Young people in Republic have higher levels of education, cross-Border study finds

Early school leaving is two to three times higher in Northern Ireland

Young people in the Republic have higher levels of educational attainment compared to Northern Ireland, according to a new cross-Border study by the ESRI.

The report is the first study to systematically compare systems and outcomes in the two jurisdictions from primary to third level.

Among young people aged 25-34 years, there are greater levels of “high” educational attainment in the Republic (56 per cent) compared to the North (47 per cent).

High levels of education are defined as tertiary education, which includes college, university and vocational courses.


The Republic also has a significantly smaller proportion of “low” educational attainment among young people (7 per cent) compared to the North (18 per cent).

Low levels of education are defined as those who leave school with at most a lower secondary qualification.

While both systems face challenges in tackling disadvantage, educational inequality is more pronounced in the North.

For example, early school leaving is two to three times higher in Northern Ireland compared to the Republic and this gap has widened over time.

This is concerning because early school leavers are more likely to be out of work or in low wage and potentially insecure jobs later in life.

Academic selection

The research says it is likely that academic selection - the use of academic tests at age 11 to select high-performers who progress to grammar schools - in Northern Ireland schools is a contributory factor.

It says this has significant consequences for young people’s career and study choices and aspirations.

Non-grammar schools tend to have lower educational expectations, particularly for boys from disadvantaged backgrounds.

While the study did not explore difference by religion, it references comments from stakeholders who highlighted higher levels of under-achievement among working-class Protestant boys in Northern Ireland compared to Catholics.

In the Republic, the “success” of the Deis (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) programme in retaining students in education was cited as a positive development.

The overall proportion of graduates is similar in both jurisdictions.

Smaller proportion

However, Northern Ireland has a much smaller proportion who complete further education and training courses (10 per cent) compared to the Republic (30 per cent).

Further education was perceived as “second-best’ relative to higher education in both jurisdictions.

The study also notes that at all levels of qualification, wages are significantly higher south of the Border.

It says higher returns to education can incentivise individuals to invest in their education and may in part be driving the low levels of attainment in the North.

The study also highlights the “high stakes” nature of the assessment systems in both jurisdictions at second level.

Stakeholders raised concerns around whether the second level system was preparing students for exams rather than for the world of work and adult life.

The report, A North-South Comparison of Education and Training Systems: Lessons for Policy, was completed by ESRI researchers Emer Smyth, Anne Devlin, Adele Bergin and Seamus McGuinness

Dr Anne Devlin said while there are different structures and approaches, the two systems also have similarities and face many common challenges.

“Greater cooperation across the island would be beneficial in a range of areas but particularly in tackling educational disadvantage and promoting the inclusion of students with special educational needs,” she said.

Launching the report at an online event, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the research yielded valuable evidence and could help the North and South learn from each other on education delivery and reform.

“I believe these need to be central concerns for how we work through the Good Friday Agreement in the time ahead,” he said.

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