Breaking the cycle of disadvantage


A new fund is supporting innovative educational programmes, writes Katherine Donnelly

School completion rates in Ireland have risen to a new high of 91pc, an impressive jump from 82pc 15 years ago. Ireland is second in the EU28 countries for the percentage of people aged 20-24 with at least upper-secondary education. The numbers staying in school until Junior Cert, at least, have also gone up, to above 97pc.

These are the national averages, but in disadvantaged areas, the picture is not as rosy. In DEIS schools, completion rates average 84pc.

The gap between the national and DEIS averages has halved in a decade, but these communities continue to play catch up. So while the overall picture is positive, there are still thousands of young people dropping out of school early every year, most of them concentrated in areas of socio-economic disadvantage.

Even if they make it to the Leaving Cert, pupils in these communities are less likely to progress to third level, maybe because of a financial need to work and/or because there is no history in the family of third-level education. College entry rates among school-leavers sit at about 26pc in disadvantaged communities, compared with 90pc and above in affluent areas.

The school retention rate figures released recently by the Department of Education are based on pupils who started in second level in 2010 and finished either in 2015 or 2016, depending on whether they did Transition Year. That raises another point – children in disadvantaged areas are less likely to do Transition Year. There was another batch of data on educational achievement last week from Census 2016, which confirmed the links between socio-economic disadvantage and educational attainment.

The relatively high levels of suspensions and expulsions in schools in disadvantaged areas can act as early warning signs of a level of disaffection that ultimately ends in drop-out.

Some pupils will have left the system for good reason, but far too many simply switch off education and bail out, perhaps never to return. It puts them at greater risk of poverty and poor health. According to the census, they are also more likely to suffer marriage break-up.

Other barriers to educational achievement include homelessness, poor mental health or a disability, all of which can damage confidence, particularly if adequate supports are not available or obvious.

As more of the population hit even higher educational heights – the trajectory is upward not only at Leaving Cert level, but all the way to PhDs – it means those who underachieve are being left further behind.

Dr Áine Hyland (below), Emeritus Professor of Education and former vice-president of University College Cork, says it is clear that children from disadvantaged areas are at greater risk of early school leaving and have a lower probability of accessing higher education

She says equality of educational opportunity has been on the policy agenda of most developed countries for the past 50 years and that the mantra of educational inclusion is regularly repeated, but that the outcomes continue to be disappointing.

Hyland acknowledges that some progress has been made but, still, the question of levelling the educational playing pitch remains on the agenda of most western countries. She says innovative solutions are needed to break the stalemate.

In Ireland, the DEIS programme is the main Government intervention to address social inclusion in primary and post-primary schools. It has recently been reviewed and updated.

Hyland welcomes innovations in the new DEIS programme, such as the School Excellence Fund, which will trial a range of new approaches to tackling disadvantage, within 10 school clusters. But she says much more remains to be done. She references the Social Innovation Fund Ireland (SIFI), a public-private partnership, created by the Government in 2013, as offering good examples of practice. Every euro donated to the fund in private philanthropy is matched by a euro from the Department of Rural and Community Development via The Dormant Accounts Fund. So it is coming at problems from the community up.

Social enterprises, charities, non-profits and voluntary organisations come up with ideas, and private companies, charitable trusts, or, sometimes, individuals and families kickstart the funding. Recently, SIFI shared a €7m Education Fund among 10 projects (opposite page).

Some of the projects work with young people in schools, some work with adults who left school early in life and are getting a second chance at education, and some work with people with special needs or different abilities.

SIFI CEO Deirdre Mortell says education affects the confidence that people have. “It has the power to lift you out of disadvantage or exclusion on to a new life trajectory. Early school leaving and exclusion can have a devastating impact on that potential.” That is why they set up the Education Fund.

Mortell says SIFI’s approach to funding is a celebration of the power of collaboration between private and public sectors.

SIFI scale up the best of the projects to maximise their impact.

Each project participates in a three year external evaluation by NUI Galway’s UNESCO Child & Family Centre, which will enable them to build up rich data and demonstrate clear outcomes.