Report Card 15: An Unfair Start: Inequality in Children’s Education in Rich Countries

An Unfair Start: Inequality in Children’s Education in Rich Countries focuses on educational inequalities in 41 of the world’s richest countries, looking at two principle indicators of inequality; 1) the percentage of students enrolled in organised learning one year before the official age for entering primary school 2) the gap in reading scores between the lowest and highest-performing students in both primary school (fourth class, around age 10) and secondary school (age 15), using PIRLS and PISA results respectively. The ranking at age 15 is the lead indicator in the report as this represents the level of inequality towards the end of compulsory education. The report also explores in depth, the relationships between educational inequality and factors such as parents’ occupations, the child’s gender and school characteristics.

“What our report shows is that countries can offer their children the best of both worlds: They can achieve standards of excellence in education and have relatively low inequality,” said Dr Priscilla Idele, Director (a.i) of the UNICEF Innocenti. “But all rich countries can and must do much more for children from disadvantaged families as they are the most likely to fall behind.”   Countries have different degrees of educational inequality at different educational stages, the report says.

Where does Ireland rank?

The ranking results for Ireland show that inequality among children decreases as they move from early childhood education (33rd) to primary school (16th) and on to secondary school (2nd). However, with 1 in 10 students not reaching basic proficiency in reading by secondary school (age 15), a large minority are still falling through the gaps and not getting the resources they need.

For many students, the report delivered positive findings for Ireland, with a clear improvement visible in terms of education inequality from early childhood education to secondary school.

  • Early childhood education – Ireland is ranked 33rd in early childhood education (preschool), which measures the percentage of students (91.4%) enrolled in organised learning one year before the official age for entering primary school. The benefits of preschool education can be long-lasting. According to the OECD, 15-year-olds who report having had more than one year of pre-primary education do substantially better at reading than those with no pre-primary education, even after accounting for the child’s economic and social position.
  • Primary school – Ireland ranks 16th when comparing the difference between the highest scoring 10% fourth-class students and the lowest scoring 10%. According to the latest PIRLS research Irish primary school students score among the world’s highest in literacy levels, but one in ten children in Ireland still do not reach intermediate level.
  • Secondary school – Ireland ranks 2nd when comparing the difference between the highest scoring 10% 15-year-old students and the lowest scoring 10%. Ireland has the highest percentage (90%) of students achieving basic reading proficiency at age 15.

UNICEF Ireland Chief Executive Peter Power said: “UNICEF’s latest Report Card shows that Ireland can lead the way when the right funding and policies are in place. This is to be celebrated. However, we are concerned that some of the children most in need, be they from vulnerable groups such as Traveller children, children experiencing homelessness or immigrant children, or those children living outside of the DEIS support system, are being left behind.

“In Ireland, around 86% of the inequality in reading scores is between children within schools, and only a small amount is between schools. This means that while our schools produce good results for the many, there are some children, and often those most in need, who are falling through the gaps. We need to ensure that every child has the right wrap around supports they need in school to achieve their highest potential.”

Vulnerable groups in Ireland

  • Traveller children – According to the 2016 census, just 13% of Traveller girls completed second-level education, compared to 69% of the general population. Over 57% of Traveller boys ceased education at primary level, compared to 13% in the general population. 50% of Travellers reside outside of DEIS educational areas and the number of Travellers who have attained a third level qualification represents less than 1% of their community.
  • Children experiencing homelessness – Over 3,000 children currently experience homelessness in Ireland, with research showing that many of these children are forced to make long journeys to school, arriving exhausted, without breakfast and in dirty uniforms due to inadequate washing facilities. This can lead to affected school attendance and performance.
  • Immigrant children – In 21 of the 25 countries, including Ireland, with substantial levels of immigration, a higher percentage of first-generation immigrant children (12.8%) fail to reach basic literacy levels at age 15 than non-migrant children (9.1%). While the difference is modest, the report shows that the rate for second-generation immigrants (13.2%) in Ireland actually increases, as opposed to many other countries such as the UK, where educational outcomes vastly improve for second-generation immigrants.

The sources of educational inequality, globally and in Ireland

  • Parental Occupation – Large inequalities in children’s educational progress are linked to family background. In half of the European countries, including Ireland, preschool children aged 3 and older from lower-income households are less likely to attend education centres. Parental occupation explains up to one third of the variation in reading scores at the fourth class, with children whose parents work in professional occupations doing better in reading in all the countries measured. At 15, children whose parents work in lower-ranked occupations do worse in reading and are less likely to say that they expect to complete post-secondary education across all 35 countries.
  • Gender – There are already substantial gender differences in children’s reading abilities by Grade 4. Girls do better than boys. Yet, in some countries the gap can shrink when tests are done on a computer rather than on paper. Internationally, the gaps in reading performance tend to grow as children get older but at 15 years of age girls do just 2% better than boys in Ireland, which is the smallest gap in gender related scores in all countries tested.
  • Difference Between Schools – Internationally children’s educational opportunities can be substantially influenced by which school they attend. There are often large differences in average achievement between schools within the same country, especially if specific socio-economic backgrounds are concentrated in any one school. The report finds that differences caused by family background tend to have the most impact on scores. In Ireland, there is also a bigger difference between students in the same school, rather than between the scores of different schools.

Many voices not being heard

This Report Card has drawn on the best available data, yet it doesn’t capture the experiences of many children. These include children who are not in school, perhaps because they are in institutions, are home schooled, or have severe health problems or disabilities.

Global findings 

  • At least 9 in 10 children attend preschool the year before they start primary school in nearly all the 41 countries.
  • High income is no guarantee of high equality. Some of the poorest countries included in this report, such as Latvia and Lithuania, have higher preschool enrolment rates and lower inequality in reading performance in primary and secondary school than those with far greater resources.
  • By 4th class, around age 10, there are large gaps in children’s reading abilities. In almost all countries, more than 10% of children do not reach an intermediate level of reading proficiency expected at this age.
  • There are also large inequalities in children’s reading scores at 15 years old. Ireland, Latvia and Spain have the lowest levels of inequality at this age. Bulgaria, Israel and Malta have the highest.
  • Poorer children are more likely to miss out on early childhood education, with preschool attendance for children in the bottom and top fifth of household income being 19.7% and 94.3% respectively.

Other significant findings for Ireland:

  • Countries can have different degrees of educational inequality at different educational stages. Ireland is in the bottom third of countries (high inequality) for preschool enrolment, but move to the top third (low inequality) at secondary school.
  • Ireland and Slovenia are the only two countries that move up from the bottom third in preschool access to the middle third in equality at primary school and the top third in equality at secondary school.

Our Recommendations

UNICEF’s Report Card suggests providing a fair start for all children today is essential for achieving both equality and sustainability, and that the problems are not inevitable but rather shaped by policy. Based on the results, UNICEF Ireland calls on policy makers, educators and government in Ireland to take action in the following areas:

  • Being there for every child –
  • Guarantee high-quality, early-childhood education and care to all children.
  • Provide equity among students by individual assessments and provision of support services including breakfast clubs; homework clubs; after-school supports; mentoring programmes; and therapeutic interventions; Including for students attending non-DEIS schools.
  • Tailored supports must be provided for children experiencing homelessness.
  • Educational funding cuts imposed in 2011 need to be fully reversed, specifically and most urgently for the travelling community.
  • Reduce the divide – Reduce the segregation of children with different family backgrounds into different schools. This can help to ensure that all children have equal opportunities
  • Promote a gender mix – Ensure the equal engagement of boys and girls in all core subjects, paying attention to the gender mix of teachers and challenging gender stereotypes every step of the way.
  • Produce better data –
  • Produce more high-quality, cross-country, comparable evidence including longitudinal studies to fill knowledge gaps.
  • Ensure that all schools have in place the appropriate procedures to monitor, identify and respond to attendance, participation and retention issues.
  • Ensure transparency in determining how and which schools qualify for DEIS support.

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