Countries with larger class sizes will find Covid rules more difficult – report
Latest data shows class sizes in Ireland’s primary schools are well above EU average
The Department of Education has has said that class sizes have fallen to a historic low at primary level Photograph: David Sleator
Countries with larger class sizes will find it more difficult to comply with new restrictions on social distancing, according to a new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
The OECD’s annual “Education at a glance” report shows that Ireland failed to provide updated figures on class sizes to inform the report this year.
However, latest available Irish data shows the average class size in Irish primary schools remains at 25 compared to the EU average of 20 pupils per class.
The report, which compares education systems across the world, also indicates that expenditure on Irish education remains below both the OECD and EU averages when based on GDP (gross domestic product).
Ireland invested 3.4 per cent of GDP in primary, second and third-level education in 2017 compared to the OECD average of 4.9 per cent and EU average of 4.5 per cent.
In Ireland the lowest level of investment remains in the primary education system.
At second-level, Ireland invested 1.1 per cent of GDP in second-level education compared to the OECD and EU averages of 1.9 per cent, according to the report.
The report also indicates that Irish primary school teachers also work longer hours than teachers in most other countries.
For example, Irish primary teachers teach for 905 hours compared to the EU average of 738 and the OECD average of 778.
On a positive note, the report shows Ireland is one the best performing countries when it comes to retaining students in second-level education.
A total of 93 per cent of people aged 15-19 years old are enrolled in second-level compared to the OECD average of 84 per cent.
Participation in further education is also higher in Ireland. A total of 45 per cent of 20-24 year olds are full-time students compared to the OECD average of 41 per cent.
Ireland comes in second place out of 36 OECD countries for performance in reading tests.
Teachers’ unions said the overall finding on investment reflected poorly on the priority given to education in public spending.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said it was a “ source of disgrace” that Ireland languishes at the bottom of the EU class size table.
INTO general secretary John Boyle said Ireland was home to supersized classes, the largest in the EU, with almost one in five of our primary schoolchildren are in classes of 30 or more.
“This hindered our ability to reopen and may very well be the reason our schools cannot remain fully open. We simply have to get our class sizes under control, with too many pupils learning in cramped classrooms of more than thirty pupils,” he said.
The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) said under-investment in schools made them extremely vulnerable to the Covid-19 crisis.
“Large classes, insufficient staffing, and inadequate accommodation and equipment are challenging at any time,” said ASTI president Ann Piggott.
“ In the context of a pandemic, these deficits make operational measures such as social distancing and remote learning highly problematic.”
The Department of Education has pointed out that investment in education has been rising, with a record budget last year and a €375 million investment in recent weeks to help schools operate safely.
It has said that class sizes have fallen to a historic low at primary level and investment is increasing across the board in the education sector.
Government sources say the use of GDP to measure investment in education is distorted by the scale of multi-national companies in Ireland compared to other countries.
However, Teachers’ Union of Ireland president Martin Marjoram said the report’s findings make clear that teachers have been carrying out their work in a sector that is “chronically under-resourced” by international standards.
“Now more than ever, with a range of current and future challenges, an adequately-funded education system must be seen as central to the country’s future,” he said.