Education in Ireland still shaped by social class despite decades of investment

Opinion: Measures to tackle disadvantage grossly underfunded relative to challenges

The Minister for Education recently announced an expansion of the Deis (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) scheme. An additional 310 schools are being admitted to the scheme and an extra euro32m is being provided for that purpose. This is a welcome development particularly for those schools involved. A refined and more focused identification model based on more detailed census statistics has led to this development. The reality is that many should have qualified and been admitted earlier, but better late than never.

While the expansion of the Deis scheme is an important development, it is regrettable that the Minister did not also take the opportunity to announce a comprehensive evaluation of the entire scheme.

Deis has been in operation since 2005, and while it has been the subject of a number of evaluations, to date no serious review and restructuring of the scheme has taken place.

The complex, intractable nature of educational disadvantage, along with the absence of any comprehensive review of the Deis scheme, are such that it is difficult to be definitive as to its impact.


While the evidence suggests some progress has been made in relation to the narrowing of the gap between Deis and non-Deis schools, it seems fairly clear that such progress has been limited, despite the scheme spanning over 16 years. It is interesting that the Minister has pledged in this expansion of the Deis scheme that no school will lose out as a result of her announcement.

Is the implication here that students in every school in the Deis scheme are still so disadvantaged that the school cannot exit the scheme?


Educational disadvantage is a complex and multi-faceted problem. As such it is not amenable to easy or cheap solutions. Our research indicates that the Deis scheme is grossly under-funded relative to the challenges faced by school communities in endeavouring to meet the needs of their students.

The scheme is also poorly structured in that it fails to address the particular organisational needs of schools in the scheme in any meaningful way. Since 2006, at primary level, the scheme has recognised the spectrum of disadvantage which operates across Deis schools, with the level of disadvantage in some schools more acute than others.

As such, at primary level, the scheme operates at three levels or bands reflecting the scale of disadvantage evident in a school. No such system obtains at post-primary level. The notion that all post-primary schools serving disadvantaged areas are the same has always been absurd. The recent announcement doesn’t make clear whether this approach is being reformed or not. If the latter, it is extremely disappointing, given that the more detailed figures now available would facilitate such a move.


In the Education Act (1998), we committed ourselves to ensuring that we have a truly inclusive education system in which the needs of all students must be addressed effectively.

This objective was restated when we signed up to the UN Sustainable Develo ment Goals in 2015 and is part of the current Programme for Government. A serious effort to achieve this objective is long overdue.

Despite the introduction of the free education scheme in 1967 and the abolition of third level fees in 1995, participation in education in Ireland continues to be shaped by social class.

The very existence of a category of schools known as Deis schools, located in disadvantaged communities, and which typically cater for a larger number of pupils with complex learning and behavioural needs, underscores this point.

While marginal progress has been made since the introduction of the Deis scheme in 2005, “educational disadvantage”, (a disempowering label which has an objectifying effect), continues to be viewed as a school-based issue, with a lack of recognition and response at a policy level of its fundamental, deep-seated relationship with wider economic inequalities across Irish society. The time for action is now.

Professor Judith Harford & Dr Brian Fleming, School of Education, UCD.