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Ireland continues to lag way behind in its funding of education

Katherine Donnelly


The average primary class size in Ireland consists of 24 pupils. The EU average is 20. Stock image

The average primary class size in Ireland consists of 24 pupils. The EU average is 20. Stock image

The average primary class size in Ireland consists of 24 pupils. The EU average is 20. Stock image

Before examining the share of funds to various aspects of the education system, it must be acknowledged that Ireland spends less of its national wealth on this sector than any other country in the developed world.

According to the most recent comparisons, the 3.3pc of GDP awarded to education compares with an international average of 4.9pc and an EU average of 4.4pc. The figures come from the OECD Education at a Glance report, based on 2018 data for almost 40 countries.

Simply put, the system is under-financed. It follows that if the spending cake is smaller than it might be, there are limits to the slice of money awarded to the competing demands. Every year, many are left with empty plates.

So, pre-Budget shopping lists from the various education stakeholders had a Groundhog Day feel to them. The same things cropped up year after year because they haven’t been addressed.

Across both schools and third-level, the bread and butter issues are often seen as student-teacher ratios, funding for day-to-day costs and providing necessary infrastructure such as buildings and IT.

But other essential cost headings include ongoing curriculum development and reform and initiatives to support student well-being, whether that’s anti-bullying programmes in schools or consent education in third-level.

The competition for attention doesn’t end there. Less visible to the public eye but featuring high on lists this year were issues ranging from the need for more supports for school principals to enabling higher education campuses to meet climate change objectives.

The pandemic exposed some stark examples of under-investment. One was the enormous cracks in provision for digital teaching and learning that showed up following the sudden pivot to online classrooms, ranging from a lack of devices to poor internet connectivity.

Those who are already the most disadvantaged were the biggest losers, further widening the gap between pupils and schools and presenting an imperative for equity that cannot be ignored in the roll-out of the next digital strategy for education. Covid made a joke of strategies that stretch equipping students and schools/colleges with the basics over a decade.

The education budget has grown in recent years, but has generally only allowed the system to stand still. The recruitment of thousands of extra staff such as teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) for schools was largely in response to demographics. In other words, increases in pupil numbers.

Funding has been found to support reforms such as the new Junior Cycle and the development of technological universities, but hard choices are made every year.

Annual negotiations on the Budget Day divvy-up are reduced to a sort of “robbing Peter to pay Paul” approach: deciding on the priorities for the year ahead and putting other badly-needed investment on the long finger.

On the ground, it translates into recognisable realities such as Ireland having average class sizes of 24 pupils at primary level. The EU average is 20. In tertiary education, Ireland’s student-staff ratio of 23:1 is also comparatively high. Third-level enrolments have rocketed by 18pc in the past six years, without a similar step change in funding.

Stretching resources thinly is also the reason why parents are paying voluntary contributions, and regularly putting their hands in their pockets for other fund-raising activities, to help schools meet day-to-day costs, educational materials or sports facilities.

It is why third-level students have been calling for years for the reversal of cuts in a grants system that was out of touch with their needs. It is also why Irish universities are falling down international rankings tables.

One area that has seen a rapid growth in spending is special needs education, involving significant recruitment of special education teachers and SNAs. It now accounts for about 20pc of the overall budget, a welcome catch-up after historical neglect.

According to an Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) study, 25pc of 17-year-olds identified with some additional need, whether learning or intellectual, socio-emotional/behavioural or physical, at the age of nine.

Alongside areas of progress, some of the cuts imposed on education as a consequence of the financial crash of 2008-09 had not been restored in the run-up to Budget 2022.

For instance, grants to schools to meet running costs are less than what they were more than a decade ago. At primary level, the current grant of €183 per pupil is 9pc down on the 2010 figure and inflation is up by about 9pc since then.

Guidance counsellors were among the other victims. The 600 posts taken out of second-level schools then have been restored, but that does not take account of the increase in enrolments.

High staff-student ratios at third-level are another legacy. Universities are still battling for a restoration of core state funding to allow them to bring the ratio down, and better again, a sustainable funding system to underpin growth and quality in higher education.

The additional funding awarded to education for Budget 2022 will be welcome – but it won’t be enough.

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