COVID-19 is a significant risk to progress on educational disadvantage

Posted on Thursday, 9 April 2020
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Irish Education System and COVID-19

Education systems across the world are being impacted by COVID-19. Almost 900 million children and young people are affected by interruptions in their education and this number is growing.  The response from education systems across the globe has been to turn to technological solutions to continue to engage their students in learning.  As education systems move to online platforms in the short to medium term, it is vital that all steps are taken to avoid deepening educational and social inequality as a result. 

Differences in support from parents who can provide educational opportunities for their children, either directly at home or accessing them privately, differences in the capacity of different types of schools to support the learning of their students remotely, and differences among students in their resilience, motivation and skills to learn independently and online, are likely to exacerbate already existing opportunity gaps. As a result, without an intentional and effective education response, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to generate the greatest disruption in educational opportunity worldwide in a generation[1].

This disruption will impact the livelihoods of individuals, and the prospects of their communities.

School closures

Where school closures are needed in the short term, policymakers can do their best to mitigate their impact for learners, families and teachers, especially for those in the most marginalised groups who lack the digital resources or digital skills to engage in an online learning environment.  The challenge comes when these closures are longer term.  Research undertaken on the effects of ‘summer learning loss’ in the United States found that an extended interruption of a student’s learning time or studies causes a loss of knowledge and skills gained, and that during an average summer break (a period of around 10 weeks) students lose the equivalent of one month of academic year learning with greater losses in maths than reading, and with students from lower socio-economic backgrounds losing the most[2].  Every week of school closure implies a massive loss in the development of human capital with significant long-term economic and social implications[3].

School closures also have a devastating impact on children with special needs and their families.  These children were already at a disadvantage in the school system with one in four children with an intellectual disability or developmental disability on a short school day in 2019[4].  The current situation of school closures is having a detrimental impact on these children, their development, their education and their families. 

School closures have impacts not just on the students themselves and the teaching staff, but also on the wider community.  In many disadvantaged communities schools provide hot nutritious meals for children that they might not otherwise have access to. In more rural communities, where many other services have been withdrawn over the years (including the closure of Garda stations, Post Offices), the local school is one of the main focal points of community activity, and its closure has a knock-on impact on the community at large.

What is clear from all of the evidence is that school closures and the move to digital classrooms will have the greatest impact on those who are disadvantaged, be that academically, economically or socially.

Digital Classroom and the Digital Divide

While most schools are now equipped with a minimum level of digital technology, this does not mean that all schools are equal in this regard.  OECD PISA research shows that, in Ireland, there is a significant digital divide for students in disadvantaged schools and these same students are less likely to have a quiet place to study, access to a computer for schoolwork, and school digital devices with sufficient capacity than their peers. 

As schools are forced by circumstances to move to e-learning and digital technology there is a significant concern that the digital divide in connectivity will exacerbate already existing educational inequalities.  Educational disadvantage can be intergenerational.  Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are therefore less likely to have the support of parents with high levels of digital skills who can assist them in an online learning environment.  This means that these students are at risk of falling further behind.  This is borne out by the findings of research just published by Maynooth University on the impact of COVID-19 and school closures at primary level[5].

Among the main findings of this report are:

  • While the pandemic is reshaping education, the impact is not equal for all participants.
  • The impact of the changes is reinforcing social inequalities.
  • Not all parents have the skills for distance learning, not all have the time, not all have the health.
  • Not all teachers have the skills for online teaching, not all schools and pupils have the hardware and software for distance learning.
  • The survey results highlighted a clear digital divide (hardware, software, & technological skills) that exists across schools in Ireland.
  • This may add to already gaping social divide between the better-resourced schools/ families and the schools/ families without the same means.
  • Children from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have the same access to learning opportunities at home and rely heavily on school for this. The closure puts them at an even greater disadvantage than children who do have learning opportunities, resources and support in the home setting.

Ireland already has an educational divide with outcomes for students in DEIS schools significantly below those of their peers, notwithstanding the progress made in recent years.  Add to this the intergenerational transmission of low skills in Ireland, and it is evident that the move to online learning will have a negative impact on outcomes for students in disadvantaged schools. 

The achievement of pupils in urban primary schools with concentrations of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds is well below that of other schools despite improvements since 2007[6].  With family poverty remaining the largest determinant of educational outcome, the achievement gap between children from poor backgrounds and their more affluent peers will likely continue until economic inequality is addressed. 

The pattern continues at post-primary level where, despite steady progress, significant variations in proficiency in literacy, mathematics and science remain in Ireland between students in DEIS and non-DEIS schools.  Students attending DEIS schools score much lower on all three domains, pointing to the need to continue to focus resources on addressing educational disadvantage.  The COVID-19 school closures and move to digital learning could reverse the trend of positive improvements in attainment and achievement in DEIS post-primary schools since 2002 and the gradual closing of the gap between DEIS and non-DEIS post-primary schools.

The OECD calls for all education responses to COVID-19 to be designed to avoid deepening educational and social inequality[7]. As systems massively move to e-learning, the digital divide in connectivity, access to devices and skill levels takes on more weight. It is very difficult to see how the existing educational divide will not be exacerbated by the move to digital learning. 

Ireland’s performance on digital skills is concerning (see Chart 1).  Over 50 per cent of the population have low or basic digital skills and almost 20 per cent have no digital skills. 

Chart 1: EU-28 Digital Skills Levels, 2017


Source:  Eurostat (2018).

As Chart 1 shows, Ireland performs poorly in terms of digital skills.  Less than half of the adult population has at least basic digital skills, well below the EU average (57 per cent). Only 28 per cent of people have digital skills above a basic level, below the EU average of 31 per cent. This general gap in digital skills is also confirmed by the OECD PIAAC survey of adult learning which is discussed in more detail below. 

The move to digital learning and our low levels of adult digital skills will inevitably have a negative impact on our human capital and on the intergenerational transmission of educational outcomes. 

A report on Well-being in the Digital Age[8] found that the digital transformation could compound existing socio-economic inequalities, with earnings and opportunities benefits accruing to a few, and the risks falling more heavily on people with lower levels of education and skills.  The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the potential of digital technologies to exacerbate existing inequalities if we do not act now. 

Adult Skills – a persistent inequality

Ireland has a persistent problem with adult literacy and adult skills in general[9].  A very significant proportion of Ireland’s adult population possesses only very basic literacy, numeracy and information-processing skills, insufficient to compete in a market where the skillsets of even highly-skilled workers are likely to be obsolete in a matter of years.  The most recent OECD Survey on Adult Skills are summarised below:

  • Literacy - 18 per cent of Irish adults having a literacy level at or below Level 1. People at this level of literacy can understand and follow only basic written instructions and read only very short texts.
  • Numeracy - Ireland is placed 19th out of 24 OECD countries with 26 per cent of Irish adults scoring at or below Level 1.
  • Problem solving in technology rich environments - 42 per cent of Irish adults scored at or below Level 1.

Basic literacy skills are required for higher-order skills and ‘learning to learn’ skills, which are necessary for participating and engaging in the economy.  Ireland needs to improve the skill levels of adult learners by investing in further education, training and skills development. The children of parents with low levels of education have significantly lower proficiency than those whose parents have higher levels of education, thus continuing the cycle of disadvantage[10].   The most recent report by the OECD on education in Ireland found that the educational attainment levels of 25-64 year olds are very similar to that of their parents and that 40 per cent of adults whose parents did not attain upper secondary education had also not completed upper secondary education[11]

The inter-generational transmission of low levels of skills and educational qualification underscores the need for high-quality initial education and second-chance educational pathways, as well as improved access to, and relevance of, lifelong learning and community education opportunities (with both academic and vocational tracks). Clearly ongoing work with parents in disadvantaged areas is of key importance in encouraging support of children in education. 

Supports Available

The National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) has developed a programme of supports for the one in six adults with unmet literacy and numeracy needs in Ireland around COVID-19. NALA notes that the amount of additional information around COVID-19 can make many of us feel overwhelmed.  But for those adults with unmet literacy and numeracy needs, this is even more challenging. NALA is focussed on supporting these adults by:

  • Offering support for adults with literacy, numeracy or digital skills needs. 
  • Explaining COVID-19 words and terms in plain English.
  • Offering help for people with understanding health information.
  • Offering help for parents struggling with their kids home learning

Organisations such as NALA must be supported in this vital work and continue to be supported in their ongoing work to meet the needs of adults in Ireland who face literacy, numeracy and digital skills challenges. 

Improving educational outcomes in the long term and mitigating the impacts of COVID-19

DEIS Schools

Literacy and numeracy trends in DEIS schools have been improving, but the current COVID-19 response has the potential to reverse this trend.  Continued support for DEIS schools must be a policy priority and the positive policy measures which are seeing reductions in the achievement gap must be used as a stepping stone to further improvements.  Literacy and numeracy challenges will not be resolved by the end of 2020, so it is important that ambitious targets are set to 2025. Sufficient ongoing resourcing must be available to support new ambitious targets and to mitigate the impact of school closures and the digital divide on students in DEIS schools and those disadvantaged students in non-DEIS schools. In the long term Government and policy makers must look to those countries with consistent high performance across all levels of education and examine what type of resources and strategies could be developed and adapted from these countries to improve outcomes in the Irish education system.

Education and Training

An education and training strategy focussed on preparing people for the impact of digitalisation, and the transitions within the workforce that this transformation will mean, should be developed.  This strategy must be flexible enough to adapt to regional needs, fully funded and linked to the National Skills Strategy, the Human Capital Initiative and Ireland 2040.  People with low skill levels in particular must be a focus of this strategy. 

The next Government should incorporate the latest OECD recommendations on training and lifelong learning into the National Skills Strategy and revise our target to reach 15 per cent by 2021 and to reach  20 per cent by 2026, ensuring sufficient resources are made available.

Funding Education

Government must develop and commit to a long-term sustainable funding strategy for education at all stages, recognising the importance of a life-cycle approach to educational support.  This funding strategy should incorporate capital and current expenditure and be coherent with present strategies and funding already allocated as part of Ireland 2040.  The overall priority must be to deliver multiannual funding linked to long-term strategies at all levels.   The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills should play a key role in monitoring the implementation of this funding strategy and the outputs in achieving strategic priorities.   

In the long term Government and policy makers must look to those countries with consistent high performance across all levels of education and examine what type of resources and strategies could be developed and adapted from these countries to improve outcomes in the Irish education system.


Education is an integral part of our social contract.  Education is widely recognised as crucial to the achievement of our national objectives of economic competitiveness, social inclusion, and active citizenship.  It benefits not just the individual, but society as a whole and the returns to the economy and society are a multiple of the levels of investment.   However, the levels of public funding for education in Ireland are out of step with these aspirations.  The response to COVID-19 will exacerbate existing inequalities within our education system and we must work to mitigate against this, and to ensure that those who are impacted the most will be supported the most.  First and foremost this requires investment.  If we don’t make the required investment the impact of COVID-19 on the educational system will be felt for generations to come.