Fifty years on since ‘free education’, it’s time to reflect on who the system really serves

The 1960s ushered in an ambitious and strategic education policy approach

Many associate Donagh O’ Malley as the politician who brought us free education, and O’Malley’s role was indeed significant. Photograph: Eddie Kelly

This year is a very significant year in the history of education in Ireland, marking the 50th anniversary of the introduction of free post-primary education.

For schoolgoers today it may be hard to imagine, but up until the introduction of “free education’’, only a minority of young people went on to participate in post-primary education.

By the mid-1960s, one-third of all children were leaving full-time education on completion of primary schooling and less than 60 per cent of all 15 year-olds were remaining on in school.

Judith Harford, associate professor at University College Dublin’s school of education

The decade of the 1960s was one of the most progressive in Irish educational history, ushering in a more ambitious and strategic policy approach.


The impetus for much of the policy formulation of the 1960s was the economic crisis of the late 1950s, which profoundly impacted key aspects of Ireland’s political, social and economic development.

The economic policy reorientation that took place from the 1950s onwards was gradually translated into education policy under a series of younger ministers born or raised after independence.

This period witnessed significant post-primary structural change, expansion of technical education and curriculum modernisation at all levels of the education system.

A key development at this juncture was the OECD report, aptly titled Investment in Education (1965), which significantly informed the state's policy for educational expansion.

The report formed part of a wider analysis of education systems across a number of countries. The survey team, under the leadership of a prominent economist, Paddy Lynch, began work in 1962 and its report was published in 1965.

Among the key issues which the report highlighted were marked inequalities based on social class and geographical location and the high dropout rate after primary school.

Many associate Donagh O’ Malley as the politician who brought us free education, and O’Malley’s role was indeed significant.

The fact that one-third of young people received no education beyond primary level was, O’ Malley contended, “a dark stain on the national conscience” and he set about addressing this once in office.

However, O’Malley was not known for his diplomacy and it is clear that he forged ahead with his blueprint for free education without consulting key stakeholders and advisors.

In particular he left the Department of Finance in the dark. TK Whitaker, the noted economist, then secretary of the Department of Finance, was unimpressed both by O'Malley's approach and by the way in which he had left his previous ministry, the Department of Health, "gravely insolvent".

Despite, or perhaps because of his unorthodox approach, O’Malley achieved his objective and following an announcement to a gathering of journalists that “no boy or girl in this State will be deprived of full educational opportunity – from primary to university level – by reason of the fact that the parents cannot afford to pay for it”, the government of the day had no alternative but to support the plan.

Within a decade of the announcement, participation rates in second-level education had doubled.

Today, Ireland boasts one of the highest rates of second-level completion in the EU, with more than 90 per cent of young people completing the Leaving Certificate.

A critical episode in the history of modern Ireland, the 50th anniversary of the introduction of “free education” provides an opportunity to examine how our system of education has developed, whom it is serving and what we need to address.

These issues will be explored at a forthcoming symposium in the Royal Irish Academy on April 19th, in which leading scholars and policy makers – John Coolahan, Aine Hyland, Emer Smyth, Kathleen Lynch, Tom Boland, DG Mulcahy, Tom O' Donoghue and Ciaran Sugrue – will look at the genesis, objectives and legacy of the "free education" scheme.

* Judith Harford is associate professor at University College Dublin’s school of education