Ireland falls behind on education due to lack of spending

New report criticises low levels of funding and class bias in ‘two-tier’ secondary system

Only 80% of the working-age population have attained at least an upper secondary education, a share that has significantly increased since 2007.

Only 80% of the working-age population have attained at least an upper secondary education, a share that has significantly increased since 2007.


Ireland’s lack of spending on education has resulted in the country lagging behind the majority of its EU counterparts, a new report has found.

In fact, Ireland spends the least amount of money in the EU on pre-primary education, according to the report from the German Bertelsmann Stiftung philanthropic group which is published today.

It says Ireland, along with most EU member states, is paying the price socially for the economic crisis triggered in 2008, and has still not returned to the levels of “social justice” it enjoyed at that time.

Only 80 per cent of the working-age population have attained at least an upper secondary education, a share that has significantly increased since 2007. In first place on this metric is Lithuania at 94.6 per cent.

The Department of Education has disputed the report findings. Pointing out that the research was based on 2014 data, the department issued a statement on Thursday afternoon saying the index was "not internationally recognized" and  omitted "a number of factors" which it said would give a "truer" picture of Ireland’s education system.

Citing the Government's record on spending on special education and improvements in access to third-level by people from disadvantaged areas, the department said investment in education "is a key priority" for this government.

Criticisms of Ireland’s spend on education gives a "misleading impression" of the Government's record, the department argued.

"This is because Ireland’s GDP is inflated by number of factors, primarily the repatriation of profits by multinationals," it said.

Instead,  the department contends that the spend on education as a percentage of total public expenditure gives a moreaccurate picture. 

"The percentage of total public spend on education in Ireland is 12.9 per cent, which is higher than the OECD country average of 11.3 per cent".

The report is critical of the class bias in “two-tier” secondary education. “A minority of pupils (about 10 per cent) attend fee-paying schools where State support is augmented by the revenue from fees that can amount to €6,000 a year,” it notes.

“These schools are socially exclusive and achieve higher academic results and higher progression rates to tertiary education than non-fee-paying schools . . .The resources allocated per pupil or student increase steadily the higher up the educational scale one goes, but access becomes more dependent on social class.”

The report uses a Social Justice Index (SJI) combining 38 measures of poverty, education, the labour market, health, intergenerational equity, social cohesion and non-discrimination.

Policy challenges

It is specifically in education (where Ireland ranks 21st out of the 28 EU member-states), however, that the report points to the most substantial policy challenges. Ireland spends just 0.1 per cent of GDP on pre-primary education, the least of all in the EU, it says.

However, the report does say that Ireland’s PISA (school exam results) are among the highest in the EU, though socioeconomic factors continue to affect the PISA results of students. And the rate of 18-to-24-year olds who dropped out of education or training has been nearly halved since 2008 and stands at 6.3 per cent.

Across the six social policy indicators, Ireland joins the ranks of the top 10 states only once (on social cohesion and non-discrimination), although it never sinks into the bottom five. Ireland achieves a nine out of 10 score for successfully fighting discrimination in the report, which pays tribute to the role of the Equality Authority (now part of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission) in this regard.

In terms of gender equality more needs to be done, the report says, noting that Ireland is 17th for the share of parliamentary seats held by women. Women hold more than 40 per cent of national parliament seats in Sweden and Finland. It welcomes the enactment of same-sex marriage.

The Government’s integration policy is relatively highly rated but the study is critical of the fact that while more than 70 per cent of “immigrants to Ireland have the right to reside, work and own property in the country by virtue of their EU citizenship,” many are not employed “in occupations commensurate with their skills and education”.