More than ever, what we learn is key to what we earn. In today’s economy, having the right skills is critical to getting and keeping a job, and to getting on in your career. Across the OECD, a person with a third level qualification can expect to earn about 50% more than someone without one. This ‘education premium’ is even larger in Ireland.
At the same time, the unemployment rate of those aged 25-64 is about 13 percentage points higher in Ireland for those who didn’t complete the Leaving Cert – one of the biggest such disparities in the OECD. As important as degrees and qualifications are the social and emotional skills necessary to thrive in modern society.
As I have written previously in these pages, investing in education and skills – together with ‘womenomics’, ‘more and better jobs’ and redistribution – are part of a ‘core four’ policy pillars of stronger, fairer Irish economy.
A solid education can be a great social leveller, but people from less well-off backgrounds face bigger barriers, financial and otherwise, in seizing its opportunity. Not only is the education and skills gap a key driver of inequality, but the effect can be self-reinforcing. So, while the distance between the rungs of the social ladder have grown, so social mobility has declined, individual potential has gone to waste through un-or-under-employment and productivity growth has lagged. All this means that society as whole ends up worse off.
We pride ourselves in Ireland on our world-class education system, but the evidence suggests we have been resting on our laurels. When it comes to numeracy, for example, Irish adults rank fourth from bottom among the 34 OECD members. Irish teens are middle of the pack. The scores for literacy are somewhat better, but far from top of the class.
Teaching is a valued and respected profession in Ireland, just as it should be if we want to give the next generation the best possible start in life. The evidence suggests that Irish teachers at all levels are among the best paid in the OECD, but they also spend more time in the classroom, particularly at primary level (915 hours vs. the average of 772). At the same time, however, too many schools are under-resourced, lacking in the permanent classrooms, modern materials and special needs assistants required to give children a truly world class education.
Despite class sizes having shrunk over the past decade, they remain above the OECD average, and have begun to rise again in recent years as resources have become more constrained. Without significant further investment, demographic pressures are likely to make the situation even worse before it gets better.
So, we just need to throw more money at the problem?
No, but it would be a good start. Austerity has been tough on the education sector. There is a backlog of much needed investment, and capital spending urgently needs to be ramped up just to accommodate the growing school population, never mind improving standards.
But, more money is just part of the answer, and maybe not even the most important. If we want to bolster national competitiveness, support earnings growth and make equal opportunity a reality for every Irish child, then we need an ‘education revolution’, from pre-school to 4th level and beyond, integrating life-long learning into the fabric of society. Challenging as they may be, here are ten steps we could take over the short-to-medium medium term:
1. Roll out the second free pre-school year (ECCE) for all children in 2016 as planned.
2. Integrate the ECCE into a community-based system of childcare, early education, health and family support, modelled on the US’ Head Start and UK’s Sure Start programmes.
3. Reverse cuts to the DEIS (Delivering Equality of opportunity In Schools) programme and incentivise the best teachers to teach in the most disadvantaged schools.
4. Avoid further ‘ghettoisation’ or over-concentration of immigrant children in a few schools.
5. Partner with the teaching profession is designing a much-needed shift away from the rote-learning, exam-dominated Junior and Leaving Certs.
6. Implement the recommendations of the 2013 Apprenticeship Review to ensure a more relevant and responsive apprenticeship system, suitable for boys and girls with a range of career aspirations.
7. Put more emphasis on social, emotional and vocational skills throughout the education system.
8. Consider radical structural change in the university sector to ensure a least one graduate school ranked in the top 20 globally.
9. Give high-skill international students a longer grace period to search for employment after graduation so that Ireland can benefit from having trained them.
10. Make sure everyone has the opportunity to retrain and up-skill, whether in or out of a job, by delivering and then extending the ‘youth guarantee’.
The new Minister for Education & Skills, Richard Bruton, will be well acquainted with Ireland’s debilitating skills gaps from his previous brief as Minister for Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation. Now, he has the opportunity to do something about it, and to lay the foundations for a future economy that is both fairer and stronger. Working closely with teachers and other stakeholders, he should seize the opportunity with both hands.