Dan O'Brien: 'Our educated workforce is top of EU league - and children of low-skilled are breaking cycle of poverty'
Did anything positive come from the economic depression this country suffered for half a decade from 2008? The answer is yes. One unambiguously good thing the crash caused was a sharp reduction in school drop-outs, and along with it, a turbo-charging of higher education participation.
As this column discussed earlier in the year, Ireland has become Europe's most educated country. Half of people aged 25-64 have third-level qualifications. None of the other 27 EU countries has a higher share.
This is an important fact in a number of social, economic and political respects. Figures published last week, on the other end of the education spectrum - those who don't complete secondary school - are also important.
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The CSO numbers show that as of mid-2019, just one in 20 of those aged 18-24 was an early school leaver. As recently as 15 years ago, the share was a whopping three times higher.
Compared to our 27 EU peer countries, Ireland is now in joint third lowest position in the league table of early school leavers.
This is important, and very positive, because the life chances of those without skills are dwindling and the downsides of prematurely dropping out of education are growing.
In an age in which having the capacity and habit to think, create, debate and innovate are becoming ever more important, spending more time in one's formative years investing in those abilities and skills is crucial.
To bring it down to money alone: pay rates across the economy have long shown the under-skilled earn a lot less on average than their better educated peers.
The evidence is rock solid on the all-of-life pay-off from education: the more years you spend in education, the more likely you are to be a high earner.
Any young person thinking about giving up on school should be fully aware that every shred of evidence says if you drop out you will spend the rest of your life poorer than your classmates who stay on.
Alas, that lesson went unheeded too often during the years of the property bubble. That was particularly true among young men.
Then, well-paid jobs on building sites were two a penny. For 16-year-old boys with little interest in books and more interest in having money in their pockets to pursue the pleasures of early adulthood, the short-term temptation of hard cash is always hard to resist.
When the path from schoolroom to building site was so short and easy, too many youngsters took it.
In the middle of the last decade, 17pc of young men aged 18-24 were early school leavers, almost double the rate of women of the same age.
Then the building industry collapsed and the economy went into a depression.
Once earning options dried up, learning became relatively more attractive. More and more young people, and young men in particular, stayed on in school.
Now, 6pc of the male 18-24 age group is an early school leaver. It is half as low again among women of the same age. In both cases, Ireland is among the best performers in Europe.
The decline in early school leaving is largely a response by young people and parents to changes in the jobs market and an understanding of how education is becoming increasingly important in improving life chances.
Clichéd though it may be to say, the high value traditionally attached to education in Irish culture is an even deeper driver of the change. The commitment and energy of most teachers to those in their charge matters a lot too.
Successive governments and policy- makers in the field have also played a role. Many things the State does can be criticised, and education policy is far from flawless (the continued can-kicking on hard choices for higher education funding is a topical case in point), but it is an area in which there have been a lot more successes than failures.
Back-to-school schemes give low-skilled adults who left school early a route back to education, but perhaps most important - potentially at least - has been the targeting of resources on areas and schools where drop-out rates are highest.
Early in the last decade the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (Deis) programme recognised that blanket increases in resources to all schools, as had been the case previously, needed to change.
The Deis system appears to have led to some narrowing in performance on some metrics between the targeted schools and others. But there is still a distance to travel. Nothing highlights the need to narrow the gap further than the fact that most adults with very low educational attainment don't work.
Of all women aged 25-64 who have no secondary qualifications, just one in four had a job as of the middle of this year. Only half of adult men with the lowest education attainment were in employment.
These figures have not improved by much since the end of the recession. This is despite the economy generating more employment than almost any other country in Europe.
The comparative figures highlight the fact that Ireland's record on employing the low skilled is among the worst in Europe.
And it is not just about limited childcare keeping women out of the workforce that accounts for the poor performance, although that is a big factor.
Eurostat figures show men in Ireland with the lowest level of education are less likely to be working than the average across the bloc and considerably less likely to be working than in the UK.
That is despite Irish unemployment levels being a lot lower than the EU average and jobs growth in Ireland exceeding the rate in our nearest neighbour by a distance. This is bad for the people concerned and for society generally.
If there is good news, it is that the kids of under-skilled, jobless people are more likely than ever to spend more time in education than their parents.
That points to progress being made on breaking cycles of inter-generational poverty. Education has always been, and will always be, the most important factor in breaking such cycles.