The extension and increased funding of the education system was notable from the 1960s onwards and there was much attention devoted to the idea of higher educational standards. In subsequent decades, denominational schooling, the role of parents and the issue of decentralisation of educational control were debated, often prompting criticism from the Church interest that this was about a secular agenda. A good deal of investment in the Irish education system was one aspect of the economic boom, with new facilities built and new courses and subject areas introduced. Third level student numbers increased by 105% between 1990/91 and 2003/04. The number of people in the Republic who completed their education with a third level qualification also increased by over 180,000 between 2002 and 2006, from 645,000 to 830,000, an increase of over 28 per cent. By 2008, 34% of the Irish workforce had completed some form of higher education compared to only 4% in the early 1970s and by 2012, Ireland had one of the highest third level participation rates in the world, with 60% of Irish students going on to higher education. Irish women were more likely to have a third-level qualification than men; over half of women aged between 25 and 35 had a third-level qualification in 2012 compared with less than four out of ten men.

Real expenditure per student in Ireland increased over the period 2002-2011 by close to a third at first level education and by 27% at second level. However there was a decrease of 13.8% at third level over the same time period. The proportion of the Irish population aged 18-24 who left school with lower secondary education as their highest attainment was 10.6% in 2011; better than the EU average of 13.5%. However, average class size at primary level in Ireland in 2009/2010 was 24.1; the second highest in the EU. The introduction in 2010 of universal pre-school provision was an important initiative in an area where Ireland had long languished.

In 2012, Ruairķ Quinn made the point that “Education is deeply ingrained in the national psyche and Irish parents have long held a passionate interest in their children’s schooling”. But there were, and remain, obvious shortcomings; the balance between expansion, quality and equality of opportunity has not been adequately struck and the system at second level may be seen to reinforce social advantage and disadvantage; for example, the link between fee paying schools and universities is very strong.


Next - Assessment and Performancenext