Two reports out today shine a penetrating light on worrying aspects of Ireland’s education system, underlining how vital it is in times of austerity to protect the resources of schools serving disadvantaged areas.
One report shows almost 4,500 children a year drop out of school between first and transition years while the other reveals that only 24% of pupils went on to higher education from schools involved in the Deis (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) scheme. Fortunately, the abysmally low figure for advancement to higher education is in contrast with the 49% of students from publicly funded non-Deis colleges who progressed to that stage. It is also heartening that half of all students who finished school in 2010 went on to higher education, including 44% at state-funded colleges.
The scheme based on disadvantage has run in 864 schools across the country, including 669 urban and rural primary schools and 195 second-level schools. Deis targets children with educational difficulties, mainly in communities beset by unemployment and economic deprivation. The aim is to improve the prospect of children from the time they enter preschool until they leave as young adults at the age of 18.
Between them, Deis and the parallel School Completion Programme address a range of disadvantage with the aim of keeping pupils in the system through flexible strategies that include out-of-school support, outreach, family support, mentoring, staff development, and the involvement of parents.
While school attendance in the Republic is compulsory between 6 and 16 years of age, the figures for those who left during the 2009-10 school year show more than 1,500 children got no further than first or second year. A further 1,777 who made it to third year in 2009 were not at school a year later, while 1,064 ended schooling during or after transition year. Despite representing a small percentage overall of the school population, every figure represents a child at risk of failing. Ireland has raised the numbers staying on to Leaving Certificate and now has one of the highest rates in Europe.
Yet the dropout of children at a depressingly early age and the lack of supports for them are serious causes of concern. It is also unsatisfactory that official statistics from a string of relevant departments are not joined up to show what happened next in the case of half the 1,573 children who left school after first or second year. Surprisingly, more than 865 of those were girls, contradicting most gender patterns on early school-leaving.
Equally worrying, though, are estimates suggesting around 1,000 children a year do not go from primary to second-level education. No official figure exists because a long-sought database is still on the planning board.
There is no denying the importance of a decent education, particularly in times of austerity as young people leave Ireland in droves to seek jobs and a brighter future elsewhere. With unemployment at over 14%, their school days will never have greater importance.
For many, education can mean the difference between success and failure, giving them confidence to storm the barriers of social exclusion, enriching their lives, and preventing children at risk from becoming second-class citizens. To anyone growing up in a disadvantaged community these qualities are of immense significance.
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