The educational achievement of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds remains alarmingly below that of better-off pupils, calling for an ongoing policy response involving early education and other vital supports.
The advantages of a complete and meaningful education, particularly a third-level qualification, follows a person throughout their life. The benefits include earnings, employability, and participation in society. Equally, the disadvantages associated with missing out on a complete education are significant and lasting.
In Ireland, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are significantly behind their better-off counterparts. The result of this is an educational inequality that compounds the already inherent disadvantage of these pupils. This must be addressed as a central policy issue if we are to truly value all children equally.
In Ireland, 40 per cent of people aged 25-64 whose parents didn't complete second-level education had also not completed it
Despite welcome improvements since 2007, the ongoing trend of an achievement gap between students from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more affluent peers is worrying, especially as family poverty is one of the largest determinants of educational achievement. Internationally, poor educational performance is linked to social background. Having parents with only low-level education reduces substantially a young person’s chances of attaining high educational skills.
A 2018 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that, in Ireland, 40 per cent of people aged 25-64 whose parents didn’t complete second-level education had themselves not completed second-level education. This statistic highlights the inter-generational transmission of low levels of skills and educational qualifications in Ireland. The improvement of educational outcomes for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and disadvantaged communities must be a policy priority.
Income inequality has a profound impact on educational outcomes, yet improved educational outcomes can have the greatest impact on income inequality. How can we address this?
Firstly, we can look at what is working and try to build on it. The official programme, called Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (Deis) is having a positive effect across the country, and continued support for Deis schools is vital.
Ireland spends 0.1 per cent of GDP on pre-primary education. The OECD average is 0.8 per cent of GDP
Secondly, we must invest in high-quality early childhood education. Early childhood is the stage where education can most effectively influence the development of children and help reverse disadvantage.
High-quality early childhood education and care has a profound and long-lasting impact on children throughout their lives. It means they are more likely to stay in school, more likely to move successfully through higher education and more likely to stay in the education system beyond second level.
According to the Educational Research Centre, an expert institution based in Dublin, tackling inequality at preschool level before a child attends primary school has a significant impact on educational disadvantage. This is provided that the education at preschool level meets certain conditions including being of high quality, having low adult-child ratios, being funded appropriately and having highly qualified staff.
In Finland, education policy is focused on equity, and children whose parents have low levels of education are less likely to do the same themselves
Ireland spends approximately 0.1 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) on pre-primary education, compared with an OECD average of 0.8 per cent of GDP. We have significant ground to make up, despite recent increases. Indeed, the most striking feature of investment in education in Ireland relative to other OECD countries is its under-investment in early childhood education.
Thirdly, we must look to those countries with consistent high performance across all levels of education and implement similar policies. Take Finland as an example. The Finnish education system is consistently among the top performers in the OECD and the European Union.
In Finland, education policy is focused on equity, and children whose parents have low levels of education are less likely to themselves attain low educational qualifications. At preschool level Finland invests 1.2 per cent of GDP in preschool education – one of the highest in the OECD – and has a pupil teacher ratio of 10:1 at pre-school compared to an OECD average of 14:1.
Children and young people today will leave formal education and enter a very different labour market from their parents
Finland offers flexible paths between general and vocational education and training options that lead to higher education, and has a high rate of participation in vocational education. It also has a high participation rate in adult education, with 76 per cent of employed adults engaged in learning opportunities.
No education system is perfect, but we must look to countries such as Finland and examine what type of resources and strategies could be adapted from their model and others to improve outcomes in the Irish education system.
We must continue to invest in education with a focus on equity of outcome. Children and young people today will leave formal education and enter a very different labour market from their parents. They will need the necessary analytical, critical and creative skills to navigate an ever-changing employment environment.
Every pupil must have the opportunity to develop these skills on an equal platform. The system is currently inadvertently rigged to perpetuate inequality. Strong interventions are needed through early education, Deis school funding and following the best global examples of education equality if we are to make sure no child is left behind.
Michelle Murphy is a research and policy analyst at Social Justice Ireland