Gaps remain in educational outcomes of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, study finds

Significant gaps remain between educational outcomes of students in disadvantaged second-level schools and others despite the success of targeted Government investment.

A new analysis of the impact of the Department of Education’s DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) programme shows that low family income has become more of a factor in a student’s achievement rather than reducing in significance.

Overall, the study by the Educational Research Centre shows that exam performance and completion rates have improved significantly in all schools since the beginning of the century.

The rates of improvement were much greater in schools supported through DEIS, which provides extra funding, staffing and other supports to nearly 200 of the country’s 700-plus second-level schools with the most concentrated levels of disadvantage among their students.

But it found that wide gaps do still persist between schools which are in the scheme and those that are not.

In addition, there was little improvement in gender gaps between students at different schools, as the ERC found that differences in achievement between girls and boys in DEIS or non-DEIS schools remained relatively stable since the programme began in 2005.

The gap in performance at English and maths favours girls, although the differences were very small for maths.

The researchers said that findings about the relationship between household income and educational outcomes were particularly noteworthy.

A comparison of proportions of students whose families had medical cards showed that they grew much more significantly during the recession at DEIS schools, suggesting that those already experiencing disadvantage were impacted to a greater extent.

By 2017, however, the 28% difference between these rates in 2017 in DEIS schools (where 62% of students were from homes with a medical card) and non-DEIS schools (34% medical card holders) was just slightly higher in 2002.

Although the improvements in educational outcomes in DEIS schools with more low-income students suggest the programme’s success at helping to tackle educational disadvantage, authors Susan Weir and Lauren Kavanagh also examined the extent to which higher levels of medical card possession affected outcomes.

The relationship increased to a much greater extent at non-DEIS schools, perhaps due to their much greater variation in outcomes and home backgrounds.

“The fact that the already high correlations [in all schools] grew slightly between 2007 and 2016 suggests that the relationship between home background and outcomes strengthened in recent years,” the report said.

“This finding is noteworthy because if efforts to address disadvantage, such as the DEIS programme, were having an impact in the intended ways (ie, mitigating the impact of poverty on outcomes), the strength of that relationship would be expected to show signs of reducing rather than increasing,” it stated.

They concluded that most of the significant gaps in achievement and attainment between DEIS and non-DEIS schools have their basis in income inequality.

“While this is a societal problem, the impacts are evident in our schools and it is important to continue to provide educational programmes such as DEIS to address the needs of our most marginalised students,” the authors wrote.

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