Ireland ranks in last place in OECD for investment in education

School completion rates higher in Ireland compared to most wealthy countries

Ireland ranks last out of 36 developed countries for investment in education as a measure of our national wealth or gross domestic product (GDP), according to latest OECD data.

Economists say the presence of multinationals distorts our GDP figures, but education unions say the figures confirm the extent of under-investment in our schools.

The annual Education At A Glance 2021 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows spending on education – ranging from primary to higher and further education – in Ireland accounts for 3.3 per cent of our GDP in 2018.

This compares to an EU average of 4.4 per cent and is significantly behind top-performers such as Norway on 6.6 per cent.


Ireland performs better when investment on education is measured as a proportion of overall public spending.

Education accounted for 12.6 per cent of public spending in 2018, higher than the OECD average of 11 per cent and the EU average of 9.5 per cent.


The salaries of school staff represent the largest single expenditure in education.

Between 2005 and 2020, the salaries of teachers with 15 years of experience increased by 2 to 3 per cent at primary and secondary levels across OECD countries.

In Ireland, however, teachers’ salaries increased by 16 to 17 per cent over the same time period.

Average salaries for teachers across the OECD were – after conversion to US dollars – $45, 687 (€38,683) at primary and $51, 749 at second level..

In Ireland, they were significantly higher at $59 204 for primary and $61,652 for second level.

They lagged behind countries such as Germany which had some of the highest average salaries at both primary – €76,997 – and second level – €89,816.

Teachers in Ireland are required to teach for longer than their colleagues in OECD countries.

Teachers here are required to teach 909 hours per year at primary level, 704 hours at second level.

This contrasts with an OECD average of 791 hours at primary and 685 hours at second level in 2020.

School completion

Data also indicates Ireland has one of the the highest rates of school completion among OECD countries.

The average proportion of 15-19 year olds enrolled in education across the OECD is 84 per cent

The share is the highest in Ireland, Belgium and Slovenia where enrolment rates reached 94 per cent.

Ireland also has fewer children from lower socio-economic groups performing at the lowest level in standardised tests -- 16 per cent compared to the OECD average of 29 per cent.

A positive outcome is also reflected in data that shows the difference between native-born and foreign born young people who are not in education or training.

In Ireland, the different is 2 per centage points compared to the OECD average of 5 per cent.

However, Ireland continues to have relatively large class sizes at primary level. Latest figures show average primary class sizes in Ireland are 24 - the highest in the EU - compared to an OECD average of 21 and an EU average of 19.

At third level, the ratio of students to teaching staff has increased from 20:1 to 23:1 this year, higher than the OECD and European averages of 15:1.


The spread of Covid-19 continued to impede access to in-person education in many countries around the world in 2021.

By mid-May of this year, all OECD countries had experienced periods of full school closure since the start of 2020.

The number of days when schools were fully closed due to the pandemic varies significantly between countries and tended to increase with the level of education.

Ireland, however, was an exception. In Ireland, pre-schools were fully closed for an average of 72 days between January 2020 and May 2021, while primary schools closed for at least 96 days and secondary for 72 days.

In comparison, across the OECD, pre-schools closed for an average of 55 days, primary for 78 days and secondary for 101 days on average.


In response to the figures, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) president Eamon Dennehy said it was clear than an ongoing failure to invest in our schools will have long-term social and economic consequences.

“If we take GDP as a measure of national wealth, it is unacceptable that a rich country like Ireland remains at the bottom of the global rankings,” he said.

“The pandemic has dramatically underlined how important schools are to children, families and communities. It has also demonstrated that large classes, insufficient staffing, inadequate accommodation and ventilation are undermining the capacity of schools to provide a safe environment for quality education.”

Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) president Martin Marjoram said the figures showed that our education system was “chronically and disgracefully underfunded”.

“With a range of current and future challenges, an adequately-funded education system must be seen as central to the country’s future, and Government must urgently commit to redressing the damage of years of cutbacks and neglect,” he said.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation said data which confirmed that Ireland’s “supersized classes” at primary level remain the largest in the EU were a “national embarassment”.

INTO general secretary John Boyle said the union was campaigning for further reductions in class sizes in the forthcoming budget.

“It is time for government’s action to match the rhetoric of the pandemic months, and for swift steps to be taken to invest in our primary and special schools as a national priority,” he said.

Aontas, the national adult learning organisation, said the report exposed “stark inequalities” linked to adults’ education levels and their earnings.

It said 41 per cent of adults in Ireland without a Leaving Cert qualification earned at or below half of median earnings in 2019 compared to an OECD average of 27 per cent.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent