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Report Card

Homeless and Traveller children 'falling through gaps' in education system

Ireland is one of the best countries in terms of reducing education inequality, but concerns have been raised about vulnerable children.

SUBSTANTIAL GAPS EXIST between the best and worst performing students in Irish schools, new research has found.

According to Unicef’s latest Report Card, Ireland ranks second out of 41 wealthy nations in reducing education inequality between children.

Despite this, there are concerns that vulnerable groups such as Traveller children, children experiencing homelessness and immigrant children are in danger of being left behind due to insufficient educational supports.

TOP 10 Ireland ranks second out of 41 countries. Unicef Report Card Unicef Report Card

An Unfair Start: Inequality in Children’s Education in Rich Countries focuses on educational inequalities in 41 of the world’s richest countries, looking at two principal indicators of inequality:

  • the percentage of students enrolled in organised learning one year before the official age for entering primary school
  • the gap in reading scores between the lowest and highest-performing students in both primary school (fourth class, around age 10) and secondary school (age 15)

The ranking at age 15 is the lead indicator in the report, as this represents the level of inequality towards the end of compulsory education. The report also explores the relationships between educational inequality and factors such as parents’ occupations, the child’s gender and school characteristics.

The results for Ireland show that inequality among children decreases as they move from early childhood education (33rd) to primary school (16th) and on to secondary school (second). However, with one in 10 students not reaching basic proficiency in reading by secondary school (age 15), Unicef said a large minority of students “are still falling through the gaps and not getting the resources they need”.

Vulnerable groups

According to the 2016 census, just 13% of Traveller girls completed second level education, compared with 69% of the general population. Over 57% of Traveller boys ceased education at primary level, compared with 13% in the general population.

Half of Travellers reside outside of DEIS educational areas and the number of Travellers who have attained a third level qualification represents less than 1% of their community.

The report notes that more than 3,000 children are currently experiencing homelessness in Ireland, with research showing that many of these children are forced to make long journeys to school, often arriving exhausted, without breakfast and in dirty uniforms due to inadequate washing facilities. This can affect school attendance and performance.

In 21 of the 25 countries, including Ireland, with substantial levels of immigration, a higher percentage of first-generation immigrant children (12.8%) fail to reach basic literacy levels at age 15 than non-migrant children (9.1%).

While the difference is modest, the report shows that the rate for second-generation immigrants (13.2%) in Ireland actually increases, as opposed to many other countries such as the UK, where educational outcomes vastly improve for second-generation immigrants.

shutterstock_600403670 File photo of school children writing. Shutterstock / LightField Studios Shutterstock / LightField Studios / LightField Studios

Unicef Ireland’s Chief Executive Peter Power said the report’s findings show that Ireland “can lead the way when the right funding and policies are in place”.

In Ireland, around 86% of the inequality in reading scores is between children within schools, and only a small amount is between schools. 

“This means that while our schools produce good results for the many, there are some children, and often those most in need, who are falling through the gaps. We need to ensure that every child has the right wrap around supports they need in school to achieve their highest potential.”

Preschool education

Countries can have different degrees of educational inequality at different educational stages. For example, Ireland is in the bottom third of countries (ranked 33rd, indicating high inequality) for preschool enrolment, but moves to the top third (ranked second, signalling low inequality) at secondary school.

Ireland and Slovenia are the only two countries that move up from the bottom third in preschool access to the middle third in equality at primary school and the top third in terms of equality at secondary school.


Bullying is one of the most common forms of violence experienced by children in schools internationally. The report notes that bullying “can cause long-lasting harm to victims, bystanders and the bullies themselves”.

It takes different forms, both physical and psychological, and happens face to face, through text messaging and over the Internet.

About one child in four in Ireland, Finland and Norway said they experience bullying at least once a month.

The report identifies several factors which drive educational inequality, globally and in Ireland:

Parental occupation

Large inequalities in children’s educational progress are linked to family background. In half of the European countries, including Ireland, preschool children aged three and older from lower-income households are less likely to attend education centres.

Parental occupation explains up to one-third of the variation in reading scores at fourth class level, with children whose parents work in professional occupations doing better in reading in all the countries measured.

At 15, children whose parents work in lower-ranked occupations do worse in reading and are less likely to say that they expect to complete post-secondary education across all 35 countries ranked in this regard.


There are already substantial gender differences in children’s reading abilities by fourth class level. Girls generally do better than boys. Yet, in some countries the gap can shrink when tests are done on a computer rather than on paper.

Internationally, the gaps in reading performance tend to grow as children get older but at 15 years of age girls do just 2% better than boys in Ireland, which is the smallest gap in gender-related scores in all countries tested.

Difference between schools

Internationally children’s educational opportunities can be substantially influenced by which school they attend. There are often large differences in average achievement between schools within the same country, especially if specific socioeconomic backgrounds are concentrated in any one school.

The report finds that differences caused by family background tend to have the most impact on scores. In Ireland, there is also a bigger difference between students in the same school, rather than between the scores of different schools.

The balance of schools managed by public bodies and private bodies also varies widely. Ireland and Latvia are at the top of the league table of educational inequalities but are hugely different in this respect.

In Ireland, 57% of schools are managed privately, compared with 2% in Latvia.

The full report can be read on Unicef’s website.

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