The OECD's Education at a Glance 2021 report, released yesterday, ranks Ireland in last place out of 36 countries for investment in education. The latest figures reveal that Ireland spent 3.3 per cent of GDP on primary to tertiary educational institutions in 2018, which represents 1.6 percentage points lower than the OECD average.
This report follows on from another recent OECD report on Effective Policies, Successful Schools, which found that Ireland was lagging behind the international average, in key areas such as an adequate supply of teachers and a fit-for-purpose digital infrastructure.
For many pupils in schools nationally, these deficits will not necessarily be tangible, as certain schools are in a position to supplement the costs of funding an effective school, in particular fee-paying schools, where the cumulative social and cultural capital can be considerable.
For pupils in Deis (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) schools, these deficits are, however, patently tangible, as indeed they are for the communities these schools serve, as well as for the teachers and principals who work in such schools. Our own recent research, summarised in Irish Educational Studies, points to the many resource weaknesses in the Deis programme.
While Covid 19 has exposed the fault lines across our society globally, it has also demonstrated that those on the margins have suffered more acutely from the impact of the virus.
In relation to schooling, it has become abundantly clear that those in Deis schools and other disadvantaged settings struggled to meet the challenges of online learning in the absence of an adequate digital infrastructure and often a support base.
The fact that disadvantaged students suffered disproportionally arising from the lockdown should have come as no surprise and, indeed, the Taoiseach acknowledged that fact in an interview in September 2020. In the course of a letter to the editor last year, we drew attention to the need for a properly resourced policy response.
Over a year ago, the EU Commission issued a technical report on the likely impact of Covid-19 on education systems. It noted that the interruption to in-class education was expected to exacerbate existing educational inequalities.
Children and young people from less advantaged backgrounds were likely to fall even further behind as a result of prolonged absences from school. As the report pointed out “these students are less likely to have access to relevant learning digital resources and less likely to have a suitable home learning environment.”
Subsequent research here, and indeed elsewhere, has demonstrated that this is in fact what transpired. The Commission recommended that measures should be taken to ensure that vulnerable pupils would be able to make up for the learning loss they experienced during lockdown and that this should be done “quickly and effectively”.
The situation has, of course, been greatly exacerbated by subsequent lockdowns. Some 15 months after the EU Commission report issued and long after neighbouring jurisdictions have acted on the issue, the Minister for Education recently announced her Covid Learning and Supports Scheme. It can hardly be described as a quick response to the situation and the impact it will have is questionable.
A school principal needs to know in June, at the latest, the resources that will be available for the following academic year. In this way, s/he can incorporate those resources into planning for the next academic year and ensure that they are used in the most efficient and effective ways possible.
Whilst it would be wrong to suggest that the delay in notifying schools of this package will result in these extra resources being completely wasted, it is likely that for many practical reasons the timing of this package means that the potential benefits arising from the additional funding cannot be optimised.
Additional resources allocated in September pose challenges regarding securing the services of qualified teachers given the failure to address supply issues adequately over a range of subjects in recent years. The insistence that none of these extra resources can be used before October 11th renders the recruitment of teachers even more problematic.
Another problem with the scheme as announced is the fact that the allocation is based on last year’s enrolment with the result that new and growing schools lose out. Fundamentally, however, the main issue is the adequacy of the resources provided under this initiative.
By way of example, it is proposed that a 700-pupil school will receive an extra allocation of 875 teaching hours, which represents circa 32 hours per week. In every school, there are pupils who need assistance, so it is fitting that the scheme recognises that reality.
However, using school size as the only criterion for measuring need is a fairly blunt instrument. In a school where the number of disadvantaged pupils is relatively small, this allocation will be sufficient. Indeed, in particular circumstances it could be more than sufficient.
Yet, a similar sized school in the Deis category will only receive an extra three hours per week. Given the compounded nature of disadvantage in such settings and the multiplicity of issues faced in such schools, this is completely and totally inadequate. Equity demands that resources are directed to those most in need and, indeed, this is what was suggested in the EU Commission publication. Unfortunately, it is quite possible that this package as currently constructed will exacerbate the problem rather than mitigate it.
Aside from the manner in which the money is allocated throughout the education system, the other issue is the adequacy of the total package. The Education Policy Institute in the UK calculated that funding of stg£13.5bn would be necessary to address the problem there.
When the UK government committed funding of just stg£1.4bn to the issue, the distinguished educationalist appointed by government to oversee the scheme resigned in protest. Allowing for differences of scale, the UK response, although obviously recognised to be grossly insufficient by those with expertise in that jurisdiction, is generous compared to the €52million allocated to the scheme by the Irish Government.
We would suggest that the Minister treat this scheme as a necessary first step and that her department use the next few months to consult school principals to identify where supplementary funding is needed and respond accordingly. The probability is that a fund of at least €100million is what is required and it may need to be repeated over a number of years. An inadequate response will have serious long-term implications for the individuals involved as well as for wider society.
Professor Judith Harford is deputy head of UCD’s School of Education; Dr Brian Fleming is a former school principal and post-doctoral researcher at UCD’s School of Education