skills, the vision should implement a targeted approach, which heavily involves employers and the local community (Windisch, 2015[61]).

In light of these considerations, this opportunity will first provide recommendations on how to develop and implement a holistic vision of adult learning. Then it will suggest a targeted approach for low-skilled learners that could be implemented as a part of this holistic vision. Introducing a user-friendly online portal on adult learning opportunities and benefits will help implement the adult learning vision by enabling learners and career advisors to have better access to information. Recommendations to make progress on this front are provided in Chapter 2.

As outlined in the performance section of this chapter, employers also play an important role in fostering participation in adult learning through the provision of training opportunities. As such, their role must be acknowledged in the adult learning vision. In principle, it may also be important for Northern Ireland to implement awareness-raising initiatives to further expand the number of businesses providing training.

However, the available evidence shows that increasing training propensity among businesses depends more on raising awareness about efficient workplace practices (see Chapter 4) than on raising awareness about the benefits of training (see Figure 3.10). The Employer Skills Survey asks businesses that do not offer training to their workforce to provide reasons for this choice. More than 66% of businesses who do not currently train their staff reported that their staff were fully proficient, whereas only 6% of businesses reported that they do not consider training a priority (see Figure 3.10). Businesses may think that employees are fully proficient because they are not aware of better workplace practices. This is addressed by the recommendations in Chapter 4.

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Figure 3.10. Reasons for not providing training, as stated by businesses in Northern Ireland and the UK, 2017
Figure 3.10. Reasons for not providing training, as stated by businesses in Northern Ireland and the UK, 2017

Source: UK Department for Education (2017[62]), UK Employer Skills Survey 2017, https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/uk-employer-skills-survey-2017.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934127738

Developing and promoting a holistic vision of adult learning

Recent strategies in Northern Ireland have identified adult learning as an important area of focus. However, to date, Northern Ireland has not managed to articulate a holistic vision for adult learning.

The 2011 overarching skills strategy, Success through Skills, identified adult learning as a key priority. Subsequent implementation strategies have proposed numerous initiatives for adults in specific areas. For example, as part of wider strategies on higher education, Graduating to Success and Access to Success stress the need to upskill the existing workforce through the more flexible provision of higher education, and explore the possibility of developing non-traditional routes into higher education to help more adults access higher education (Department for Employment and Learning, 2012[13]; Department for Employment and Learning, 2015[63]). Preparing for Success outlines measures to improve the careers service for adults, suggesting that increasing e-delivery of career guidance is important for reaching more adults, with proposed webchat systems and apps (Department for Employment and Learning and Department of Education, 2016[14]).

These strategies were generally well articulated and well structured. The strongest adult learning visions across OECD countries revolve around three core features: quantitative targets with clear deadlines, dedicated funding set aside, and monitoring procedures to measure how effectively the strategy is being implemented (OECD, 2019[64]). The Success strategies generally adhere to these three core features. Success through Skills, for example, has four key strategic goals that involve specific targets and deadlines: increasing the proportion of those people in employment with a certain base skill level (2, 3 or 4-8) (Department for Employment and Learning, 2011[12]).

However, as confirmed by several stakeholders during the project, even when combining these strategies, it is not possible to build a holistic vision of adult learning, comprising a clear definition, clear articulation of its benefits and a comprehensive list of targets and success factors for different cohorts of learners. Yet, according to stakeholders, building such a vision would be an essential component of a “sales and marketing piece” to promote a culture of lifelong learning in Northern Ireland.

Going forward, Northern Ireland could develop a stand-alone strategy for adult learning, such as found in several OECD countries, (e.g. Australia, Norway, Scotland [UK] and Sweden (Education Scotland, 2014[65]; OECD, 2019[64]). When these strategies incorporate quantitative targets with clear deadlines, dedicated funding and monitoring procedures, the result is a vision that stakeholders can unite behind, providing policy coherence and impetus for raising participation in adult learning (OECD, 2019[64]). This would be consistent with other skills-related areas within Northern Ireland such as careers guidance provision, economic inactivity, apprenticeships and policies for NEETs, which have had dedicated implementation Success strategies.

On the back of the strategy, as suggested by stakeholders, Northern Ireland could develop a series of co-ordinated initiatives to help meet its targets, including marketing campaigns and career guidance. The basic infrastructure to facilitate these awareness-raising initiatives is already in place, both for marketing initiatives and career guidance.

In Northern Ireland, promotion of adult learning opportunities is mainly undertaken by education institutions directly. DfE is only responsible for specific programmes (such as Essential Skills) and apprenticeships. Promotion by FE colleges is particularly important, as outlined in the description of current practices, they account for the largest proportion of adult learners. As part of the project, the OECD team conducted a survey to better understand what kind of awareness-raising initiatives are conducted by FE colleges and CAFRE, given that this information was not available in the public domain.

All institutions that responded to the survey confirmed they conducted awareness-raising initiatives on adult learning opportunities. These mainly take the form of advertising efforts on radio, print, online and outdoor channels (e.g. open-day events on campus and fairs). These initiatives are generally part of a coherent and well-designed marketing strategy, which is aligned with departmental strategies and objectives.

These awareness-raising initiatives do not operate in isolation. FE colleges co-ordinate on their campaigns through a marketing managers group that meets regularly. The group has recently launched the “Let’s do business campaign” to encourage businesses to work with FE colleges, and has provided support for the ApprenticeshipsNI national communication campaign. These co-ordination efforts have recently been expanded. In December 2019, the FE colleges submitted a joint communications strategy and action plan for the 2019/20-2021/22 period. The document is successful in setting out a co-ordinated approach to marketing and promotion on the back of the Further Education Means Success strategy.

DfE’s Careers Service provides an impartial, all-age career information, advice and guidance service throughout Northern Ireland (nidirect, 2020[66]). Evidence gathered throughout the project suggests that the Careers Service has sufficient capacity to deliver against demand and that the quality of service is generally high. There remain some areas for improvement, particularly concerning how career guidance information is disseminated, and to how the outcomes of the service are measured, which are addressed in Chapter 2.

Going forward, exploiting this existing infrastructure, the FE colleges and DfE should launch a series of co-ordinated awareness-raising initiatives to help deliver against the objectives of the strategy. Stakeholders in workshops and focus groups pointed out that Northern Ireland could offer taster sessions, on top of the more standard open days and publicity campaigns. The awareness-raising initiatives could make use of diagnostic tools to help assess skills levels of learners (see Box 3.4) and could build upon existing and ongoing behavioural research to better understand their needs and motivations (see Box 3.4). For instance, according to stakeholders consulted during the project, DAERA has commissioned research to help identify appropriate nudges to encourage upskilling within the agriculture sector, which could help inform engagement strategies in other contexts as well.

To help deliver these co-ordinated awareness-raising initiatives, it will also be important to improve upon the current nidirect portal to disseminate information on adult learning opportunities and benefits to all learners (see Chapter 2).

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Box 3.4. Relevant international examples: Developing and implementing a holistic vision of adult learning

Developing a holistic vision of adult learning: An example from Scotland

Scotland has taken important steps towards developing a holistic vision for adult learning. The Adult Learning in Scotland Statement of Ambition from 2014 offers a clear definition of adult learning, an identification of the benefits of adult learning for individuals and society, ambitions for future adult learning opportunities and success factors to improve the provision of adult learning. Annexes in the statement clarify how its ambitions overlap with other government strategies and initiatives.

Overseeing these developments is the Adult Learning Strategic Forum Scotland (ALSFS), which provides advice to the Scottish Government on matters of direction, performance and planning for adult learning. Under the purview of ALSFS is the Adult Learning Strategy Working Group dedicated to designing the updated strategy. This group consists of members from relevant stakeholder bodies, including Education Scotland, the University of Glasgow, the Workers Educational Association and the Scottish Prison Service. Consultation is key for the group’s efforts. In addition to sector stakeholder events, an adult learning survey was run to provide a snapshot picture of adult learning in Scotland. The information collected from these exercises is then used to inform the development of the strategy going forwards.

Profiling tools for awareness-raising strategies: Examples from the UK

Across OECD countries, policy makers and career advisors make use of a variety of profiling tools to better tailor awareness-raising initiatives, such as behavioural tools to better understand their motivations and diagnostic tools to evaluate their skill levels. An example of behavioural tools is the attitudinal typology developed by the Department for Education in England (Kantar Public and Learning and Work Institute, 2018[67]). The typology divides adult learners into six categories based on their purpose for learning: Lifelong learners, defiant learners, outcome-focused learners, tentative learners, exhausted learners and stuck-in-status-quo learners (Kantar Public and Learning and Work Institute, 2018[67]). Of these learners, lifelong, defiant and outcome-focused adults are motivated to learn and more likely to overcome barriers to training. Tentative, exhausted and stuck-in-status-quo learners are less likely to engage with opportunities open to them and require targeted support. Each type of learner approaches their cost-benefit analysis to learning differently, and policy makers need to be aware of this to ensure effective policy design.

Profiling tools can also help career guidance counsellors in various institutions to understand the skills levels of prospective learners. For instance, National Numeracy, an independent charity in the UK, provides accessible and scalable numeracy assessment tools to identify and address poor numeracy. Its focus is not only on skills but also on attitude and confidence. The tools help individual adults identify their confidence levels in numeracy and engage them in activities that aim to enhance their numeracy skills.

Source: Education Scotland (2019[68]), “Adult Learning Strategic Forum Scotland (ALSFS) Update”, https://blogs.glowscotland.org.uk/glowblogs/eslb/2019/06/10/adult-learning-strategic-forum-scotland-alsfs-update/; Education Scotland (2014[65]), “Adult Learning in Scotland: Statement of Ambition”, https://education.gov.scot/Documents/adult-learning-statement.pdf; Kantar Public and Learning and Work Institute (2018[67]), “Decisions of Adult Learners”, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/742108/DfE_Decisions_of_adult_learners.pdf.

Recommendations for developing and promoting a holistic vision of adult learning

2.6. Publish a single, comprehensive strategy setting out a holistic vision for adult learning across different cohorts of learners. The Northern Ireland Executive should publish a strategy setting out a clear definition of adult learning, a clear articulation of its benefits and a comprehensive list of targets and success factors (e.g. access to career guidance) across different cohorts of learners (e.g. low-skilled and higher-skilled) and local areas. To support the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the strategy could include specific cohorts of workers who have been displaced in the pandemic (e.g. low-skilled workers in the hospitality sector). The strategy should build upon extensive consultation with stakeholders (e.g. as in Scotland), such as educational institutions, and should distinguish between job-related training and other forms of provision. In line with previous strategies in Northern Ireland, the stand-alone strategy should revolve around three core features: quantitative targets with clear deadlines for different cohorts; dedicated funding set aside; and monitoring procedures to measure how effectively the strategy is being implemented. Northern Ireland could rely on the microdata from the Labour Force Survey to monitor participation in adult learning by individuals, and on the microdata from the Employer Skills Survey to monitor training propensity and intensity among employers. The quantitative targets should be informed by results from skills assessment and anticipation (SAA) tools (see Chapter 5) to ensure that they are consistent with labour market demand. The strategy should be aligned with DfE’s Industrial and Skills Strategies and DAERA’s Knowledge Framework, as well as other policy documents, to maximise the scope for policy co-ordination and coherence.

2.7. Implement co-ordinated awareness-raising initiatives to help deliver the objectives of the strategy, which rely on behavioural and diagnostic profiling tools. DfE (including DfE’s Careers Service), FE colleges and other training providers should deliver a series of co-ordinated awareness-raising initiatives at the national and local level to deliver the objectives of the strategy for the different cohorts of learners, excluding those engaging in job-related training. The awareness-raising initiatives should link prospective learners directly with potential learning opportunities or with career guidance advisors. The awareness-raising initiatives could include a mix of publicity campaigns, taster sessions and open days for different profiles of learners. DfE and the FE colleges could rely on behavioural profiling tools to design the initiatives. DfE’s Careers Service could rely on behavioural profiling tools to design the awareness-raising strategies and on diagnostic tools to help assess learners’ needs. DAERA and CAFRE could adopt a similar approach for their areas of competence and should co-ordinate their initiatives with DfE and FE colleges.

Implementing a targeted approach to increase engagement of low-skilled learners

To increase motivation and the engagement of low-skilled individuals, it is crucial to provide adult learning opportunities in the workplace or the community, and involve social partners and employers in awareness-raising strategies (Windisch, 2015[61]).

Low-skilled learners have often had poor experiences of school, so they can find the idea of returning to classroom-based learning daunting (Windisch, 2015[61]). Undertaking adult learning opportunities in the workplace or the community can help overcome this negative predisposition because it allows the use of contextualised learning approaches. These create connections between the learning content and the learners’ context, be this the family (e.g. parenting, health), the community (e.g. financial management) or the work context (Windisch, 2015[61]). Even when this flexibility in provision exists, it is not guaranteed that low-skilled workers will engage in learning, because they may lack awareness of their deficiencies, and even if they are aware, they might be embarrassed to admit them and to take action (Windisch, 2015[61]). This means that it is important to proactively reach out, through employers themselves and social partners in the local community who have direct contact with them (Windisch, 2015[61]). In the current circumstances, this targeted approach, combining contextualised learning and proactive engagement could be particularly relevant to encourage low-skilled workers who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic to reskill and upskill.

Like many OECD countries, Northern Ireland has so far struggled both in providing adult learning courses in the workplace or the community, and involving social partners and employers in awareness-raising strategies. One of the key programmes to deliver basic skills training is Essential Skills. The majority of Essential Skills enrolments to date have been delivered to learners younger than 25 (see Figure 3.11). Moreover, a large share of the Essential Skills provision is still classroom-based. According to data from DfE, in 2018/19, only 37% of enrolments for individuals older than 20 were outside the FE colleges, in the workplace or in community training organisations.

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Figure 3.11. Essential Skills enrolments in Northern Ireland (UK), by age
Figure 3.11. Essential Skills enrolments in Northern Ireland (UK), by age

Source: Department for the Economy (2019[69]), Essential Skills Enrolments in Northern Ireland, https://www.economy-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/economy/Essential-Skills-Enrolments-and-Outcomes-Northern-Ireland-2002-03-to-2018-19.pdf.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934127757

Adult learners can also strengthen their basic skills and develop some technical skills through level 2-3 apprenticeships. Yet, in 2017/18, only 674 out of 5 646 apprentices were aged 25+. (Department for the Economy, 2019[70]; Department for the Economy, 2019[71]). Some 15 subjects at levels 2 and 3 are open to adults, compared to around 150 subjects at levels 2 and 3 for younger learners (nidirect, n.d.[72]; nidirect, n.d.[73]).

The low rates of employer engagement in adult apprenticeships and Essential Skills might depend on low awareness about current programmes. According to the Employer Perspectives Survey, only 47% of employers were aware of the existence of the Essential Skills programme to develop basic skills in the workplace (UK Department for Education, 2017[26]). Similarly, while 77% of employers in Northern Ireland are aware of apprenticeships, only 25% were aware of the existence of apprenticeships for individuals older than 25 (UK Department for Education, 2017[26]).

Social partner engagement has also been limited to date. As discussed above, FE colleges play a key role in implementing awareness-raising initiatives for most of FE provision. According to the survey of FE colleges conducted as a part of this project, only a minority of institutions have actively engaged with social partners in reaching out to low-skilled workers. For instance, the South Eastern Regional College has engaged with individuals with low or no skills via groups who already have a trust relationship with them, such as Housing Associations, Sure Start (see Opportunity 1) and resident groups. However, these examples cannot be generalised to all FE colleges.

Consistent with international evidence, several stakeholders in workshops and focus groups emphasised the importance of involving employers and the local community in the delivery and promotion of adult learning opportunities and benefits. Some stakeholders suggested that expanding adult learning provision in the community could help increase take-up of basic skills courses. On the awareness-raising front, some stakeholders suggested having “local champions” and “ambassadors” among employers (in particular, among managers) and social partners who could help spread the adult learning message, and “role models” among learners who could provide testimonials about their learning experience.

Building on these insights, going forward, DfE and FE colleges should develop co-ordinated local-level plans to increase the provision of adult learning opportunities for low-skilled adults in the workplace and the community. On the back of these plans, they should develop awareness-raising initiatives to reach out to low-skilled adult learners. To help implement and deliver the local level plans, Northern Ireland could take inspiration from Finland’s Noste programme, the Republic of Ireland’s Explore programme and Hamburg’s Family Literacy Project (see Box 3.5).

These local-level initiatives could be combined with a national awareness-raising campaign to further strengthen the message. Some stakeholders, for instance, mentioned that it might be valuable to organise an adult learning week with substantial media coverage, something that was discontinued a number of years ago. To help implement some of these suggestions, Northern Ireland could take inspiration from several campaigns across OECD countries (see Box 3.5).

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Box 3.5. Relevant international examples: Implementing a targeted approach for low-skilled learners

Targeting low-skilled adults through the workplace: Examples from Finland and the Republic of Ireland

Running from 2003 to 2009, Finland’s Noste (“Lifting Up”) programme was an extensive programme, providing funding for basic education, vocational qualifications, ICT training (“computer driving licences”) and unfinished compulsory-level education for disadvantaged adults without, or with outdated, qualifications. The programme targeted individuals in employment, rather than the unemployed, and focused on three specific groups, including employees of SMEs, immigrants and older adults. In exchange for funding, education providers were required to work with employees and employers to develop workplace-specific implementation approaches. A high level of customer orientation was ensured through targeted outreach activities, including company visits and face-to-face discussions, needs analysis and counselling. Implementation was based on tripartite co-ordination, close co-operation with local and regional institutions, local trade unions and education providers. By 2009, a total of 25 700 adults, representing approximately 7.3% of the target group, had taken part (it did not, however, meet its participation targets of at least 10%). Noste was successful in increasing the participation among low-skilled employees, raising the national qualification levels and the number of qualifications, and has provided a range of employability-related benefits.

The Explore programme in the Republic of Ireland provides a specific example of a workplace-based initiative that focuses on digital skills. The programme targets low-skilled workers aged 35 and over in manufacturing employment with low levels of engagement in lifelong learning. The programme is the result of a collaboration between education and training boards, regional skills fora and the Department of Education and Skills. The training is aimed at developing digital skills and consequently building confidence and improving personal well-being. Individual plans are drawn up for all participants who receive four days of training both on and off site over four weeks. The programme was piloted in 2018 and proved successful, being expanded into 2019 and 2020 across all regional areas.

Increasing flexibility for low-skilled adults through the community: An example from Germany

The Family Literacy Project by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute of Education and the State Institute for Teacher Training and School Development (Landesamt für Lehrerbildung und Schulentwicklung) in Hamburg, Germany, has offered intergenerational family literacy programmes for children and parents from deprived social and migrant backgrounds that promote linkages between the kindergarten or school and home-based learning since 2004. In 2010, the project was awarded the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize thanks to its particularly positive results: The project has improved adult participants’ communication skills, self-esteem and integration into German society. As a result of the project, many schools in Hamburg have established family literacy rooms where parents can meet. Parental involvement in their children’s education has strengthened family relationships and improved the children’s literacy skills. Since many kindergarten and school teachers had no experience in teaching learners from different cultural backgrounds, the programme has helped enhance their intercultural teaching skills. Between 2004 and 2011, the programme benefited about 1 000 parents and 1 000 children annually.

National awareness-raising initiatives: Examples from the UK and Slovenia

In the UK, the Get On campaign and use of the “Gremlin” brand raised awareness of the issues surrounding adult literacy, language and numeracy skills. There was a national recognition rate of 93% among its target audience, with over 370 000 people contacting the national helpline following the campaign. Follow-up research indicates that 26% of people who called the helpline took up learning opportunities as a result. The campaign aimed not only to raise awareness but also to reduce the stigma attached to the need to improve English and maths skills and to motivate adults to take action to improve their skills (although there are different views on this). The success of the campaign could be seen not only through public reaction but also in terms of the collaboration and co-ordination across different stakeholders working together as part of Skills for Life.

Since 1996, the Lifelong Learning Week in Slovenia has helped develop a culture of lifelong learning in the country. It promotes learning opportunities in and among various programmes and providers, guidance services, and social and cultural events at the national and local levels. The week commences with a grand opening and the Slovenian Institute for Adult Education’s (ACS) annual adult learning awards. It involves an adult learning conference, learning parades in selected towns and a range of other events. The slogan of the campaign is “Slovenia, learning society”. The campaign seeks to build positive attitudes towards learning and education, and awareness of adult learning’s importance and pervasiveness.

Source: Department of Education and Skills (2016[74]), “EXPLORE Programme”, https://www.regionalskills.ie/explore/; Windisch, H. (2015[61]), “Adults with low literacy and numeracy skills: A literature review on policy intervention”, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5jrxnjdd3r5k-en; OECD (2018[75]), Skills Strategy Implementation Guidance for Slovenia: Improving the Governance of Adult Learning, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264308459-en.

Recommendations for implementing a targeted approach to increase engagement of low-skilled learners

2.8. Strengthen the provision of adult learning to low-skilled learners in the workplace and the community by developing tailored local-level plans. DfE and FE colleges should partner with local councils, regional skills hubs (see Chapter 5) and local training funds (see the recommendations in Opportunity 3) to further expand the provision of adult learning to low-skilled learners in the workplace and the community, as in Finland’s Noste programme. The options to expand the provision include engaging with employers to increase the offer of apprenticeships, delivering Essential Skills directly in the workplace or in community training centres, and potentially family literacy programmes, as in Hamburg. In the case of apprenticeships and workplace provision, DfE and FE colleges should actively engage with employers to expand the number of apprenticeship frameworks and the number of apprenticeship opportunities. In the case of community-based provision and family literacy programmes, FE colleges should engage with community training centres and local councils to organise the provision.

2.9. Introduce local awareness-raising initiatives involving further education colleges, DfE’s Careers Service, local councils, employers and social partners. DfE, FE colleges and DfE’s Careers Service should partner with local councils, regional skills hubs (see Chapter 5), social partners and employers to develop tailored awareness-raising initiatives for low-skilled workers at the local level. The awareness-raising initiatives could include a combination of advertising efforts, events (e.g. open days or drop-in sessions at the employer site supported by the management), taster sessions and testimonials from past learners. Local councils, regional skills hubs, social partners (e.g. Housing Associations, Sure Start and resident groups) and employers (especially larger employers) should host and support these awareness-raising initiatives. However, the responsibility for preparing and delivering the sessions should sit with DfE, DfE’s Careers Service and the FE colleges. The local awareness initiatives could be accompanied by a national awareness-raising campaign, such as a TV campaign or an adult learning week.

Opportunity 3: Removing barriers for individuals and employers to adult learning opportunities

Even when individuals and employers are motivated to participate in adult learning, they frequently still face barriers that prevent them from transitioning from an interest to active participation (OECD, 2017[76]). Minimising these barriers is crucial to developing a strong culture of lifelong learning. For adults, the key barriers are generally related to cost and time. Adult learning opportunities are often too expensive or difficult to combine with family and work responsibilities. For employers, the main barriers in the provision of training generally relate to cost, the fear of poaching, lack of time and lack of an adequate supply (International Labour Organisation, 2017[77]).

As signalled by stakeholders in Northern Ireland and confirmed by international evidence, financial incentives play a crucial role in reducing barriers both for individuals and employers (OECD, 2017[76]). A variety of schemes can be used to finance adult learning opportunities, such as subsidies, loans and tax incentives (see Table 3.2). Financial incentives can also help address non-financial barriers. For instance, childcare vouchers can help individuals free up time from family responsibilities, and training leave schemes allow employees to more easily take time off work (OECD, 2017[76]).

An important trade-off in the design of financial incentives is between simplicity and better targeting (OECD, 2017[76]). Simpler incentive schemes can increase take-up but can result in larger deadweight loss, meaning that individuals or employers who would have participated in learning or provided training anyway receive the funding. More sophisticated targeting can help reduce deadweight loss, but at the expense of lower take-up, because it can make access more burdensome (OECD, 2017[76]).

Despite the variety of instruments available (see Table 3.2), across OECD countries, the majority of incentive schemes for steering decisions of individuals come in the form of subsidies and loans (OECD, 2017[76]). Individual learning accounts (ILAs) and time accounts are relatively uncommon, possibly because they tend to be more costly to run and are likely to result in a larger deadweight loss (OECD, 2019[78]). Tax incentives and training leave measures are available in most countries, but their take-up and effectiveness vary substantially (OECD, 2017[76]).

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Table 3.2. Financial incentives for employers and individuals to offer or participate in adult learning opportunities

Incentive

Target group

Description

Subsidies

Employer/Individual

Schemes that decrease costs of participation through a direct transfer of money to the individual (e.g. through a voucher), the training provider or the employer

Individual learning accounts (ILAs)

Individual

Savings accounts that can be opened by individuals to fund future learning activities

Time accounts

Individual

Allows individuals to save up time (occasionally linked to overtime hours), which they can use for paid time off to participate in training

Tax incentives

Employer/Individual

Tax allowances (i.e. deductions from taxable income); tax credits (sums deducted from the tax due); tax relief (lower rates for some taxpayers or activities)

Loans

Employer/Individual

Include guarantees, interest rate subsidies, loan guarantees, income-contingent repayments, student loan remission and/or forgiveness

Study/training leave

Individual

Schemes that give employees a right to study leave (and guarantee the right to return to their job after course completion) and reimburse employees/employer for the lost working time

Training levies/funds

Employer

Used in some countries as a way to pool resources from employers and earmark them for expenditure on training

Payback clauses

Employer

Contractual arrangements that permit employers to recover at least part of their investment in training if the trained employee leaves soon afterwards

Public procurement

Employer

Making the award of public contracts to firms conditional on the provision of certain types of training

Note: Not all measures can be easily classified into these categories. Measures designed to nudge behaviour on the supply side often have repercussions on the demand side, and the other way around.

Source: OECD (2019[78]), Individual Learning Accounts: Panacea or Pandora's Box?, https://doi.org/10.1787/203b21a8-en; OECD (2017[76]), Financial Incentives for Steering Education and Training, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264272415-en.

Similarly, for employers, the vast majority of incentives for steering their training decisions come in the form of direct subsidies (OECD, 2017[76]). Training levies are less commonly used, and tax incentives and public procurement are relatively uncommon (OECD, 2017[76]). Although payback clauses can be found in most European countries, it is not clear to what extent they are being used or enforced (OECD, 2017[76]).

Financial incentives, however, are likely to be insufficient to reduce barriers to participation in adult learning opportunities. Stakeholders in Northern Ireland pointed out that improving the flexibility of adult learning provision is crucial to improving access to adult learning opportunities. This is confirmed by international evidence, suggesting that flexibility in format (e.g. part-time, online) and design (modular, credit-based courses) helps overcome time-related barriers, especially for medium-to-high skilled workers (OECD, 2019[64]). In the short term, improving flexibility, especially through online delivery models, can also ensure that Northern Ireland can better absorb the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.

In light of these considerations, this opportunity focuses on better use of financial incentives for individuals, better use of financial incentives for employers, and making adult learning opportunities more flexible for medium-to-high-skilled workers.

Better using financial incentives to reduce barriers for individuals

The existing evidence suggests that individuals in Northern Ireland face financial and time-related barriers to access adult learning opportunities. The current system of financial incentives is well designed but could be further strengthened to address these barriers. Individuals report similar obstacles to those found in neighbouring countries and OECD countries, on average. The most important obstacles to participation in adult learning are being too busy at work, financial costs and childcare or family responsibilities (see Figure 3.12). In Northern Ireland, being too busy at work (26% of respondents) seems to be the greatest obstacle, followed by financial costs and childcare or family responsibilities (respectively 17% and 16% of respondents). England follows a broadly similar pattern, whereas in the Republic of Ireland the three barriers have a very similar incidence (22% of respondents for being too busy at work, 21% of respondents for financial costs and 20% of respondents for childcare or family responsibilities).

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Figure 3.12. Obstacles to participating in adult learning in Northern Ireland and other countries, 2012/15
Figure 3.12. Obstacles to participating in adult learning in Northern Ireland and other countries, 2012/15

Source: OECD (2019[28]), Survey of Adults Skills (PIAAC) (2012, 2015, 2019) (database), www.oecd.org/skills/piaac/.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934127776

Northern Ireland already has a number of financial incentives to minimise these barriers. In line with other OECD countries, it mainly relies on a mix of loans and subsidies (see Table 3.3). The current structure of loans and subsidies seems to deal quite effectively with the simplicity-targeting trade-off discussed in the introduction to the opportunity. Lower-skilled workers receive free full-time provision of NQF level 1-3 qualifications, but without facing a substantial administrative burden, because the subsidy is paid directly to the course provider (see Table 3.3). Higher-skilled workers are entitled to a variety of loans and subsidies to take into account specific circumstances (such as income and childcare and family responsibilities), but can submit a joint benefits application to the same portal (www.studentfinanceni.co.uk/), which clearly describes the available options (see Table 3.3).

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Table 3.3. Main financial incentives for adult learners in Northern Ireland

Scheme

Type

Target group

Description

Funding spent on adults over 25 (2018 academic year)

Essential Skills

Subsidy

Low-skilled, full-time and part-time learners above 16 with no level 1-2 qualifications

Learners can freely enrol in literacy, numeracy and ICT GCSEs-equivalent qualifications.

5 501 adults 25+ took part in 2017/18

Free provision of NQF Levels 1-3 courses

Subsidy

Low-skilled, full-time learners above 16 undertaking level 1-3 qualifications

All full-time courses at NQF Levels 1, 2 and 3 are free for the learner. Providers are reimbursed for the qualification.

Not available

Tuition Fee Loan

Loan

Part-time or full-time learners with at least an upper-secondary qualification who are undertaking a NQF Level 4-6 course above their highest level of qualification

For 2019/20, part-time students were able to borrow up to GBP 3 206.25 for the duration of the course. This does not generally cover the full costs of the degree (e.g. the typical total fee for a part-time undergraduate degree is GBP 5 625). For full-time students, the loan instead covers up to the full amount of tuition charged for higher education courses in the UK. In Northern Ireland, this was GBP 4 275 for the 2019/20 academic year. Learners can apply on the Student Finance NI portal.

Full-time learners: GBP 10 341 646.71

Part-time learners: GBP 730 820.13

Tuition Fee Grant

Subsidy

Part-time learners with at least an upper-secondary qualification who are undertaking a NQF Level 4-6 course above their highest level of qualification and have a yearly household income below GBP 25 420

The maximum grant available is GBP 1 230 to contribute to part-time tuition fee costs (this is a one-off payment). The actual amount given depends on three factors: study intensity, household income and fee costs. Learners can apply on the Student Finance NI portal.

GBP 1 493 670.51

Maintenance Loan

Loan

Full-time learners with at least an upper-secondary qualification who are undertaking a NQF Level 4-6 course above their highest level of qualification

The maintenance loan is to meet living costs during study for a full-time higher education course, up to GBP 4 840. Learners can apply on the Student Finance NI portal.

GBP 8 320 094.37

Maintenance Grant

Subsidy

Full-time learners with at least an upper-secondary qualification who are undertaking a NQF Level 4-6 course above their highest level of qualification and have a yearly household income below GBP 41 065

The maximum grant is GBP 3 475 for students in a household with GBP 19 203 or less. Between a household income of GBP 19 204 and GBP 41 065, the maintenance grant gradually decreases in value. Learners can apply on the Student Finance NI portal.

GBP 6 462 654.24

Childcare subsidies

Subsidy

Full-time learners with at least an upper-secondary qualification who are undertaking a NQF Level 4-6 course above their highest level of qualification

With the Childcare Grant, for one child in childcare, students receive up to GBP 148.75 a week. For two or more children students can receive up to GBP 255.00 a week. Under the Parents Learning Allowance, parents receive between GBP 50 and GBP 1 538 depending on household income. Learners can apply on the Student Finance NI portal.

GBP 974 599.19

Note: Only a selection of incentive schemes applicable to adult learners are covered.

Source: Department for the Economy and the Education Authority (n.d.[79]), “Student Finance NI”, https://www.studentfinanceni.co.uk/; nidirect portal at https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/; UK Government (2019[80]), “Training and study at work: your rights”, https://www.gov.uk/training-study-work-your-rights; and information gathered during OECD missions.

Nonetheless, while the overall structure is effective, the current mix of loans and subsidies could be furthered refined in two ways to minimise existing barriers related to child-care and family responsibilities and the cost of adult learning opportunities.

Firstly, only full-time higher-skilled adult learners currently receive direct childcare support to undertake adult learning (see Table 3.3). Going forward, Northern Ireland could further increase support for lower-skilled workers and higher-skilled part-time learners. Particularly in the case of part-time learners, the solution could be relatively straightforward, because Northern Ireland could extend the Childcare Grant and the Parents Learning Allowance to part-time learners.

Second, current subsidies and loans for higher-skilled workers contribute only towards qualifications above the learner’s highest level of qualification (see Table 3.3). This criterion excludes short-term modular or online courses such as those offered by the Centre for Flexible Education at Ulster University or by the Open University. For instance, a learner who already holds an undergraduate degree in mathematics cannot currently receive any funding for a short-term modular course in ICT at the same level. Moreover, current loans do not always cover the full cost of the course for part-time learners (see Table 3.3). For example, the typical total fee for a part-time undergraduate degree is GBP 5 625, but part-time learners can only borrow up to GBP 3 206. Going forward, Northern Ireland could consider extending the current loans and subsidies to individuals who are pursuing a short-term qualification at the same level of their highest level qualification, and it could consider covering the full cost of education for part-time learners.

These suggestions are consistent with the views expressed by stakeholders in workshops and group discussions. Some stakeholders thought that it would be beneficial to increase financial support for adults through larger subsidies (e.g. via voucher-like schemes). However, several stakeholders thought that the subsidies should be targeted at specific cohorts to minimise deadweight loss. Keeping the current structure of loans and subsidies, but increasing their scope, combines elements of both perspectives.

As well as introducing these refinements to loans and subsidies, to address the time-related barrier arising from “being too busy at work”, Northern Ireland could consider introducing legislation and financial support for training and study leave.

Many OECD countries have training leave legislation, including other countries in the UK. Workers in England, Scotland and Wales with 26 weeks of tenure in companies with 250+ employees are entitled to take training leave, provided that the training helps them to better perform their job (UK Government, 2019[80]). In order to ensure the uptake of training leave, some countries in the OECD go beyond legislative arrangements and provide financial compensation for learners and employers (OECD, 2019[64]). In most cases, this allowance is paid directly to the worker, but in some cases, the employer continues to pay the wage and claims back the expenses (OECD, 2017[76]). The primary objective of these compensatory mechanisms is to reimburse employees and the employer for the lost working time (OECD, 2019[64]). However, as pointed out by stakeholders in Northern Ireland, these mechanisms could also contribute to reinforcing a culture of lifelong learning among employers, by “signalling” that taking time off for training purposes is a worthwhile investment.

The training leave legislation in the rest of the UK has not been entirely successful in encouraging the uptake of training leave. A forthcoming OECD report of England recommends extending training leave entitlements to low-skilled workers in companies with fewer than 250 employees (Jeon and Game, forthcoming[81]). This would be consistent with most schemes in EU countries, which do not distinguish between beneficiaries based on company size (Cedefop, 2012[82]). This recommendation would be relevant for Northern Ireland as well, given its substantial SME population.

Going forward, Northern Ireland could also learn from the experiences of several OECD countries to encourage the uptake of training leave via compensatory mechanisms (see Box 3.6). Alternatively, Northern Ireland could consider strengthening the uptake of training leave by designing job rotation schemes to help firms find a temporary replacement worker (usually an unemployed or inactive person) during the training period (see Box 3.6).

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Box 3.6. Relevant international examples: Better using financial incentives to reduce barriers for individuals

Using financial incentives to strengthen training leave uptake across OECD countries

Several OECD countries make use of financial incentives to encourage the uptake of study and training leave. In France, for example, workers on study leave (Congé Individuel de Formation) are entitled to their full wage, but most other countries put a cap on this replacement wage (e.g. Walloon and German-speaking communities of Belgium) or pay an allowance that is often equivalent to the level of unemployment benefit (e.g. Weiterbildungsgeld in Austria). To minimise deadweight loss, financial incentives are often tailored to specific groups. For example, in Germany, study leave incentives are focused on the low-skilled and SMEs (WeGebAU). In Austria, training choices need to be approved by the Public Employment Services, which should only be done if the course is likely to improve the labour market prospects of the individual in question. Belgium has gone further by providing longer study leave for individuals who (re)train in areas where labour market shortages exist (métier en pénurie/knelpuntberoep). Some countries, such as Finland or Sweden, do not offer special financial arrangements for study leave, but employees can access the general student support system. In the context of Northern Ireland, this would mean that individuals would be able to apply for training leave through the Student Finance NI portal.

Combining training leave legislation with job-rotation schemes: An example from Denmark

Some countries have financed the development of job rotation schemes to encourage the uptake of training leave. Job rotation offers a solution to the problem of worker absence for training purposes by offering the employer a temporary replacement in the form of an unemployed person. This type of scheme, originating in Denmark in 1994, has the advantage of simultaneously promoting training and helping the unemployed gain skills and labour market experience. Under the current Danish scheme, employers who take on an unemployed person as a replacement for the worker who is on training leave, are expected to pay the wage set by a collective agreement, but in return receive an amount equal to 160% of the unemployment insurance. However, few other countries have such schemes in place. Portugal has a job rotation for training scheme in the autonomous region of Azores. Sweden used to have a scheme (the Utbildningsvikariat or Education Temporary Positions), which provided employers with financial support (through a tax credit) to cover the cost of wages (up to a limit and for a maximum of six months). The programme, which primarily benefited employers in the health sector, was abandoned in 2006.

Source: OECD (2017[76]), Financial Incentives for Steering Education and Training, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264272415-en; OECD (2019[64]), Getting Skills Right: Future-Ready Adult Learning Systems, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264311756-en.

Recommendations for better using financial incentives to reduce barriers for individuals

2.10. Strengthen childcare subsidies for lower-skilled and part-time higher-skilled learners to mitigate the impact of childcare responsibilities on take-up of adult learning. For part-time higher-skilled learners, DfE could consider extending the Childcare Grant and the Parents Learning Allowance to part-time learners, scaling down the amount of the subsidies to include lower-skilled workers, who are not currently covered by these two schemes. DfE should ensure that the solution is coherent with any childcare support that may be offered to address economic inactivity (see Chapter 2).

2.11. Extend current loans and subsidies for higher-skilled learners to cover modular courses and increase loan caps for part-time higher-skilled learners. DfE should extend current part-time subsidies and loans (e.g. the Tuition Fee Loan and the Maintenance Grant) to cover short-term modular courses (as defined by a certain number of credits). To minimise deadweight loss, DfE could consider limiting the eligible courses to those that are in strong labour market demand according to SAA exercises (see Chapter 5). DfE should also increase the maximum loan amount for part-time learners so that they cover the full cost of the course.

2.12. Consider introducing legislation and compensatory mechanisms for training leave to increase take-up of learning among adults who currently report being too busy at work. The Northern Ireland Executive could introduce training leave legislation, covering all businesses, including SMEs, to help create a culture of lifelong learning. DfE could complement legislation with compensatory mechanisms. For the compensatory mechanisms, DfE could consider reimbursing employees who decide to take training leave and/or it could finance job rotation schemes to help firms find replacement workers (e.g. through an inactive person). To minimise deadweight loss in the reimbursement scheme, DfE could consider limiting the list of eligible courses to those in high labour market demand according to SAA exercises (see Chapter 5). For job rotation schemes, DfE should ensure co-ordination with any broader economic inactivity interventions (see Chapter 2).

Better using financial incentives to reduce barriers for employers

The existing evidence suggests that employers in Northern Ireland face considerable financial barriers to investing in training opportunities and that current financial incentives are not entirely successful in minimising them.

Financial barriers are more prevalent in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK. Across both the UK and Northern Ireland, employers identify financial barriers (i.e. the lack of funds, or the cost of training) as the main obstacle to providing more training, followed by the lack of time for staff to participate and the lack of time to organise it (see Figure 3.13).

However, approximately 57% of employers in Northern Ireland report the lack of funds or the cost of training as a barrier to providing further training, compared to 51% for the UK as a whole. Moreover, the lack of funds or the cost of training has a greater impact in three out of five Northern Ireland regions (Belfast, North, West) than in any other region in the UK (see Figure 3.13).

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Figure 3.13. Barriers to providing more training in Northern Ireland and the UK, 2017
Figure 3.13. Barriers to providing more training in Northern Ireland and the UK, 2017

Note: The sample only includes businesses that wanted to provide more training in the past 12 months. Panel A. lists the top three most important barriers that businesses identified. In Northern Ireland, the only other barrier noted by more than 5% of businesses was “difficulty finding training providers who can deliver training where or when we want”, at 6%. All other potential barriers in Northern Ireland were lower than 5%, and included: “a lack of appropriate training/qualifications in the subject areas we need it”, “staff not keen”, “a lack of good local training providers”, “training not a management priority”, “lack of knowledge about training opportunities and/or suitable courses”, “staff turnover”, “lack of suitable candidates/staff not ready for the training we had in mind”, “staff now fully proficient / don't need it”, and “lack of provision”.

Source: UK Government (2017[29]), Employer Skills Survey 2017: UK Findings, www.gov.uk/government/publications/employer-skills-survey-2017-uk-report.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934127795

As anticipated in the practices section of this chapter, Northern Ireland provides a range of financial incentives that can help mitigate financial barriers.

Employers can rely on three main subsidised programmes to fund training expenditure for current employees. Combined, the three programmes cost approximately GBP 8 million each year (see Table 3.4). As for the incentives for individuals discussed above, the design of these programmes is structured to minimise potential deadweight loss. As anticipated in the performance section of this chapter, large businesses are generally more likely to train than small businesses (OECD, 2017[76]). Moreover, high-growth businesses are more likely to realise larger gains from training than low-growth businesses. The three programmes in Northern Ireland make use of these criteria to screen potential applicants. Employers also receive subsidies for adult apprenticeships from DfE and the European Social Fund (ESF). Public funding covers 50% of the costs of directed training for level 2-3 adult apprentices aged 25+ and 100% of the costs for higher-level apprentices (see Table 3.4).

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Table 3.4. Financial incentives for employers to invest in training in Northern Ireland

Scheme

Type

Target group

Description

Funding

The Skills Growth Programme (delivered by Invest NI)

Subsidy

High-growth Northern Ireland businesses with growth potential (defined according to potential employment and sales growth) that are exporters or are ready to export

Consists of the Skills Growth Programme Grant, the Skills Advancement Grant (SAG) and Training Needs Analysis (TNA) workshops/mentoring. Within these schemes, companies develop a multi-year training plan to align their proposed strategic training activity across four broad themes: Management development, technical skills, soft skills and functional skills.

For 2019/20, 108 SMEs and 28 non-SMEs received training. Grants from the DfE totalled around GBP 10 million, which was matched by almost GBP 40 million in private investment.

Skills Focus (delivered by DfE)

Subsidy

Employers and businesses with fewer than 250 employees

This is a skills development programme that aims to increase the skills of the existing workforce to level 2 and above. The FE colleges deliver it.

Some 8 580 employees upskilled or re-skilled through the programme since its introduction in April 2015. The annual budget is GBP 1.5 million. It is 75% funded by the DfE, and 25% of funding comes from the business.

InnovateUs (delivered by DfE)

Subsidy

Employers and businesses with fewer than 50 employees

This is a skills development programme that aims to provide employees of small businesses with the skills necessary to engage in innovation activities. The programme offers up to 60 hours of training and skills development support, delivered over a six-month period.

In the last three years, 1 100 small businesses have taken part in the InnovateUS programme. The annual budget is GBP 1.7 million.

Apprenticeship funding (delivered by DfE)

Subsidy

Businesses providing apprenticeships

For adult apprenticeships undertaken by individuals aged 25+, the subsidy depends on the level: A combination of ESF and the DfE pay 50% of the costs of directed training for level 2-3 and 100% of directed training for higher-level apprenticeships. For apprenticeships undertaken by individuals aged 16-24, the subsidy covers 100% of directed training.

In 2017/18, 674 out of 5 646 apprentices were aged 25+. Total Apprenticeship NI funding is GBP 21.2 million (including GBP 7.2 million ESF) per year, of which GBP 4.9 million is for higher-level apprenticeships.

Apprenticeship Levy

Training levy

Businesses with a wage bill of more than GBP 3 million (roughly 500 private sector companies and 50 public sector bodies)

All businesses across the UK pay 0.5% of the total wage bill (minus an apprenticeship levy allowance of GBP 15 000). In England, funds collected through the levy are used directly to fund apprenticeships. In Northern Ireland, there is no direct correlation between the levy raised from employers and the funding allocation for skills development.

GBP 82 million in 2019/20

Source: NI Business Info (n.d.[83]), “Further education training opportunities for your business”, https://www.nibusinessinfo.co.uk/content/further-education-skills-development-programmes; Invest NI (n.d.[84]), “Skills Intervention Programme”, https://www.investni.com/support-for-business/training-support.html; Capaxo Ltd. (2018[85]), “Evaluation: Skills Intervention Programme”, https://secure.investni.com/static/library/invest-ni/documents/skills-intervention-programme.pdf; OECD (2019[86]), “Skills Strategy Questionnaire - Northern Ireland”; Department for the Economy (n.d.[87]), “InnovateUs and Skills Focus”, https://www.nibusinessinfo.co.uk/sites/default/files/DfE-InnovateUs-Skills-Focus-Employer-Leaflet-May2020.pdf; UK Government (2016[88]), “UK government agrees apprenticeship levy funding deal with devolved administrations”, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-government-agrees-apprenticeship-levy-funding-deal-with-devolved-administrations.

However, employers in Northern Ireland are also required to pay into the UK-wide Apprenticeship Levy (see Table 3.4). In its current form, the levy acts as a tax on large employers, rather than an incentive scheme for further investment in training and workforce development. Large employers with a total wage bill of more than GBP 3 million pay their contribution directly to the UK Government, but the money raised is not earmarked for expenditure on training or upskilling, as in typical training-levy schemes. The funding from the Apprenticeship Levy is allocated to Northern Ireland in the block grant received from the UK Government. As this funding is non-ring-fenced, it is then distributed to each Department through the normal resource allocation in the budget process (Department for the Economy, 2019[89]).

Stakeholders in all engagements conducted as a part of this project in Belfast, Derry/Londonderry and Dungannon expressed significant dissatisfaction with these arrangements. Their views are supported by international best-practice. Across most OECD countries, levy schemes are generally used to gather funds for financing general skills provision or training opportunities (see Table 3.5). Without this earmarking, levy-like measures are comparable to additional taxes on labour, likely leading to lower wages, lower employment rates and lower training propensity (Kuku et al., 2015[90]; Deslauriers et al., 2018[91]; Saez, Schoefer and Seim, 2017[92]).

Going forward, in light of the existing financial barriers, Northern Ireland should establish a ring-fenced skills fund within the Northern Ireland block grant, to channel back into training opportunities and apprenticeships skills funding which has been lost through the Apprenticeship Levy. For instance, the fund could be used to cover the cost of directed training within apprenticeships and training courses for current employees. In the case of apprenticeships, covering 100% of the total directed training for level 2-3 adult apprentices could further strengthen the offering of adult apprenticeships, as a part of the local level plans to increase motivation among low-skilled workers (see Opportunity 2). Northern Ireland could learn from the experiences of a number of OECD countries to understand how to operate the fund (see Table 3.5). Among these different schemes, Northern Ireland could closely consider Scotland’s Workforce Development Fund, given that it was set up by another UK devolved administration required to pay the Apprenticeship Levy (see Box 3.7).

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Table 3.5. Different schemes to distribute funds gathered through levies

Revenue-generating schemes

Levy-grant schemes

Levy-exemption schemes

Cost-reimbursement schemes

Description

Employer contributions are used to finance general training programmes.

Payroll contributions are collected from employers and distributed as grants.

Employers are required to dedicate at least a certain percentage (e.g. 1%) of payroll towards training or submit the equivalent to government.

Firms pay a compulsory levy but can claim expenses back for any training costs incurred during the year.

Advantages

Raise funds for publicly provided training.

Higher grants can be given to firms with higher training expenses. Grants can be made conditional on training-specific skills relevant for the labour market.

Cost of training for the employer is zero up to the amount of tax liability.

Lower administrative burden. Employers have greater freedom in planning training.

Disadvantages

No incentive for firms to invest in training as contributions cannot be claimed back.

Require many case-by-case decisions, higher administrative costs.

Employers may opt-out of training as it is easier to pay the levy than provide training.

In order to get money back, employers may spend money on any type of training, regardless of quality.

Country examples

Brazil (SINAI)

Denmark (Kompetenceudviklingsfonde)

Greece

Italy (Intersectoral training fund)

Korea

Poland (Krajowy Fundusz Szkoleniowy)

United States (Arizona Job Training Tax)

Greece (ELEKP training fund)

Hungary (compulsory VET levy)

Scotland (FWDF)

Belgium

Denmark (Reimbursement Fund)

France (Contribution à la formation professionnelle continue)

Note: Countries often have hybrid schemes with funds raised through levies and distributed through grants and direct subsidies.

Source: OECD (2017[76]), Financial Incentives for Steering Education and Training, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264272415-en; Müller, N. and F. Behringer (2012[93]), “Subsidies and Levies as Policy Instruments to Encourage Employer- Provided Training”, https://doi.org/10.1787/5k97b083v1vb-en.

Nonetheless, it is not clear whether the ring-fenced skills fund should be used to subsidise training opportunities for smaller employers that do not pay the levy. International evidence suggests that extensive cross-subsidisation from large enterprises to SMEs can result in lower overall training intensity (Kuku et al., 2015[90]). When cross-subsidisation takes place, SMEs raise their training intensity, but large enterprises end up training less because they become more liquidity constrained. The decrease in training intensity in large firms could more than offset the increase in training in small firms, leading to a lower training propensity overall (Kuku et al., 2015[90]).

To further mitigate financial barriers to the provision of training, Northern Ireland could establish training funds, as in the Republic of Ireland, Italy or Korea (see Box 3.7). One of the reasons SMEs train less intensively is that they typically face higher training costs per worker, because they generally have fewer workers to train. Local training funds can help SMEs pool employees into the same training programme, share the cost of training and benefit from reduced costs through economies of scale (Johanson, 2009[94]; OECD, 2019[95]). However, the experiences of Italy and the Republic of Ireland show that it is important to carefully think about the design of the funds to ensure they end up increasing participation among SMEs, especially micro- and medium-sized businesses (see Box 3.7).

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Box 3.7. Relevant international examples: Better using financial incentives to reduce barriers for employers

Using Apprenticeship Levy funds: An example from Scotland

Scotland has used its Apprenticeship Levy funds to form a Flexible Workforce Development Fund (FWDF). This fund is accessible by all Apprenticeship Levy paying employers from the private, public and third sector across Scotland, who can use the fund to undertake training and development for their workforce. Colleges in Scotland are the exclusive delivery point of training provided by this fund, and companies can access up to GBP 15 000 to create tailored training programmes with their local college. This has helped to create new relationships between colleges and companies where they did not previously exist. Employers are also able to use the fund to invest in the development of their supply chain through nominating supply chain companies to receive all or part of their allocation of funding or including supply chain company staff in training. Since 2017-18, the Scottish Government has allocated GBP 10 million a year to this fund.

Designing and adapting training funds for SMEs: Examples from the Republic of Ireland and Italy

Training funds have been implemented successfully in the Republic of Ireland and Italy to increase participation training. In the Republic of Ireland, Skillnet operates as a facilitator and funding agency for enterprise-led training networks across the country, providing half of the total cost for network activities. As of 2017, it had provided at least a year of funding to over 400 of such networks. In 2016, 14 263 firms received employee training through Skillnet-funded networks. In Italy, training funds have been operational since 2004. From 10 training funds in 2004, to 19 in 2017, training funds today cover almost 1 million firms with 10 million workers, a threefold increase in the number of firms covered by funds since 2004. With a combined budget of EUR 603 million in 2017, training funds are a crucial source of support for upskilling workers in Italy. However, SME engagement in these training funds has not always been strong. For example, in the Republic of Ireland, only 3% of micro-businesses (0-9 employees), and 25% of small businesses (10-49 employees) participate in Skillnet-funded training networks, compared to 75% of medium-sized (50-249) businesses. A lack of awareness of the existence of training funds among smaller firm employees is part of the reason for low training uptake, but training fund design is important too. In both Italy and the Republic of Ireland, only part of the training is funded, and this percentage is unaffected by company size, meaning smaller companies are more likely to face budgetary constraints accessing training. Moreover, in Italy, firms have to pay the cost for training upfront and then get reimbursed, which is more problematic for SMEs who may face cash flow constraints.

Successful SME initiatives: An example from Korea

When Korea implemented training levies in the mid-1990s, it suffered from a similar lack of SMEs engagement comparable to Italy and the Republic of Ireland. Only 4.7% of SMEs offered levy-supported training to their employees, compared to 77.6% of large enterprises. To address SME barriers to participation in training levies, the Korean Government launched the Training Consortium Pilot Program for SMEs in 2001. SMEs from similar sectors were grouped into training consortiums (TCs). These were run by training specialists who conducted skills and training needs assessments for each SME, planned training programmes, and then conducted evaluation studies upon an SME’s completion of a training programme. The pilot programme had a significant positive impact on SME participation. The proportion of SMEs using training levies to provide training increased from 11% to 55% in one year. Consequently, the programme was rolled out on a national level.

Source: OECD (2019[95]), Adult Learning in Italy: What Role for Training Funds?, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264311978-en; ILO (2017[77]), Upskilling SMEs: How governments fund training and consulting: Comparing experiences from Asia, Europe and North America, https://www.voced.edu.au/content/ngv:79526; Scottish Funding Council (2020[96]), “Flexible Workforce Development Fund”, http://www.sfc.ac.uk/funding/college-funding/flexible-workforce-development/flexible-workforce-development-fund.aspx.

Recommendations for improving financial incentives for employers

2.13. Establish a ring-fenced skills fund to subsidise the provision of training opportunities and apprenticeships. The Northern Ireland Executive should set up a skills fund within the Northern Ireland block grant, to channel back into apprenticeships and training opportunities skills funding which has been lost through the Apprenticeship Levy. Among the potential options to make use of the funds, Northern Ireland could consider the following: covering the full costs of directed training for level 2-3 adult apprentices, as opposed to 50%, which is currently the case (see Opportunity 2); allowing levy-paying employers to use a portion of their contribution to pay towards training opportunities for their employees and the workforce of companies in their supply chain, as in Scotland; financing the set-up costs for local training funds; and financing awareness-raising initiatives to strengthen the provision of adult learning to low-skilled learners in the workplace (see Opportunity 2).

2.14. Establish local training funds to increase the availability of training and apprenticeships among employers. DfE should guide the formation of local training funds, working closely with regional skills hubs (see Chapter 5). The design of the funds should encourage SME participation, for instance, by leaving room for delayed payments. To further improve uptake by SMEs, the funds should also offer skills and training needs assessments, and they should take the lead in designing the content of the courses. To ensure that the funds reach a sufficient scale, DfE could allow levy-paying employers to pay towards training opportunities for their employees and the workforce of companies in their supply chain. The local training funds should also ensure that they offer training opportunities for managers (see Chapter 4).

Making adult learning opportunities more flexible for medium-to-high-skilled workers

Flexibility in adult learning opportunities has advantages for all learners, but different kinds of flexibility matter for low-skilled and higher skilled learners. Opportunity 2 has shown that flexibility in delivery location has a crucial role to play in increasing motivation for low-skilled learners because it makes it possible to adopt contextualised learning approaches (Windisch, 2015[61]).

Higher-skilled learners instead benefit more from flexible delivery models (OECD, 2019[64]). As learners increase in their skills level, they are generally more positively inclined towards learning and they are in a better position to design their own learning journey and conduct a substantial proportion of learning autonomously (OECD, 2019[64]). This calls for the provision of flexible delivery models, such as modular and blended learning approaches, to enable them to better combine learning experiences with work and family responsibilities (OECD, 2019[64]). Modular delivery models break down learning into short-term modular courses, with multiple start dates throughout the year. Blended delivery models instead combine online and class-based learning.

Northern Ireland has so far had some success in adopting modular and blended delivery models in higher education institutions, but further education colleges have been lagging behind.

As mentioned in the description of current practices, Ulster University runs the Centre for Flexible Education, which aims to offer short-term modular courses for personal and professional development for adult learners. Courses can be taken individually or combined over time to complete a Certificate of Professional Development. Additionally, the centre works with employers to accredit in-house training programmes, and design tailored learning solutions (Ulster University, n.d.[21]). At the Open University, degrees are taught via online and distance learning, allowing adults to fit learning around existing schedules (The Open University, n.d.[23]; Open University, n.d.[97]).

As part of the survey of FE colleges described in Opportunity 2, the OECD team asked FE colleges to provide information on the availability of modular and blended delivery models. The evidence gathered suggests that FE colleges do not generally adopt modular and blended courses. When asked about existing limitations in the provision of modular delivery models, including multiple start dates throughout the year, FE colleges mentioned the need to ensure sufficient class size, the reliance on awarding organisations to validate qualifications and rigidity in the current funding model.

Ensuring a sufficient class size can be a significant challenge. If courses become shorter and more focused, it could be more difficult to secure a sufficient number of learners. This problem does not have a straightforward solution. However, strengthening the alignment between the educational offering and labour market needs in the local area (see Chapter 5) could help ensure that a sufficient number of learners will enrol in each course.

The situation is different for the barriers posed by the reliance on awarding organisations and the rigidity of the funding model. The need to receive approval for the short-term modular courses would increase the administrative burden on FE colleges, making the development of such courses more difficult. Yet, FE colleges could co-ordinate on the design of the new modules to make the validation process smoother. It is also true that the current funding model makes it more difficult to develop short-term modular courses because it is based on yearly enrolment numbers. However, these constraints should be eased by the recommendations in Chapter 5, which propose the adoption of a more flexible funding system. By relying on the flexible funding system and a joint approach to validation, Northern Ireland should extend the offering of short-term modular courses in FE colleges. The implementation could be phased, comprising a pilot in a specific area and a subsequent extension of the rest of the provision. More broadly, Northern Ireland could learn from the experiences of Denmark in developing a modular offering (see Box 3.8).

In the case of online provision, FE colleges perceived the obstacles to be less structural in nature. The main obstacle was seen to be the need to develop specific expertise and allocate some teaching time to develop the online learning material. Some FE colleges and some stakeholders during the workshops suggested that to develop these capacities more effectively, going forward, FE colleges could consider developing a common virtual platform with shared course materials that could be used by learners throughout Northern Ireland. To make further progress in this respect, Northern Ireland could take inspiration from the Tafe digital platform in Australia (see Box 3.8). The platform could be especially important to make adult learning more accessible in the context of the COVID-19 crisis.

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Box 3.8. Relevant international examples: Making adult learning opportunities more flexible for medium-to-high-skilled workers

A modular approach to advanced adult education: An example from Denmark

Advanced adult education (VVU) in Denmark is designed to be highly flexible for adults and encompasses a range of higher education options. Academy education is the equivalent of a professional degree (education level 5 on a scale of 1-8 in Denmark) designed specifically for working adults. Tailored towards adults with high school education or vocational training and at least two years’ work experience, it enables individuals to take as many or as few modules as they desire at any one time. These modules are delivered part-time and can be combined with modules from different disciplines and even different institutions. In this way, students can put together a programme that matches their job profile. A part-time academy education usually lasts two to three years, but can be organised over a period of up to six years. The same principle of modularity is applied to bachelor and masters level options for working adults. Learners can follow individual modules that are offered to full-time university students. Again, these can be combined to form a degree or taken individually. Teaching for these modules is usually organised as evening, distance or weekend lessons to enable as many adults to take part as possible. Advanced adult education, therefore, offers medium-to-high-skilled workers a large degree of flexibility in how they approach higher education, enabling them to pursue a formal qualification or gain updated professional knowledge and additional competences in a specific area of interest.

A common virtual learning platform: An example from Australia

Technical and Further Education in New South Wales (TAFE NSW) is Australia’s largest vocational education and training provider. Annually over 500 000 students study at 130 locations throughout New South Wales. In 2017, the three individual online learning platforms from TAFE institutes were merged into a single digital delivery entity, TAFE Digital, to offer online courses from across TAFE’s educational and training providers. The existence of one platform enables TAFE Digital to ensure that online course content is consistent across all locations and is easily accessible for students. As part of the merger, four teams work across institutions to provide an integrated service: The Digital Delivery team oversees student assessment, feedback and progression; the Digital Learning Lab consists of a group of learning analytics, innovative technology and immersive media specialists to trial new technologies for online programmes; Digital Design helps build the digital training materials; and Digital Project Management provides project support and digital advice. At the end of 2019, 50 014 students were enrolled in TAFE Digital across 250 different online courses. According to the 2018 National Student Outcome Survey, over 90% of students who completed their online studies would recommend TAFE Digital as a training provider, and over 89% were very satisfied with their experiences.

Source: Danish Ministry of Education (2020[98]), “University of Copenhagen Study Programmes”, https://www.ug.dk/uddannelser/universitetsuddannelser/enkeltfagogdeluddannelserveduni/enkeltfag-og-deluddannelser-koebenhavns-universitet; Danish Ministry of Education (2019[99]), “About Academy Education”, https://www.ug.dk/uddannelser/artikleromuddannelser/omkurserogefteruddannelse/om-akademiuddannelser; New South Wales Government, Australia (n.d.[100]), “About TAFE NSW, https://www.tafensw.edu.au/about.

Recommendations for making adult learning opportunities more flexible for medium-to-high-skilled workers

2.15. Extend the offering of short-term modular courses in further education colleges, by introducing changes to the FE funding model and taking a joint approach to validation (see Chapter 5). FE colleges should develop short-term courses to be offered in modular format, as in the advanced adult education system in Denmark. FE colleges should first run a pilot programme in a specific subject area and, conditional on positive results, they could extend the modular approach to the rest of the provision. FE colleges should adopt a joint approach to validation, co-ordinating on the design of the new modules to reduce their administrative burden. The new funding model developed by the DfE (see Chapter 5) should grant sufficient flexibility to allow for the adoption of short-term modular courses.

2.16. Extend the offering of blended (i.e. including an online component) approaches in FE colleges, by developing a common online learning platform. FE colleges should co-ordinate on the development of a common online learning platform that contains online learning material to be offered within blended delivery models, like TAFE Digital in Australia. FE colleges should jointly set up the platform and should then jointly develop the online learning offering offered on the platform.

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Overview and discussion of recommendations

Creating a culture of lifelong learning can lead to a range of economic and social benefits, such as higher wages for individuals and higher productivity for firms. It can also help Northern Ireland better respond to the challenges and opportunities arising from the UK’s exit from the EU and megatrends. Yet, as described in the performance section, adults in Northern Ireland have low participation rates in both formal and non-formal adult education opportunities and employers have comparatively low training intensity. To help create a culture of lifelong learning, this chapter presented three opportunities:

  1. 1. Starting the development of a culture of lifelong learning early in life.

  2. 2. Increasing adults’ motivation to learn.

  3. 3. Removing barriers for individuals and employers to adult learning opportunities.

The chapter presented 16 recommendations to create a culture of lifelong learning. This selection is based on input from literature, desk research, discussions with the Northern Ireland Project Team, and broad engagement with a wide variety of stakeholders, including two workshops in Belfast, two meetings in Derry/Londonderry, a meeting in Dungannon and various related meetings and group discussions.

These recommendations are connected through three main policy themes. First, creating a culture of lifelong learning requires lifelong policy efforts, with short-term initiatives focused on adults (Recommendations 2.6 - 2.16) and long-term initiatives to ensure that children develop stronger cognitive skills and attitudes to learning (2.1 - 2.5).

Second, creating a culture of learning needs targeted initiatives that distinguish between motivations and the needs of vulnerable children (2.4 and 2.5), for the long term and low-skilled adults (2.8 and 2.9) and higher-skilled adults (2.11, 2.15 and 2.16) for the short term.

Third, creating a culture of lifelong learning requires different national and subnational actors to work more effectively together, for instance, to establish local training funds (2.14) or deliver national (2.6 and 2.7) and local (2.8 and 2.9) strategies to increase adults’ motivation to learn. This highlights that creating a culture of lifelong learning will require lifelong and learner-centred policy initiatives, delivered through a whole-of-government approach involving multiple national and subnational actors.

At the time of writing, the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Northern Ireland remains unclear, but it is likely the economic fallout will be felt for years to come (OECD, 2020[101]). Successfully implementing some of these recommendations could support the economic recovery from the pandemic. Developing an adult learning strategy (2.6) could help inform reskilling and upskilling needs, whereas implementing a targeted approach for low-skilled learners (2.8 and 2.9) and making adult learning opportunities more flexible for medium-to-high-skilled learners (2.15 and 2.16) could contribute to fostering participation across different cohorts. Economic recovery will hinge on a set of co-ordinated policy interventions, which should counterbalance the uniquely disruptive nature of COVID-19. Nonetheless, measures to improve the planning, accessibility and flexibility of adult learning will be an important component of the policy response to the pandemic.

Based on discussions with the Northern Ireland Project Team, three recommendations have been selected that could be considered to have the highest priority based on potential impact, relevance in the current Northern Ireland context, as well as the overall support for implementation. To create a culture of lifelong learning, the OECD recommends that Northern Ireland:

  • Publish a single, comprehensive strategy setting out a holistic vision for adult learning across different cohorts of learners (2.6).

  • Establish a ring-fenced skills fund to subsidise the provision of training opportunities and apprenticeships (2.13).

  • Extend the offering of blended (i.e. including an online component) approaches in FE colleges, by developing a common online learning platform (2.16).

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Table 3.6. High-level overview of recommendations to create a culture of lifelong learning in Northern Ireland

Policy directions

Recommendations

Responsible parties

Opportunity 1: Starting the development of a culture of lifelong learning early in life

Improving the curriculum and examination methods in compulsory education

2.1. Revise the compulsory curriculum in the light of megatrends to focus on the development of digital and data literacy skills.

  • CCEA

2.2. Expand professional development opportunities in technology-friendly pedagogies for new and existing teachers to improve the use of ICT tools in the classroom.

  • DE

  • University colleges

  • Higher education institutions

2.3. Consider revising the examination criteria for GCSEs, by placing a stronger emphasis on a range of diverse assessments, rather than a single summative assessment.

  • CCEA

Strengthening support for vulnerable children and their families

2.4. Improve the targeting of early childhood support programmes for vulnerable families.

  • DE

  • NISRA

2.5. Strengthen information sharing across the school system to improve the measurement of social disadvantage and monitoring of related policy interventions.

  • DE

Opportunity 2: Increasing adults’ motivation to learn

Developing and promoting a holistic vision of adult learning

2.6. Publish a single, comprehensive strategy setting out a holistic vision for adult learning across different cohorts of learners.

  • Northern Ireland Executive

  • DfE, DAERA

2.7. Implement co-ordinated awareness-raising initiatives to help deliver the objectives of the strategy, which rely on behavioural and diagnostic profiling tools.

  • DfE (including DfE’s Careers Service)

  • DAERA and CAFRE

  • FE colleges

  • Other training providers

Implementing a targeted approach to increase engagement of low-skilled learners

2.8. Strengthen the provision of adult learning to low-skilled learners in the workplace and the community by developing tailored local-level plans.

  • DfE

  • FE colleges

  • Local councils

  • Regional skills hubs (see Chapter 5)

  • Local training funds (see Opportunity 3)

2.9. Introduce local awareness-raising initiatives involving FE colleges, DfE’s Careers Service, local councils, employers and social partners.

  • DfE (including DfE’s Careers Service)

  • FE colleges

  • Local councils

  • Regional skills hubs (see Chapter 5)

Opportunity 3: Removing barriers for individuals and employers to adult learning opportunities

Better using financial incentives to reduce barriers for individuals

2.10. Strengthen childcare subsidies for lower-skilled and part-time higher-skilled learners to mitigate the impact of childcare responsibilities on take-up of adult learning.

  • DfE

2.11. Extend current loans and subsidies for higher-skilled learners to cover modular courses and increase loan caps for part-time higher-skilled learners.

  • DfE

2.12. Consider introducing legislation and compensatory mechanisms for training leave to increase take-up of learning among adults who currently report being too busy at work.

  • Northern Ireland Executive

  • DfE

Better using financial incentives to reduce barriers for employers

2.13. Establish a ring-fenced skills fund to subsidise the provision of training opportunities and apprenticeships.

  • Northern Ireland Executive

2.14. Establish local training funds to increase the availability of training and apprenticeships among employers.

  • DfE

  • Regional skills hubs (see Chapter 5)

Making adult learning opportunities more flexible for medium-to-high-skilled learners

2.15. Extend the offering of short-term modular courses in FE colleges, by introducing changes to the FE funding model and taking a joint approach to validation (see Chapter 5).

  • FE colleges

  • DfE

2.16. Extend the offering of blended (i.e. including an online component) approaches in FE colleges, by developing a common online learning platform.

  • FE colleges

Note: CCEA is the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment; DE is the Department of Education; NISRA is the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, DfE is the Department for the Economy; DAERA is the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs; CAFRE is the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise; FE colleges are further education colleges.

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