Irish Examiner view: State allows cycle to begin at early age

Inequality highlighted
Irish Examiner view: State allows cycle to begin at early age

Evidence that economic inequality is quenching our children’s potential at a very young age is unsettling.

Any of those still clinging to the fanciful notion that Ireland does not have a class system should take a moment to review the latest findings from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) on growing up in Ireland. Children from poorer families are likely to be less healthy, overweight or obese and feel less positive about school.

The study, a long-term project that tracks children at various stages of childhood, also found a “significant” gap in reading test scores based on children’s backgrounds. Children from high-income households scored some 10% higher than those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

What was particularly unsettling, however, was evidence that economic inequality is quenching our children’s potential at a very young age. Children who were early high-performers in school were outperformed by children from more advantaged backgrounds when they turned nine.

What kind of a country knocks the creative spark out of its children at the age of nine? If their life-chances are compromised so early, what hope do they have of ever fulfilling their capabilities later on? The latest tranche of findings from the Growing Up in Ireland study underscores the urgent need to tackle the systemic failures of our educational system, which allows children to fall behind so early.

It also underlines the need to examine how public policy failures have allowed economic background and gender to hamper a child’s life chances. Children from wealthy backgrounds are less likely to be obese than those from poorer families, while boys emerged as more likely (28%) to have a longstanding illness than girls (19%). There is also a link between social class and the higher impact of bullying on those from poorer backgrounds.

The authors recommend an “improvement in school and social policies to reduce the impact of economic circumstances on children’s socio-emotional development”, but it shouldn’t take a report to wake up the Government to the ingrained structural inequalities that put so many of our children at a disadvantage before they even reach double figures. While there was an understandable media focus on the report’s findings about internet use and how it often went unsupervised, the more disquieting findings were those revealing persistent inequality in Irish society.

This research dates to 2017 and 2018 and there is every reason to fear that the situation has got significantly worse.

The last year has been “a devastating year” for children, Children’s Ombudsman Niall Muldoon said in a report, published yesterday, highlighting the wide-reaching effect pandemic school closures had on children. He said he feared children, who were at risk of abuse or neglect and other issues that went under the radar due to school closures, will come to the fore this year. He added that the pandemic had shown the need for “proper investment to bridge the inequality gap” to ensure all children get the support they needed to thrive.

That gap has been exposed many times before. It is time to work to close it now before we condemn another generation of nine-year-olds to a lifetime of inequality.

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