Education, war and peace: A view from Northern Ireland on why the case for investing in education is stronger than ever
Like it did in Northern Ireland after the period of the 'Troubles,' inclusive education plays a vital role in any post-conflict setting to make our world safer and more peaceful.
February 28, 2024 by David Armstrong, PwC
5 minutes read
 Riots in Northern Ireland, 1971
Riots in Northern Ireland, 1971
Credit: Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

My classmates and I were bursting with anticipation. “10, 9, 8, 7…!” we counted down to midday together, fingers crossed. We were lying in my back garden in Belfast in 1974. I was 8 and it was during the Northern Ireland so-called ‘Troubles’.

My garden looked onto the football fields of our local primary school and we could see the school building clearly in the distance. We’d been evacuated due to a bomb scare earlier that day - a regular occurrence at the time - and told the school was going to explode at midday. We counted down, noon came and went…no explosion. We returned to school as normal the next day!

About 3,700 people lost their lives in the Troubles over 30+ years. Every one of them was tragic and heartbreaking. Although this is about the same number of fatalities as during the first week or so of the current Israel-Gaza conflict, it was a big deal for us at the time. Every day, education provision was disrupted for lots of kids like me.

Two reasons why education is important

In Northern Ireland, education is widely seen as key to ensuring that we stick with our post-conflict vibes and don’t return to the bad old days. There are two main, related reasons why I say this:

  • Education serves peace and stability - It’s no accident that when the UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was in Belfast recently to mark the re-establishment of the Stormont Assembly, the one other place he visited was an integrated primary school a few miles outside Belfast, where children from the country’s two main religions are educated side by side (learn more on integrated education). Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), was also in Belfast.

    It’s no accident that the last time he was here, he announced a new £1+ billion “Peaceplus” program, which has big money and initiatives promoting shared education and learning experiences for young people. Whether it’s through integrated education, programs like Peaceplus or other means, inclusive education has a pivotal role to play in promoting mutual understanding and embedding future peace and stability. And this perception is backed up by lots of research (see for example the 2022 research paper by Abbott and McGuinness in the International Journal of Inclusive Education.)

  • Education leads to employment and prosperity - When I was a young student at university in Scotland, the goalie in our football team was another Belfast guy. I did my A levels in a Belfast school. He did his in a Belfast prison, where he served time for frontline ‘paramilitary’ offences. Education was for him a way out of the conflict and a path to a better life. For many others in Northern Ireland, education was a route out of unemployment and social disadvantage.

    The link between education, earnings and employability is one of the most robustly evidenced ones I know of in the microeconomics literature. Education works for individuals. It also works for places. I spent a lot of time in PwC trying to bring business and businesses into Northern Ireland. If I learned one thing from this it’s that if we can’t go toe to toe on education and skills with the best in the world, we will be left behind. For a small country like Northern Ireland to thrive in terms of growth, prosperity, investment, innovation and entrepreneurship - particularly in a post-conflict environment - it needs a workforce with top class education and skills. And my views are backed up with lots of research evidence (see, for example, OECD Skills Strategy Northern Ireland).

Lots of evidence on the importance of education for jobs and peace

Fifty years after the said bomb in my school didn’t go off, I’m now semi-retired and living around the corner from the same school. Throughout my career as an academic and consultant, I’ve done loads of work on education. For example, my PhD from Warwick was a hard-core econometrics piece, very unimaginatively called “Education, training and unemployment: an empirical analysis for Northern Ireland”.

Similarly, as a PwC Partner I had the privilege of working on the Girls' Education Challenge and Global Education and Skills Partnership programs led and funded by the UK government. These programs continue to promote education provision and outcomes in many of the world’s most acute conflict zones.

I also still enjoy being a ‘UK Champion’ for the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), a fantastic global organization that advocates for investment in education.

As part of all this I’ve often had to make the business case for investing in education globally. For example, this is what I wrote in a previous blog: the best investment in global health is an investment in global education; the best investment in climate is an investment in education; and the best investment in the global economy is an investment in global education (see box below).

Investing in education is good for climate, health and the economy
  • Climate: the United Nations estimates that investing further in girls’ education could result in a massive reduction in carbon emissions of over 50 ‘gigatons’ by 2050 (Global Education Monitoring Report, 2020).
  • Health: The Economist reports that if all women globally finished secondary school, the number of child deaths would fall by half and 12 million fewer children would suffer from malnutrition.
  • Economy: the World Bank reckons that if every girl in the world received 12 years of quality education, lifetime earnings for women could double from $15 trillion to $30 trillion.

In light of the major conflicts ongoing in the world - Israel-Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan and others - the business case for education just seems to have got a lot stronger. While it’s hard to see a path to peace in many of these places right now, at some stage the wars will stop and ‘post-conflict’ will begin.

Rebuilding will start, not just rebuilding cities and hard infrastructure but also, more importantly, hearts, minds, hopes and shattered lives. And education will have a massive part to play. This is not just the musings of a Belfast boy based on his Troubles experience. It’s also the key finding from a new global study undertaken by the Institute for Economics & Peace funded by GPE:

“Inclusive, quality education promotes understanding, tolerance, and peaceful coexistence among individuals and communities. Moreover, education holds the potential to reduce the likelihood of conflicts by fostering critical thinking, encouraging open dialogue and creating economic growth opportunities.”

Like it was in Northern Ireland, inclusive education needs to be right in the middle of every discussion about post-conflict rebuilding and keeping our world safer and more peaceful in the future.

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