Thousands receive their Junior Cert but mixed report card for education equality in Ireland

By Niall Murray, Education Correspondent

The Junior Certificates results being received by more than 62,500 students around the country today are largely in line with those of last year.

The numbers doing the exam in June are up 908, or 1.5%, on this time last year, and include nearly 600 people who returned to education.

The majority will get their grades this morning or early afternoon at schools where they are now in transition year or fifth year.

This year, for the first time, students were restricted to entering for no more than 11 subjects for Junior Certificate, to include civic, social, and political education.

The State Examinations Commission said 47 students got the highest possible grade in 11 subjects, including a distinction in English, which has been examined for the second year in a revised assessment and grading system. The number is much higher than the six who got 11 As and a distinction in English in 2017, which was before this year’s subject limit was introduced by the Department of Education.

The 79% of Junior Certificate students doing higher-level English is almost identical to the proportion a year ago.

Like last year, students’ marks are a combination of performance in the single written exam in June and an assessment task carried out in school earlier in the year. It was one of three classroom-based assessments required of junior cycle students in English, the first subject examined under the long-debated reforms. The associated marks are worth up to 10% of the final grade.

The results using new grades are largely similar to last year, but particularly at the higher achievement levels. Just over 22% of the 48,900 who did the higher-level English exams got a distinction (90%-100%) or higher merit (75%-90%), almost identical to the performance of last year’s students.

There was a drop in numbers getting a merit for 55% to 75%, with those awarded the ‘achieved’ grade up from 16% to 20.5% this year. Partially achieved is the grade given to 3.8% of higher-level English students, an increase from 2.3% last year, and 0.2% (nearly 100) were not graded, having scored less than 20%.

Although the 35,443 students who did higher-level maths is over 600 more than a year ago, the proportional increase is similar to overall numbers doing Junior Certificate this year.

As a result, the 57% of maths students doing higher level is almost identical to last year’s record high.

The results achieved by those doing higher level are similar to last year, a slight difference being a dip from 14% to 12% in those who got an A. This year again, 4.5% or nearly 1,600 students, failed higher-level maths by getting 40% or less.

The uptake for higher-level Irish has also levelled off, as 58% out of nearly 54,400 students taking the subject did the harder exams — again the same proportion as in 2017’s record high. For those who did the honours exams, over 84% got an honours grade with an A, B, or C.

Science and business studies were examined under the old format for the last time this summer, as they are the next subjects in which new courses are already being taught. The new assessment methods kick in for 2019.

Of the 80% of science students doing higher level, there is a slight increase to 79.7% in the proportion getting honours grades.

Nearly 34,850 students took business studies exams, with the proportion getting an A up slightly to 9.7%. There were increases, too, in numbers getting lower grades.

Students continue to move away from French as a language option, although numbers doing German or Spanish are up by around 700 since last year.

Mixed report card for education equality in Ireland

Education equality in Ireland gets a mixed report card in an international comparison on a range of learning benchmarks.

It shows a narrower gap here, than in most other developed countries, between the educational attainment of disadvantaged and other teenagers.

While children in second-level schools serving disadvantaged areas continue to perform less well than others in international maths tests, the gap is narrower in Ireland than across nearly 40 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The OECD’s Education at a Glance 2018 report shows that the proportion of Irish teenagers in the lowest socio-economic category who achieved at least level 2 proficiency in the 2015 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) maths test was 22% lower than that of children in the highest category. But this compared favourably to the OECD average, in which there was a 33% difference.

Across the OECD, 16% fewer children from rural backgrounds reached that basic level of maths proficiency than the proportion of urban students. But the gap was just 2% here in Ireland, the report shows.

Despite such good results, the rates for adult learning in Ireland are just half those of the rest of the developed world or in the EU. Only Greece had a lower rate than the 24% of participation by adults here in formal or non-formal education.

Although notes to the statistics say Irish data on this benchmark is from 2011, the rate here is still far behind the average for 2015 or 2016, of 47% in 22 EU countries and 49% across the OECD.

Education at a Glance also shows that Ireland continues to have a higher-educated young population than most other countries, the 53% of people aged 25 to 34 with a third-level qualification comparing well to a 44% OECD average.

But even though women are more likely to have a college degree, employment rates for third-level graduates are higher for men, at 90%, compared to 81% for women. The gap is the same as the OECD average, but narrows among younger age groups, with a 90%-85% split between male and female graduates aged 25 to 34.

Efforts to increase Ireland’s attractiveness as a study destination are also shown to be working, with a 40% rise in international students from 2013 to 2016. At the same time, Irish students enrolling on courses in other OECD countries fell by 10%.

Spending for each college student fell 29% from 2010

Ireland’s spending on third-level education continues to lag behind the rest of the developed world, the latest compendium of global education statistics reveals.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that third-level education was 85% of the average spend in more than 30 countries in 2015.

In its Education at a Glance 2018 report, the OECD shows the amount spent on each student at third-level colleges is down 29% since 2010. This was due to a combination of a 21% fall in spending at the same time as student numbers in the sector jumped 13%.

The revelation underscores the issues persistently being made by university presidents and other higher education leaders that the problem of under-investment needs to be urgently addressed by the Government. It has not acted on the report published over two years ago by Education Minister Richard Bruton in which an expert group, chaired by Peter Cassells, advised an extra €600m a year was needed for the sector by 2021, and €1bn per annum by 2030.

The OECD’s general commentary on international debate on third-level funding includes analysis of the issues dividing opinion here —the benefits of higher education to individual graduates but also to the wider economy, society, and industry.

While spending per student has also fallen for other levels of education here, it was not as pronounced as the drop for third-level colleges.

However, a 15% drop in schools spending and a 9% rise in enrolments led to a 22% fall in spend per student since 2010 across primary and second levels.

Although the 3.1% of Government spending dedicated to higher education is just above the 3% OECD average, the difference is not as high as in other education levels. Public spending in Ireland on primary to second-level, including further education, was 9.8% of Government spending in 2015 compared to an 8% OECD average.

The third-level spend per student may be less than at schools level due to the increased hiring of teachers during the cutbacks across most of the public service since the recession. But the third-level spending figures do not include the first increases in Department of Education budgets for the sector since the recession, which began last year and will see annual investment increased by €160m over three years.

Although Government investment is shown as lower than in most other countries when measured as a proportion of national income, a note from the OECD suggests this metric is skewed for Ireland because of a significant spike in gross domestic product here in 2015.

However, teacher unions have focused on that question in their responses to Education at a Glance 2018.

Irish National Teachers’ Organisation general secretary Sheila Nunan said Ireland was an exception to the finding that most countries are spending more per student than at the start of the global financial crisis in 2008.

Irish National Teachers’ Organisation general secretary Sheila Nunan

The report shows that Irish teachers’ starting salaries remain higher than most in Europe, despite ongoing industrial relations tensions over the reduced pay scales of those who started in the job since 2011. Teachers’ Union of Ireland president Seamus Lahart said salary figures only tell part of the story, as most second-level teachers here do not start their careers on full hours.

The €60,000 paid to Irish teachers with 15 years’ service last year was significantly higher than their European counterparts. It was 37% higher than the €44,500 for primary teachers across 22 EU countries and 23% higher than the second-level average in the EU.

However, time spent at teaching in Irish schools is also significantly higher than in other developed countries.

In 2017, the 722 hours of net teaching time by second-level teachers were 57 to 89 hours, or 9% to 14%, more than their EU23 counterparts, and 21 to 67 hours (3% to 10%) more than teachers across the OECD.

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