1. Key indicators
Figure 1 – Key indicators overview
|Education and training 2020 benchmarks|
|Early leavers from education and training (age 18-24)||11.8%||5.1%||14.0%||10.2%|
|Tertiary educational attainment (age 30-34)||50.4%||55.5%||31.1%||40.3%|
|Early childhood education
(from age 4 to starting age of compulsory primary education)
|Proportion of 15 year-olds underachieving in:||Reading||17.2%||11.8%18||19.3%||22.5%18|
|Employment rate of recent graduates by educational attainment (age 20-34 having left education 1-3 years before reference year)||ISCED 3-8 (total)||77.3%||84.5%||78.0%||80.9%|
|Adult participation in learning (age 25-64)||ISCED 0-8 (total)||6.6%||12.6%||7.9%||10.8%b|
|Learning mobility||Degree mobile graduates (ISCED 5-8)||:||5.8%18||:||4.3%18|
|Credit mobile graduates (ISCED 5-8)||:||:18||:||9.1%18|
|Other contextual indicators|
|Education investment||Public expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP||4.7%||3.2% 18||5.1%||4.6%18|
|Expenditure on public and private institutions per student in € PPS||ISCED 1-2||€7 14712||€6 43216||€6 072d, 12||€6 240d, 16|
|ISCED 3-4||€9 09512||€6 99516||:12||€7 757d, 16|
|ISCED 5-8||€11 50012||€9 99616||€9 679d, 12||€9 977d, 16|
|Early leavers from education and training (age 18-24)||Native-born||11.2%||5.3%||12.6%||8.9%|
|Tertiary educational attainment (age 30-34)||Native-born||48.5%||53.2%||32.0%||41.3%|
|Employment rate of recent graduates by educational attainment (age 20-34 having left education 1-3 years before reference year)||ISCED 3-4||65.0%||73.0%||72.2%||75.9%|
Sources: Eurostat; OECD (PISA); Learning mobility figures are calculated by DG EAC, based on UOE 2018 data. Further information can be found in Annex I and in Volume 1 (ec.europa.eu/education/monitor). Notes: The 2018 EU average on PISA reading performance does not include ES; b = break in time series; d = definition differs; u = low reliability; := not available; 12= 2012, 16 = 2016, 17 = 2017, 18=2018.
Figure 2 - Position in relation to strongest and weakest performers
Source: DG EAC, based on data from Eurostat (LFS 2019, UOE 2018) and OECD (PISA 2018).
- Digital skills are gaining more attention in school curricula, but clearer guidance on digital-learning policy is needed.
- Early childhood education and care continues to be a major focus of policy and programme reform.
- Despite increased public spending on education, public investment in higher education remains low, and the impact of COVID-19 is likely to aggravate the situation.
- Ireland has set out a new strategy for further education and training (2020-2024), focused on building skills, creating pathways and fostering inclusion.
3. A focus on digital education
Ireland is strengthening digital education and the digital skills of the wider population. Building on the previous programme for ICT in schools, the digital strategy for schools 2015-20201 aimed to embed information and communication technology (ICT) more deeply across the school system. The strategy addressed four themes: teaching, learning and assessment through ICT; continuous professional development; leadership, research and policy; and ICT infrastructure. Since 2018, the digital learning framework2, which is a key part of the strategy, has provided a structure for schools to effectively embed digital technologies into teaching, learning and assessment activities. The framework outlines the digital skills expected of students, teachers, and school heads, and supports curricular reforms in both primary and post-primary schools. Through the third ICT-skills action plan (Technology Skills 2022), the government aims to increase by 65% the number of ICT graduates by 2022 (DES, 2019a), with a view to meeting 70% of the annual demand for high-level digital skills forecast for the period (Irish Government, 2020). Ireland performs better than the EU average in advanced digital skills, and the average skills of the wider adult population have improved from a low base over the past 2 years, although they remain below the EU average (European Commission, 2020).
The level of ICT infrastructure in schools is satisfactory overall, but disparities exist. Under the digital strategy for schools, EUR 210 million for ICT infrastructure has been distributed to schools over the past 5 years. However, only a third of primary school students attend highly equipped and connected schools (EU 35%), indicating further investment needs, in particular for connectivity, operational equipment and virtual learning environments (European Commission, 2019a; Cosgrove et al., 2020; Eivers, 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed disparities in the digital readiness of schools and society: 39% of primary school principals reported the existence of a ‘digital divide’ and difficulties in providing distance learning, in particular to children in vulnerable family situations (Burke, J. and Dempsey, M., 2020). At secondary level, 14% of students lack access to a computer to complete classwork (OECD, 2019b Vol. II). In April, a special EUR 10 million fund was announced for the purchase of technology and devices for disadvantaged students at primary and post-primary level, in particular for schools participating in the DEIS programme, which seeks to give special help to schools in disadvantaged areas3. In 2020, Ireland received a country-specific recommendation from the Council of the EU to ‘address the risk of digital divide, including in the education sector’ (Council of the EU, 20204).
Young people’s digital skills are improving, but university graduates report a need for more advanced digital skills. The proportion of individuals aged 16-19 who consider that they have above-basic digital skills increased by 10 pps between 2015 and 2019 to 53%, close to the EU average of 57%. In the same period, the proportion who assessed their overall digital skills as low fell to 22% (EU-27 15%)5. This progress reflects the impact of measures introduced under the digital strategy, including: (i) coding classes at primary level; (ii) digital technologies being embedded across the lower secondary curriculum; and (iii) the introduction of computer science as a subject in the school-leaving examination. Computer science is taught using an innovative ‘continuing-professional-development’ model, where teachers emphasise group and project work, and prepare students for computer-based assessment. At tertiary level, fewer than half of students (46%) believed that their course prepared them for the digital workplace (NFETL, 2020).
Improving digital education requires clear policy and support for teachers’ digital skills. The 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results show that Irish school principals at secondary level are less positive than the EU average about their schools’ capacity to improve teaching and learning through technology. Their main concerns are: (i) insufficient access to technical support; (ii) a lack of professional resources for teachers on using ICT in teaching; and (iii) a lack of ICT skills among teachers (O’Brien, C., 2019). Secondary school students in Ireland are also less likely than students in other countries to use digital devices for classwork in school or at home (OECD, 2019b Vol. II). The recent evaluation of digital learning by the Inspectorate of Ireland’s Department for Education and Skills (DES), the Irish education ministry, concluded there was a need for a continued strategic approach to the development of digital learning across the system, which should address gaps in the digital readiness of schools (DES, 2020). Commentators also underline a need for clearer policy guidance, greater focus on quality, and better use of Open Educational Resources (Marcus-Quinn et al., 2019).
4. Investing in education and training
Ireland continues to increase expenditure on education as its population grows. According to national projections, primary school enrolments peaked in 2018 and post-primary enrolments will peak in 2025 (OECD, 2020). Public expenditure on education as a proportion of GDP is not a fully reliable indicator, given the specific structure of Irish GDP6. Measured as a percentage of the total public budget, Ireland spent 12.6% on education in 2018 (EU 9.9%), an increase since 2015 (when it was 11.4%). Ireland spent 42.1% of its education budget on pre-primary and primary education, one of the highest shares in the EU (EU 34.1%). However, spending on tertiary education at 15.6% still remains below the EU average (16.4%). Overall, between 2010 and 2018, general government expenditure on education increased by 23% in real terms (COFOG). The government’s 2020 budget committed to increase spending on special education, small schools, and support to teaching principals (DES, 2019c); 30 000 additional school places are to be delivered in response to demographic growth (Irish Government, 2020).
Despite the increase in spending, public expenditure on higher education remains low given the growing number of students. Between 2013 and 2018, the number of enrolled students increased by 39.3% in Bachelor’s programmes, and by 19.36% in Master’s programmes7, among the highest increases in the EU (in the EU-27, these increases were 0.3% and 3.0% respectively). Between 2010 and 2018, general government expenditure on tertiary education increased by 32% in real terms (COFOG). Private spending also plays a significant role: the relative share of private spending on tertiary education at 28% is higher than the EU-23 average of 23.7%, even though the vast majority of students (95%) are enrolled in public higher-education institutions (EU-27 83.0%)8 (OECD, 2019a). Commentators argue that cuts to core third-level funding during the economic crisis of 2008 have never been reversed, leading to a growing reliance on attracting international students (Mooney, 2020). As student numbers continue to increase, insufficient funding has affected student welfare services and the availability of university-owned accommodation9. In November 2019, the European Commission funded under the Structural Reform Support Programme a review of how to increase the future sustainability of higher and further education in Ireland (European Commission, 2019b).
Ireland is making progress on the 2019 action plan for education. The third progress report of 31 October 2019 concluded that 36 actions (80%) had been completed (DES, 2019d). However, a number of policy goals remain outstanding, including the further implementation of a refined identification model for targeting socioeconomically disadvantaged schools, and a policy on out-of-school education.
The urgent closures of education and training institutions due to COVID-19 may have long-lasting effects. In response to the crisis, the national action plan set priorities for education and training. These priorities included: (i) guidance to education institutions; (ii) developing contingency plans to address closures of schools and lost tuition time, prioritising students in exam years; (iii) developing alternative arrangements for State examinations; (iv) planning for the potential impact of the pandemic on tertiary education. With all schools and third-level institutions closed since mid-March until the end of the school year, students were highly reliant on their families to support their studies, with potential negative implications for vulnerable groups. The National Council for Special Education provided additional support for students with special educational needs and their families. The Higher Education Authority estimates that third-level institutions will have a EUR 500 million shortfall as a result of the pandemic, mainly due to a drop in international students.
Box 1: Stakeholders’ involvement in decision-making after COVID-19
To advise on necessary decisions about secondary-level State examinations, an advisory group has been formed comprising representatives of students, parents, teacher unions, management bodies, and the Department of Education and Skills10. The group met regularly until September to provide guidance on a range of areas including supporting student wellbeing and minimising the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable groups. There have also been calls for the Department to ensure expert oversight of the process to maintain consistency in calculated grades based on schools’ continuous assessment.
5. Modernising early childhood and school education
Reform efforts to improve the quality and affordability of early childhood education and care (ECEC) continue. In 2018, the participation rate for children aged 4 and older continued to be 100%11. Policy reforms in ECEC centre on improving affordability, access and the quality of provision12. Based on the Childcare Support Act of 201813, the national childcare scheme14 was launched in November 2019, providing financial support towards the cost of ECEC and school-age childcare during the hours spent outside of pre-school or school. Income-based subsidies are available to families with household incomes of up to EUR 60 000 per year. The quality of training provided to teachers is central to the reforms planned by the government. However, providers face difficulties in recruitment, retention and financial incentives for staff. To address these difficulties, a workforce development plan (under development) aims to raise the profile of careers in ECEC by establishing role profiles, qualification requirements, a career framework, and leadership-development opportunities. The draft childminding action plan15, which aims to regulate childminding and funding over a ten-year period, has been published for stakeholder consultation. Due to the temporary closure of all ECEC facilities since mid-March due to COVID-19, the government has announced supporting measures, including a new temporary wage-subsidy scheme and repurposed funding for the ECEC and school-age childcare sectors. A funding package of EUR 375 million and health-and-safety guidance has been provided to support reopening of schools16 and services from 29 June to 31 December17.
Ireland performs well overall in basic skills. According to the OECD’s PISA results for 2018, Ireland remains above the EU average in student performance in maths and science, and close to the top in reading. Following a decrease in the proportion of low performers in maths and reading by 5 pps between 2009 and 2018, Ireland has one of the lowest proportions of low achievers in the EU. Low performers in reading are 11.8% of all students (EU-27 22.5%); in maths they are 15.7% (EU-27 22.9%); and in science they are 17% (EU-27 22.3%). However, the performance gap between students in general and students in vocational programmes (whose reading performance is 133 points lower - equivalent to 3 years of schooling) is the highest in the EU (Figure 3). The proportion of top-performing students in maths fell by 3.1 pps between 2003 and 2018 to 8% (EU-27 11%), and in science fell by 3.6 pps between 2006 and 2018 to 6% (EU-27 6.3%). The long-term trend in average performance in science (2006-2018) is also downward, in particular since 2012. The changes brought by the lower secondary reform aimed to support the development of students’ critical thinking will be reflected in the 2022 PISA testing.
Figure 3 - Mean score difference in reading between general and vocational programmes, PISA 2018
Source: OECD (2019c), PISA 2018.
The focus on equity in education has made Irish secondary schools positive forces for inclusion and social mobility. The impact of students’ socioeconomic background on their performance remains limited. This is reflected in lower-than-EU-average variance in reading performance explained by background (10.7% against 14.2% at EU level). The proportions of students from the lowest socioeconomic quartile who are academically resilient (who scored in the top quarter of reading performance), at 13%, as well as of those who expect to complete tertiary education (62%), are among the highest in the EU. Although the proportion of students with a migrant background doubled in Ireland to 18% between 2009 and 2018, the proportion of low performers among them is one of the lowest in the EU (13.8% v EU-27 31.3%). Following a marked decrease in the proportion of low achievers in reading among boys (by 8 pps between 2009 and 2018), the gender gap is now narrow in all three test domains and progress is echoed later on in the narrowing of the gender gap in tertiary educational attainment. The reduced proportion of low achieving students and comparatively low variation between schools reflect the effectiveness of the measures taken in recent years to create an equitable and high-performing education system (Figure 4).
Figure 4 - Mean performance in reading by socioeconomic status, PISA 2018
Source: OECD (2019), PISA 2018. Note: The EU average does not include ES results.
The school disciplinary climate requires improvement. More than 1 in 5 students (22.7%) reported being bullied a few times a month, an increase of 8 pps compared to 2015, and now equal to the EU average. Close to a third of students (30%) reported having skipped a day of school (EU-27 24%). Contrary to the situation in other EU countries, more girls reported skipping school than boys (by 4.5 pps). This goes alongside a decrease in the reported sense of belonging at school, which declined by 6.6 pps between 2015 and 2018. This aspect is particularly important since students who reported a sense of belonging at school scored higher in reading by 13 points (EU-27 8 points) (OECD, 2019b, Vol. III). The issue of student wellbeing has been prominent in national consultations around upper secondary education, intensified by the school closures due to COVID-19, and is likely to provide a rationale for reform (Smyth et al., 2019; Mohan, G. et al., 2020).
The rate of early leavers from education and training (ELET) remains low, at 5.1% in 2019. This is substantially below the Europe 2020 national target of 8% and the EU-27 average (10.2%). However, certain groups, in particular Irish Travellers and Roma18, still have high ELET rates. Under the national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy (2017-2021), a set of actions are underway to close educational gaps for these groups, including establishing a multi-disciplinary pilot project to improve school attendance and retention (Irish Government, 2020).
Ireland continues to modernise its school curricula. A new draft primary curriculum framework has been published for consultation until the end of 2020. The main changes proposed are framed around: (i) increased autonomy and flexibility for schools as ‘curriculum-makers’; (ii) stronger connections between children’s experiences from pre-school to post-primary school; (iii) an updated set of priorities for children’s learning and development; and (iv) new pedagogical approaches and strategies with assessment central to teaching. The new framework also aims to align primary education with the new framework for lower secondary education (Irish Government, 2020). There has been a review of senior cycle programmes and vocational pathways, to include Transition Year, Leaving Certificate Applied, Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme and the Leaving Certificate Established. The related advisory report will form the basis of further discussion and decision making on senior cycle over the coming years.
Ireland aims at full alignment with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities regarding participation in mainstream education. In 2019, a pilot of the school inclusion model was launched to support inclusive education in mainstream primary and secondary school settings (NCSE, 2019). The model aims to build schools’ capacity to include students with additional needs and to provide them with the necessary support.
Concerns persist over teacher supply and different pay scales. The issue of teachers’ different pay scales (teachers employed after 2010 earn significantly less) gave rise to a one-day strike on 4 February 202019. The DES report of December 2019 indicates that there will be 38 000 excess teachers by 2038 due to demographic patterns (DES, 2019b). The report was challenged in some quarters, and in particular by teachers’ unions20.
6. Modernising vocational education and training
The national further education and training (FET) strategy 2020-2024 has been published. Priorities for the sector are set out across three pillars: building skills, creating pathways, and fostering inclusion. There is also a strong focus on enabling themes, including staffing, capital investment, measurement and data. Between 2016 and 2020 significant modernisation and expansion in apprenticeships has been implemented, with the introduction of 35 new apprenticeship programmes. Fifteen of which were launched in 2019/2020 with a further 20 currently under development. This expansion reflected the introduction of a range of new consortia-led programmes in emerging areas of skills needs including ICT-related programmes, engineering, finance and logistics. The first Quality and Qualifications Ireland level 10 apprenticeship (level 8 in EQF) was launched in August 202021.
Online learning during COVID-19 has proved challenging for FET22. Education and Training Boards (ETBs), third-level providers, and private providers moved courses online where possible. The government agency SOLAS provided its online learning service ‘eCollege’ free of charge to learners, which is expected to boost the enrolment numbers. Data for 2019 shows that 12 800 individuals enrolled in eCollege23. The key challenges include: (i) assessing learners; (ii) maintaining motivation; and (iii) tackling social isolation, inadequate digital skills, the lack of IT equipment, or of an internet connection. The 2017-2019 SOLAS technology-enhanced learning (TEL) strategy for FET addresses integrating TEL into FET. To build capability in the sector, ETBs collaborated with the National College of Ireland and the National University of Ireland, Galway to create three blended courses in TEL.
7. Modernising higher education
Ireland aims to increase graduate numbers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and establish consistent quality assurance among public higher-education institutions. In 2019, the tertiary attainment rate was 55.4%, one of the highest in the EU (EU-27 average: 40.3%), and is likely to increase further. Ireland’s Europe 2020 national target is 60%. The attainment rate among foreign-born people is 59.5% - among the highest in the EU. Almost three quarters of students (73%) are enrolled in Bachelor’s programmes and only 15% in Master’s programmes (EU 29% enrolled in Master’s programmes). The proportion of STEM graduates has increased, reaching 24.1% in 2018 (EU-27 25.4%). The employment rate of recent graduates is slowly growing, and in 2019 it reached 84.5% (EU-27 80.9%). To support new undergraduate places and courses in high-priority areas, such as science, engineering, ICT and construction, EUR 24 million was provided to tertiary institutions under pillar 2 of the government’s human capital initiative24. In January, the Minister for Education and Skills announced the granting of autonomous award-making powers, except for doctorates, to all institutes of technology (IOTs – third-level institutions without university status), placing them on an equal footing with universities. Under the initiative, IOTs are expected to establish regional and thematic clusters with other autonomous tertiary institutions under the national strategy for higher education to 203025. In June, an additional 17 000 upskilling and reskilling places were approved under the Springboard+ initiative and pillar 1 of the human capital initiative26.
Efforts to improve access to higher education for vulnerable groups continue. In response to lower-than-anticipated progress for Travellers under the national access plan for higher education, the government launched an action plan to promote Traveller participation in higher education in 2019 (Irish Government, 2020). Through initiatives such as the programme for access to higher education, the Student Assistance Fund and the Fund for Students with Disabilities, EUR 27 million was spent to support 30 000 higher-education places for students from vulnerable groups. However, inequalities persist: recent research confirms that people from wealthier backgrounds are more likely to go to third level, and that they will also immediately earn significantly more than people from disadvantaged backgrounds (HEA, 2019).
Higher-education institutions may switch to ‘blended learning’ due to COVID-19. All third-level institutions have gone largely online since mid-March and many are planning to use a ‘blended learning’ approach in the new academic year. According to a survey launched in autumn 2019, 71% of Irish students rated the overall quality of digital teaching and learning as above average (NFETL, 2020). However, there is no clear evidence yet on how effective online learning has been for student learning and engagement. Before March, more than two thirds of teaching staff (70%) had never taught online.
8. Promoting adult learning
In 2019, adult participation in learning at 12.6% was above the EU average of 10.8%. A specific challenge for the adult learning system will be the response to the economic shock caused by COVID-19, resulting in further needs for upskilling and reskilling among newly unemployed people. In the first 6 weeks of lockdown, the unemployment rate quadrupled. It is estimated27 that the unemployment rate will rise to 18% in Q2 2020 before falling back to just under 11% in Q4. In response to this challenge SOLAS, in partnership with the relevant departments, ETBs and industry representatives, has developed an immediate activation initiative ‘Skills to Compete’.
Half of adults risk exclusion from the workforce due to a lack of digital skills (European Commission, 2020). Although Ireland ranks sixth in Europe for digitalisation, only 55% of adults have basic or better-than-basic digital skills (EU 58%). With the COVID-19 crisis, people with poor digital skills face the additional challenge of engaging with new modes of delivery and assessment. In 2018, the report on digital transformation28 resulted in the government setting up the EXPLORE programme to improve lifelong learning, digital skills and upskilling among manufacturing-sector employees aged 35 or older (Condon and Burke, 2020). NALA29, the national adult-literacy agency, delivers literacy support through distance learning.
Box 2: Professional Accountancy Training (PAT)
ACCA Ireland (the body that certifies accountancy qualifications) and PAT (a provider of accountancy training) have recognised that there is a shortage of skills and talent at the entry/intermediate levels in finance and accounting. With difficulties in filling jobs through traditional routes, employers are looking into other recruitment channels. These include upskilling existing staff or recruiting non-accounting graduates and training them. PAT have collaborated with the ACCA to deliver a diploma in accounting and business at level 6 under the NFQ and a diploma in professional accounting at level 7. The courses are delivered in two learning modes: part-time evening classes with live streaming, and e-learning.
To increase learners’ motivation, retention and progression, PAT invested significantly in technology and the ‘gamification’ of learning. The approach has proved extremely popular and the feedback has been very positive.
In 2019, there were 185 learners enrolled in the programme. The learning community comes from 20 of the Republic of Ireland’s 26 counties, is 63% female, and made up of 13 nationalities. 60% of those enrolled are Irish.
ESF contribution: EUR 27 376
Burke, J. and Dempsey, M. (2020). Covid-19 Practice in Primary Schools in Ireland Report, Dublin: NUI Maynooth. https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/sites/default/files/assets/document/Covid-19%20Practice%20in%20Primary%20Schools%20Report_0.pdf
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Department of Education and Skills, the Inspectorate (2020), Digital Learning 2020: Reporting on practice in Early Learning and Care, Primary and Post-Primary Context, https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/c0053-digital-learning-2020-reporting-on-practice-in-early-learning-and-care-primary-and-post-primary-contexts/
Eivers, E. (2020) Left to their own devices: Trends in ICT at primary school level, Dublin: IPPN, https://issuu.com/ippn/docs/left_to_their_own_devices_final
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Annex I: Key indicators sources
|Indicator||Eurostat online data code|
|Early leavers from education and training||edat_lfse_14 + edat_lfse_02|
|Tertiary educational attainment||edat_lfse_03 + edat_lfs_9912|
|Early childhood education||educ_uoe_enra10|
|Underachievement in reading, maths and science||OECD (PISA)|
|Employment rate of recent graduates||edat_lfse_24|
|Adult participation in learning||trng_lfse_03|
|Public expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP||gov_10a_exp|
|Expenditure on public and private institutions per student||educ_uoe_fini04|
- Degree-mobile graduates
- Credit-mobile graduates
|DG EAC computation based on Eurostat / UIS / OECD data|
Annex II: Structure of the education system
Source: European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2020. The Structure of the European Education Systems 2019/2020: Schematic Diagrams. Eurydice Facts and Figures. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
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