A step forward for Irish education © Alamy
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The Irish education system ranks in the upper tier of the human capital index, with one of the highest rates of school completion in Europe. But Dublin still faces a challenge to bring the fruits of education to the neediest families.

Ireland comes sixth in a global human capital ranking, just after Finland, with education ranking on a par with Canada.

A half-century ago, Dublin made the far-sighted decision to introduce free second-level education for all. Now Irish universities are crucial to an economic model centred on foreign direct investment.

Yet gaps remain, despite big investments in the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (Deis) scheme to tackle disadvantage. “It’s reaping some rewards. We’d argue that there are some things that could be done that would reap further rewards,” says Emer Smyth, research professor at the Economic & Social Research Institute, a Dublin think-tank.

Education was hit hard in the crash of 2008, with larger class sizes and overstretched budgets the legacy of those dark times.

Still, policymakers say efforts to stop underprivileged children leaving school early are yielding results. The proportion of early leavers from education and training dropped to 6.3 per cent in 2017 from 10.8 per cent in 2011, prompting Dublin to say the campaign to break the cycle of disadvantage was working.

Introduced in 2006, the Deis scheme provides special supports for about one-fifth of primary and secondary schools. These include additional funding, literacy and numeracy programmes, school meals, mentoring, family liaison and grants for books. Deis schools are catching up with other schools when it comes to students staying in education, with a significant narrowing of the gap in the number sitting the final Leaving Certificate examination.

Yet the performance gap persists. Disadvantaged children secure better exam results outside the Deis system, notes Prof Smyth of the ESRI. “Young people in Deis schools will do worse than their peers in non-Deis schools.” In urban areas particularly, Deis schools were more likely to use “rigid forms” of ability grouping, fostering weaker performance in lower stream groups. “Moving towards more flexibility in groups for all students would help.”

This is but one challenge among many. Despite risks from Britain’s vote to leave the EU and global trade tensions, Ireland’s economy is again growing strongly. Legions of multinationals are present — among them Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft — placing high importance on the quality of tertiary education.

But universities lament a sharp decline in public funding per student since the crash. “While indices on the current quality ranking of our system compare very well internationally, the impact of this persistent under-funding is in danger of damaging the system in the years ahead unless it is reversed,” says Jim Miley, director-general of the Irish Universities’ Association.

With the population forecast to rise by almost one million people to 5.75m by 2040, Irish schools and universities will face fresh demands for decades to come.

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About this Special Report

The World Bank’s new Human Capital Index allows countries to benchmark themselves globally on the health and education investments needed to fulfil their potential. Plus: how brain scans help poor children; Rwanda’s compulsory health system; and what needs fixing in the Asian Tigers’ education system.

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