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Mathematics widening participation for target communities in Northern Ireland

Project leader(s): 
Gerry Golding and Martina Gibbons

In Northern Ireland and in particular Belfast, there are still large portions of the community scarred by the past and still coming to terms with “life after the Troubles”.  Over the years, the OU has played a significant part in educating many of those who found themselves in prison, from both sides of the divide, and there are still links to these communities in place thanks to the great work of some of our colleagues over the years.

One of the major problems that members of working class, Republican and Loyalist communities face is a lack of educational qualifications, making it more difficult for them to find suitable work that will help them and their families move on from the past. In 2012, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that the proportion of working-age adults who lack paid work in Northern Ireland was 34%, the same as Wales but higher than Scotland and all English regions except the North East.  In 2014, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland reported that 16% of working age adults in Northern Ireland had no qualifications, higher than the comparable UK average figure of 9%.  For many prospective employers GCSE mathematics is an essential requirement.

In a recent paper (January 2014), the European Centre for Delivering Social Change identified levels of educational attainment as having a huge impact on the individual, the family and society as a whole and highlighted the importance of tackling disadvantage in communities to counteract it.

We visited 2 groups from these communities in Belfast; one works with the families of ex-Republican prisoners and the other is a Barnardo’s charity sponsored group, based in a Loyalist community which works with parents who want to be able to support their children’s study at school.

Both groups were very positive and were really enthusiastic about working with the OU, but highlighted a number of issues that would need to be resolved before we would be able to register students on a level one module like MU123. The main problem is developing trust, support structures and taster material so that students in these communities slowly get used to the idea of studying in small portions before taking on an 8 month commitment.  Resolving some of these issues is the basis for this project and it involves working with these communities to find a way to best prepare students for a longer term commitment like MU123. The fact that it is free owing to their social status removes a barrier, but it does not make it that more attractive.

The introduction of 2 badged maths courses available on the OpenLearn platform gives us a platform to develop. We intend to use supplementary material from OpenLearn to develop bite size pathways to learning including study skills, etc. A similar approach has been used in Wales using the ”Pathways to Success” model, but not for maths specifically.

The project is part of a larger initiative to create an Irish version of the Welsh model which is in its early development stages.  Our overall aim is to provide a number of pathways based around the badged courses for potential students coming from differing levels of numeracy/literacy backgrounds. A major part of the project will be the development of a facilitators guide so that these communities can become self-sufficient in delivering the programme using local voluntary support. To do this we will be gathering and analysing feedback from the participants as they engage with the material.

This is a political issue in Northern Ireland and any initiative which is seen to be addressing the needs of these communities is likely to attract media attention. A successful outcome for this project would have a very positive impact on the OU profile in political and media circles in Northern Ireland, particularly as the Northern Ireland Executive is seeking to tackle issues surrounding educational attainment and low skill levels.