The census shows that between 2006-2011, the total number of post 15 year old students in the country has risen by 16.9% from 349,596 to 408,838 (figure 1).  This rise has occured despite the decline in the age cohort presently finishing school (there are 55,865 seventeen year olds, as opposed to 82,614 thirty year olds).  Given the present baby boom, numbers are set to grow even more strongly in the coming years which in turn will place enormous stress onto the third level sector to provide additional places, which will require a capital building programme and additional staffing given already very high staff-student ratios.

Figure 1

The data also shows a very clear relationship between the level of education attained and the employment status of individuals, with the higher the qualifications obtained the more likely the person is to be in employment (figure 2).  For example, the unemployment rate for people who had attained at most a primary education was 33.7% as opposed to 7.8% for those with a third level degree or higher.  This is reflective of the changing nature of the Irish economy as it becomes more dependent on high skilled manufacturing and services, and FDI investment, but is also reflective of the unemployment fallout of the present crisis with most jobs being lost in construction and the services sectors that require fewer qualifications.

Figure 2

In Census 2011, a new question on the main field of study of the highest qualification completed to date (excluding secondary school qualifications) was asked for the first time, extending a question that used to be directed only at third level graduates.  The data reveals the educational background and skills of people in the labour market.  Social sciences, business and law dominate, roughly three times the size of science, maths and computing.  Given the difficulties of recruiting in some sectors of the economy, such as IT, the latter seems to be one area that needs to grow.

Figure 3

The data in the three graphics above also provides some detail on gender.  Balance on the overall participation post-15 has improved slightly, with a growth in male participation.  Women in the labour force are more likely to be employed than males, regardless of qualification level.  There are notable differences in the fields of study taken by males and females, with males dominating engineering, manufacturing and construction, agricuture and veterinary.  Women dominate health and welfare, education, social sciences, business and law, and services.  This domination for some sub-areas of work is very stark, for example, women dominate child care and youth services (97.3%), secretarial and office work (96.7%) and hair and beauty services (96.3%).

Rob Kitchin

Irish society needs all the youthful intelligence and imagination it can get. So it is not surprising that new figures showing Ireland’s decline in international rankings from fifth to 17th in reading and from 16th to 26th in maths have raised serious concerns.

Our drop in the rankings is the consequence of our own declining standards rather than a surge in other countries’ skills. The average score in reading for Irish 15-year-olds dropped 31 points since 2000, the largest fall in the OECD by some distance. Average scores in maths fell by 16 points. The decline has been across the board.

Many have already reached for the easy explanation of our decline – the arrival of large numbers of new immigrants to Ireland. However, even if we look only at native-born children, Ireland still ranks 17th in reading, the area where most information is available. This decline cannot be pinned on immigrants.

The trends in the report defy easy answers but there are clues in even a preliminary look at the results. Class inequality still takes a toll on educational performance. This is both unjust and a profoundly wasteful under-investment in the country’s population and capabilities.

While such inequalities have remained relatively stable, differences between schools have become more important in predicting student performance. There is significant evidence of the particularly difficult situation for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who attend disadvantaged schools. Such students perform significantly worse than students from similar backgrounds who go to schools with a more socially mixed student body.

Similarly, students from immigrant backgrounds do have significantly lower reading scores – but this disadvantage is almost entirely for students from homes where English is not the everyday language. Such students score an average of 444 in reading, compared to 503 for students who speak English at home. Even though this is only a small part of Ireland’s overall pattern of decline, this is a group that is clearly vulnerable to further marginalisation in a time of severe unemployment.

Maintaining and extending socially mixed schools and supporting learning in the most disadvantaged schools will be crucial. Ireland has less concentration of immigrant children in specific schools than most OECD countries. Serious support for preschool education would be a wise investment as children who attended a pre-primary school tended to score higher in their reading.

What about within schools themselves? Across the OECD more students are saying that most of their teachers really listen to what they have to say, that if they need extra help from their teachers they will get it, and that most of their teachers treat them fairly. Ireland is one of the countries seeing such increases: 5.5 per cent, 4.3 per cent and 3.1 per cent respectively since 2000. In addition, Ireland is one of the leaders in the OECD in improving the disciplinary climate in schools. Some 11.2 per cent fewer students say students don’t listen to the teacher; 9.1 per cent fewer say there is noise and disorder, and 2.5 per cent fewer say students can’t work well. Teachers and students are connecting better than they did a decade ago. Nonetheless, reading and maths scores have still declined. Some of the most worrying trends in the report are outside schools. The percentage of students saying they read for enjoyment fell from 66.6 per cent to 58.1 per cent between 2000 and 2009 – and the greatest declines in reading for enjoyment were among girls from poorer backgrounds.

It will be important to take a closer look at these data to find out more about the sources of our declining standards in reading and maths. We need to recognise and face the problem squarely – the rise in immigrant children lets us off the hook but is only a tiny part of the story. It would be more useful to support immigrants’ education, especially where English is not the language at home, than to focus on them as the sources of our difficulties.

We have resources that we can build upon. For example, we can protect and extend the socially inclusive elements of our systems of schooling. A strong public system that promotes social mixing by class and immigrant background is crucial – and we have the building blocks in place. In the interim, we need to tackle pockets of disadvantage while working to integrate them into the broader educational system. We have good relations between teachers and students, built on fairness and responsiveness in the classroom. But we need to pay closer attention to a renewal of cultural and civic life beyond the school as these provide resources for students’ learning that are both crucial and under threat.

Most importantly, we need to move our debates about education to a more fruitful ground. These reports suggest that we should focus on supporting children’s home lives and access to cultural resources, extending community and public educational institutions, tackling inequalities, and learning from the progress being made in schools already. There are larger questions as to the purpose of our educational system in a changing culture and economy. But we will never address these if we get lost in a debate that is led astray through fatalism, sloganeering, or red herrings such as the effect of immigrant children on our international rankings.

Sean O’Riain (reprinted from yesterday’s Irish Times).

Brian Cowen had an editorial in the Irish Times on Saturday arguing that Ireland will recover as a global innovation hub – ‘the best place in Europe to turn research and knowledge into products and services’ – guided by a policy of creating a smart economy. Presumably this would necessitate a highly trained workforce and a well developed research culture and facilities?

Apparently not.  At the same time that billions of euro are being pumped into propping up the banking and property sectors, there is presently underway a massive disinvestment from the education system – core budgets are being drastically trimmed, staff are being cut, supports slashed, capital programmes terminated, research funds hacked, etc.  And this is despite the fact that the the OECD reports that Ireland, pre-the crash, was one of the lowest spenders per capita on research and development, and on education in general, with very large teacher-student ratios and weak support infrastructure (see paras 18 and 23; Tables 4 and 7; also see here).

At a time when we should be investing heavily in education, we are undertaking savage cuts and doing serious damage to the limited capacities that have been built up over the past few years.  How this helps to foster innovation and entrepreneurship, attract inward investment, and create a smart economy is anyone’s guess.  Without a clear roadmap, accompanied by proper financial investment and political will – as opposed to a list of hopes – it is difficult to see how Ireland as an ‘innovation island’ will materialise.  Perhaps if we repeat our desire to be an innovation island enough, it’ll simply happen?  Or perhaps we could invest in education and research capacity building, or at the least seek to maintain pre-cut levels?

Here’s an interesting research question for the government – who do they think will want to move their research and development operations to a country where they are actively disinvesting in the creation of talent?