Where are the education centres of excellence?


SECOND OPINION:Lower levels of education are linked to earlier deaths

A HUNDRED years ago Daniel Defoe wrote about the importance of educating females: “a woman with no education is insolent, loud, turbulent, clamorous, noisy, the devil!” The Taliban obviously disagree. Last week a 14-year-old girl was shot and seriously injured by militants in Pakistan because she promotes education for women. Irish people were horrified, convinced that our education system is wonderful, especially for girls, when this is patently untrue.

The Central Statistics Office (CSO) has just published the 2011 census figures on Traveller education. Although a slight improvement on 2002 figures, they are a shocking indictment of Irish society. Findings show that 4,041 Travellers left school before the age of 15. Was anyone prosecuted for allowing this to occur? Although the percentage of Travellers who completed upper secondary education doubled from nearly 4 to 8 per cent in 10 years, only 3 per cent continued their education past the age of 18. Just one in 100 Travellers completed third-level compared with one in three of the general population. The unemployment rate among Travellers is 84 per cent, which reflects their educational attainment.

The ESRI study, No Way Back? The Dynamics of Early School Leaving, found that 9,000 young people leave school every year without sitting the Leaving Cert. Children from lower socioeconomic groups are three times more likely to drop out than those from higher professional backgrounds.

Negative interaction with teachers and school climate are the main causes of early school leaving, a major source of health inequalities.

School retention rates are not an adequate outcome measure of the Irish education system. Early school leaving is “the culmination of a longer-term gradual withdrawal from school, marked by non-attendance and truancy” and rooted in experiences of educational failure from primary school onwards. Children who leave school early are doubly disadvantaged because they are likely to have low literacy and numeracy skills as well as no qualifications. Educational attainment is the important thing, not how many years a spent in school.

Educational attainment is a powerful determinant of health for both men and women. For over 50 years, international and Irish studies have linked educational attainment to many health problems such as cancer and coronary heart disease. There is substantial evidence to show that those with lower levels of education are more likely to die at a young age and are at increased risk of poor health throughout their lives. Whether health outcomes are measured by death rates, acute and chronic illnesses, or health behaviour, such as smoking and physical activity, low education levels are the common denominator. Not educating all children to their full potential is a form of national suicide.

Women’s education is particularly important. Children with educated mothers are more likely to survive than children of mothers with little or no education. Investing in girls’ education is the most effective way to reduce poverty, and investment in second-level schooling yields even bigger dividends. No Way Back? notes that “the low-attaining females in this study provide a stark contrast to the high-achieving females that attract much attention in existing gender research and policy discourse”.

The number of early school leavers is the same as the number of people who die of heart conditions and more than the 8,000 men and women who die of cancer every year, yet it is not seen as a major health problem.

Where are the education centres of excellence? Not in disadvantaged areas, that’s for sure.

Those who leave school with few or no qualifications, and low literacy and numeracy skills, are products of chronic under-education, which in turn leads to chronic health problems, such as diabetes, obesity and depression

It’s time to stop feeling smug about Ireland’s “great” education system which works well for many children but not for a significant minority.

As Fiona Muldoon, director of Credit Institutions and Insurance Supervision at the Central Bank, said last week, the education system, like the banks, needs less “activity” and more “outcomes”, such as numbers of children leaving school with excellent literacy skills and civic spirit. Otherwise taxpayers will continue to fund the consequences of education inequalities: poorer health, more social exclusion, and more criminality.

Dr JACKY JONESis a former HSE regional manager of health promotion