Prisoners’ education: a portrait of inequality

We know the children who are at the highest risk of dropping out of education. The challenge is to provide the resources and political will to support them when they need it most

New research into the education levels of inmates in Irish prisons provides a troubling portrait of inequality in Ireland. The statistics are stark: four out of five prisoners left school before their Leaving Cert, and just over a quarter never attended secondary school. In the general population, more than 90 per cent of students go on to complete their Leaving Cert.

The study’s findings, based on almost 800 inmates between 2015 and 2017, may not surprise everyone but they should disturb. They shine a harsh light on the social fault-lines that link poor education with our prison population. They also echo the findings of a 1997 study in Mountjoy prison which found more than half of prisoners came from the same handful of deprived postal districts. Almost 80 per cent had left school before the age of 16.

Early intervention and prevention is key if we are to have any realistic chance of retaining potential early school leavers

On the face of it, little has changed since. A child’s prospects vary dramatically based on their address, their parents’ education level and the presence of family problems such as drug addiction. Young people who drop out early from the education system are at higher risk of poverty, are more likely to be unemployed and to end up tangled in the criminal justice system.

Early intervention and prevention is key if we are to have any realistic chance of retaining potential early school leavers. There is encouraging work taking place, such as area-based childhood programmes which are boosting long-term outcomes for children and families living in deprived areas. But we need to do far more. Too many children continue to fall through the cracks in our poorest communities. We need to do more for teenagers who find mainstream school a challenge but who lack decent alternatives. Equally, we need to support those whose ambition is to progress to higher education.


We know who the most at-risk children are. The challenge is to provide the resources, the political will and sustained policy focus to ensure vulnerable children receive the right kind of supports when they need them.