• This statistic is accurate, based on analysis from a recent research paper.
  • However, its use lacks some context – in particular, about NI’s “brain drain”.
  • A newer study by the same academics suggests educational attainment in NI is fairly typical of the UK average.

In its policy paper Shaping a New and United Ireland, campaign group Ireland’s Future claimed:

“[In] 2015 an average of 6.3% of young people across the nine English regions had no qualifications, compared to 10.4% in N Ireland.”

This is accurate, based on academic research which Ireland’s Future cited in its own report.

However, the presentation of this statistic lacks some important clarity and context. It is being used to illustrate struggles within NI’s public services but other factors – like Northern Ireland’s “brain drain” – should also be considered.

Research method

The Ireland’s Future paper references its source for the claim, saying it is a calculation “based on Table 9 of McGuinness & Bergin, (2020).”

This refers to The political economy of a Northern Ireland border poll, a 2020 report from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) analysing the educational attainment of people aged 24-30 in Northern Ireland compared with other parts of the UK and Ireland, based on data from 2015. This age range was selected because, by the age of 24, the majority of young people are assumed to have left formal education.

The ESRI paper uses five categories of education for individuals: Primary; Lower secondary; Upper secondary; Post-secondary; and Graduate.

Primary here means someone who does not have any qualifications above, or including, GCSEs (and equivalents). The Ireland’s Future characterisation of this as “no qualifications” is a fair one and, based on the 2015 data used in the ESRI paper, it is accurate to say that 10.4% of people aged 24-30 in NI had “no qualifications” compared with an average of 6.3% across the nine English regions.

However, it’s also worth asking what exactly this statistic can tell us about NI – as well as examining what happens to similar data when slightly different methods are applied.


Ireland’s Future placed the 2015 statistic in a section of its report discussing plans building a strong economy in a future United Ireland, and under a subheading which asks “Why does Northern Ireland’s economy not work?”

What point is this statistic being used to illustrate?

The section discusses NI’s apparent challenges for public services funding and delivery, including in education and health. The comparison between educational attainment of young people in NI and those in England is used next to figures about hospital waiting times to show “the large gaps in key services provision… between N Ireland and England”.

However, this statistic is not merely a representation of educational outcomes in Northern Ireland and, therefore, the quality of educational public services.

When considering the qualifications of adults aged 24-30 in NI, it is remiss not to mention the so-called “brain drain” which sees thousands of young people leave NI every year after finishing school, in order to study at universities elsewhere.

According to research from the NI think tank Pivotal, in the six months after completing their degrees only 36% of those young people come back to NI for work. This could play a significant role in reducing the overall education level of adults aged 24-30 in NI. All those who leave as part of the “brain drain have qualifications, and their departure will generally increase the percentage of those aged 24-30 with no qualifications.


The statistic in the claim relied on a research paper from ESRI. A more recent paper from ESRI, published this year – A North-South comparison of education and training systems: lessons for policy – uses slightly different measures than the 2020 paper but once again looks at qualifications levels for adults in NI compared with the rest of the UK.

Those figures, from 2019, involve characterising every individual’s educational attainment as low (but not necessarily zero), medium or high, and found that, among adults aged 25-34, an average of 15.5% of young people across the nine regions of England reached a low level of educational attainment compared with 18.3% of those in NI.

While this again appears to show some regional disparities, the authors of this second paper (two of whom were the academics who prepared the first ESRI paper) concluded that, when it comes to low educational attainment, “Northern Ireland is broadly in line with the UK average”.


Based on the data analysis cited by Ireland’s Future, it is accurate to say that “in 2015 an average of 6.3% of young people across the nine English regions had no qualifications, compared to 10.4% in N Ireland.”

However, this cannot be used as a straightforward criticism of Northern Ireland’s public services (in this case, education) because it does not factor in the brain drain – while a more recent study, involving some of the same academics who identified the statistic in the claim, suggests that NI’s levels of low educational attainment are not outliers within the UK.