Growing Up in Ireland - the lives of nine-year olds

Posted on Wednesday, 23 June 2021
early years education

The latest publication in the Growing Up in Ireland study provides very useful information on the lives of nine-year-olds, and the impact of gender and family circumstances on the experiences and developmental outcomes.  The study covers physical Health and development, socio-emotional development, well-being and relationships, family structure and economic circumstance and play and activities of nine-year olds.  Among the main findings of the report is that nine-year-olds from more disadvantaged backgrounds tended to have poorer health outcomes, more socio-emotional difficulties, less involvement in (largely paid-for) structured activities, and somewhat less positive views of school subjects.

The main findings in terms of Education and Cognitive Development in the Report are:

  • Attitudes to school and teachers were broadly positive; one-third of children said they always liked school and 62% sometimes liked it, while two-thirds of children always liked their teacher.
  • Attitudes to Reading were more positive than attitudes to Maths or Irish.  The broadly positive attitude to school was not strongly related to socio-economic circumstances but instead was markedly patterned according to the child’s gender with many more girls than boys saying that they ‘always liked’ school (41% vs 25%), teachers (73% vs 59%), Reading (68% vs 55%) and Irish (26% vs 18%).
  • Significant differences were found in reading test scores by socio-economic background; where an average score is 100, there was a gap of over 10 points between the highest and lowest social class and parental education groups.  This socio-economic gap in reading test scores had widened since the children started primary school, with children from disadvantaged backgrounds who were early high performers being outperformed by children from more advantaged backgrounds by 9 years of age.

This socio-economic gradient is concerning, as we know that students disadvantaged students still perform poorly compared to their peers in international standardised tests of mathematics, reading and science.  When looking at the scores of primary schools in disadvantaged areas on an assessment of mathematics and science and on reading, we see significant variations between disadvantaged students and their peers[1].

  • Only modest increases in scores in both reading and mathematics were observed in DEIS schools between 2013 and 2016
  • DEIS Band 1 schools (which are in areas of greater disadvantage) had the poorest results, and were outperformed by DEIS Band 2 schools.
  • Reduced class sizes in disadvantaged areas and DEIS schools has proved effective.
  • The achievements of pupils in urban primary schools with concentrations of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds is well below that of other urban schools despite improvements since 2007.

This trend is carried through to second level, where DEIS schools, despite improvements in attainment, achievement and outcomes, are still out performed by their peers in the international standardised PISA tests[2] in reading, mathematics and science.An analysis of trends in PISA achievement indicates that in reading, mathematics and science, students in DEIS schools have consistently achieved significantly lower average achievement than students in non-DEIS schools across all PISA cycles examined[3]. While the size of the gap has narrowed significantly in reading, it has not changed significantly in mathematics or science. Some of the findings from this analysis are set out below:


  • Students in DEIS schools scored at the level of the OECD average but there remains a large gap between average reading performance of students attending DEIS schools and those attending non-DEIS schools.  Overall there remains a high percentage of students with low reading achievement in DEIS schools.
  • Students in DEIS schools had significantly lower achievement on each of the three reading subscales than their counterparts in non-DEIS schools.
  • In DEIS schools, just over one-fifth of students (21.8 per cent) achieved a reading score below Level 2, more than twice the rate in non-DEIS schools (9 per cent). Such students are considered low-achievers by the OECD. 
  • One quarter of boys (23.9 per cent) in DEIS schools have reading skills described by the OECD as inadequate for future study and work (below Level 2).


  • The average mathematics performance of students in DEIS schools is significantly lower than the OECD average, while students in non-DEIS schools had an average mathematics score significantly above the OECD average.
  • The average mathematics performance of students attending DEIS schools was significantly and substantially lower than that of students in non-DEIS schools and the percentage of students categorised as low achievers in mathematics in DEIS schools (28 per cent) is more than double that of non-DEIS schools (12 per cent).


  • Students attending DEIS schools had an average science score that was significantly lower than the OECD average while students in non-DEIS school had an average score significantly above the OECD average.
  • The percentage of low achieving students in science in DEIS schools (28.2 per cent) is more than double that of non-DEIS schools (13.5 per cent).

Despite steady progress, significant variations in proficiency remain in Ireland between students in DEIS and non-DEIS schools.  The main gains made by DEIS schools were between 2009 and 2012, where the percentage of low achievers in reading dropped from 35.4 per cent to 21.8per cent, but progress has stalled since then.  

Social Justice Ireland supports the provision of extra resources to DEIS schools to ensure that all students, but particularly those in disadvantaged areas, have equality of opportunity once they complete their second level education.  Welcome progress has been made at primary and post primary level in terms of closing the achievement and attainment gaps between DEIS and non-DEIS schools.  However significant gaps still exist – many of which have their bass in income inequality, and this is a cause for concern.  The impact of COVID-19 is likely to exacerbate the situation.

Policy Priorities to address the challenges of socio-economic background on educational outcomes include:

  • Keep average class sizes below 20, reduce the pupil teacher ratio further and ensure all DEIS Band 1 and 2 schools have sufficient resources to implement strategies to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes for pupils.
  • Make the improvement of educational outcomes for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and disadvantaged communities a policy priority, with additional resources focused on addressing the persistence of educational disadvantage.
  • Invest in reducing class sizes and pupil teacher ratios at primary and post primary level.
  • Use the Department of Education projections in terms of enrolment and staff numbers to inform investment, plan for reducing class sizes, reducing pupil teacher ratios (a persistent problem which Covid-19 has highlighted), and ensuring that our education system has all of the resources that it requires to meet our national ambitions.
  • Support schools to ensure that they have the required number of staff with appropriate qualifications, and the necessary programmes, supports and resources to meet the needs of pupils with special educational needs.



[1]See and also

[2] Programmes for International Student Assessment (PISA) assesses the preparedness of 15-year-olds to meet the challenges they may encounter in their future lives, including education.