Can DEIS really combat our entrenched inequality?

The recent announcement of an expansion to the DEIS scheme has raised questions about the ability of the education system to help disadvantaged student to overcome the hurdles they face. Does DEIS make a difference?

Can it make up for the reality of inequality in Irish society? The data shows that targeting resources in the system can bring change.

The best predictor of where you will end up economically is from where you start out economically. And a good indicator of where you are economically is where you are geographically.

A quick glance at the table below showing a comparison of the earnings of graduates and non-graduates will confirm that educational outcomes effects life-long earning. So it is obvious that support for schools in areas with very low incomes can have a huge effect on the children from those areas.

One of the most dramatic statistics demonstrating the iniquitous relationship in the geography – exclusion – outcome triangle was from former Mountjoy Prison Governor John Lonergan. He revealed that 75 per cent of the inmates in Mountjoy came from just six districts, six small areas within six separate postal districts of Dublin city.

There are many other negative consequences arising out of poverty, from health outcomes to home ownership, so that engagement with young people from disadvantaged areas is a vital opportunity to tackle long-term inequality. Local schools in these areas reflect the demographic catchment they are in.

Addressing the gap

In 2005 the Government brought forward the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) scheme in order to streamline the various programmes available at the time to schools based on real-world data on disadvantage. The schools involved received various aids and resources, as well as reduced class size criteria.

The programme has been widely praised in the educational and political worlds, and many more schools in marginally disadvantaged areas aspire to join DEIS. Recently, Education Minister Norma Foley announced that an additional 273 primary and 37 post-primary schools would be included in DEIS from September 2022. This will bring the participation rate of one-in-four students in Ireland will be in DEIS schools.

Does DEIS work?

How would we know if DEIS is working? The Education Research Centre (ERC) has produced two reports in particular using data collected for PISA (the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment) comparing DEIS and Non-DEIS schools to see what the impact has been.

From the tables on the right it can be seen that DEIS has indeed had a positive impact in the areas of reading, maths and scientific literacy, both in absolute terms and also set against the data for students in non-DEIS schools.

So educational outcomes have improved and gaps have narrowed but it is obvious that a large gap remains for students based on the income of households. The gains for DEIS students came early on and have plateaued since. There was a marked improvement for particularly low achievers in reading. Notably, Irish reading scores are higher than the OECD average so that even with the gap here, DEIS students are doing relatively well. 

Resources, resources, resources

So the nuanced answer to the question ‘does DEIS work?’ is ‘yes, because resources work’. The targeting of resources to disadvantaged schools has indeed helped. 

Of course, the Department would point out that many more resources have been targeted at individual students in the broader system as not every disadvantaged student lives in a disadvantaged area. Many students face difficulties due to physical, cognitive and mental health issues and there are measures to target those problems in all schools.

The bigger picture

In the second of their reports into DEIS schools, the ERC addressed what is at the heart of the inequality: the situation for students outside the school setting.

To take one finding from the report: ‘The mean score for parental occupational status was significantly lower in DEIS schools compared to non-DEIS schools. The difference corresponded to about half a national standard deviation.’

So we are talking about class. Middle class kids do better than working class kids. More non-DEIS students have a parent who have a university degree (over half compared to one third). 

Mind the gap

It is clear that ultimately that unequal educational outcomes are based on our unequal society. In many urban areas housing is segregated by class and parents hand down their educational advantages and disadvantages to their children.

The education system can’t fix this but it can go a long way to compensating our children for the lack of resources they might face due to the circumstances they grow up in or the income or housing status of their parents.

In fact, the DEIS initiative might be the most important social democratic policy in the state. If we can reduce inequalities by education perhaps society will follow.