The below is an edited extract from an address to be delivered at the annual conference of the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) later this week

What’s the single biggest factor affecting a child’s educational performance? International evidence suggests it is is parental participation. Children perform best when their parents are involved in their education.

So much for the fuss about school league tables. In fact, the research shows that the quality of a school has very little to do with one student doing well and another falling behind. Of course poverty, inequality, class sizes or lack of facilities are problems and can be contributing factors to a child’s lack of success but they are not at the very core of the issue. The home environment is crucial.

But parents, the architects of this home environment, are working more than ever. The CSO recently revealed that close to 60 per cent of women are working, as opposed to 43 per cent 10 years ago. Many of these women are
mothers, and fathers are not staying at home in great numbers. Many parents no longer have the time to juggle homework with commuting and a busy job.

Parental investment in children is waning across society. Richer parents can minimise the impact by buying their way out of trouble with grinds and expensive schools. But for those who can’t, we need to think of ways to minimise the impact on children’s education. This is important for a number of reasons.

First, the success of the State will be dependent on the brains of these children. If we can minimise the educational impact of a negative home environment, society will benefit in terms of welfare, prison and health costs later.

Second, this is not an issue that is going to contain itself. The CSO trends would indicate that the difficulties faced by parents and children are only going to get worse and in these situations, failure breeds failure.
Third, if we can ever afford to do something about this, we can afford to do it now.

Pouring money into reducing class sizes, providing resource teachers and equipment is not as effective as you might think. The problem is that by the time these measures kick in it’s far too late. Disparity in educational achievement between one child and another does not develop over a school career. It only widens.

If one child arrives in school able to read and another child of the same age doesn’t know how to open a book, the gap is already there. Early intervention in education is the key to minimising problems caused by a negative home environment. It is also a good way to involve parents who might not otherwise have become involved in their child’s education.

American research shows that investment in education pays for itself when it is done early. Believe it or not, the benefit-cost ratio of early intervention is measured at eight to one. Later measures such as resource teaching and reduction in class size are in no way as effective. The benefit decreases as the child gets older. The Jesuits – who advised getting them young – had the right idea.

So while the need for and benefits of early intervention are clear, let’s take a look at where we are at the moment.

In Ireland, we have made huge strides but there is still the problem of persistent underachievement in certain areas. Our investment in pre-primary education is negligible and our spending on primary and secondary education is well below the OECD average.

In the past number of years, we have been concentrating on the brains at the very high end of education. The Knowledge Economy is the favourite phrase of anybody, politician or otherwise, who is talking about investment in
education. The idea is that Ireland needs to cultivate a research and design industry in areas such as engineering, technology and science before the Chinese and others like them take all our manufacturing jobs. Thus we are currently focusing enormous amounts of money on fourth-level education in an effort to build an industry that will keep things going when all the multinationals leave.

It may make sense to those in charge. According to them, we’ll have a big head start on China and India and by the time those countries get their acts together, Ireland will have its high-end R&D industry up and running.

But what is the point in spending vast amounts of money on fourth level if we have whole sections of society that have no hope of getting there? What use are free third-level fees when the only people availing of them can afford to pay?

Simply, the State should invest more in the education of very young children to replace the lack of parental investment.

Existing Early Start programmes have been evaluated but have not been running for long enough for us to see the effect on the children’s progression to further education . A form of this intervention took place in Ireland in the 1970s. The Rutland Project was a pre-school programme that sought to introduce children to a school setting and it also involved parents in their children’s education. The findings of the programme were interesting, in that any immediate advantage that the children in the programme had on entering school dissipated within three years.

However, the benefits of the programme came to the fore later on when it was found that the participants were far more likely to go on and achieve formal educational qualifications. Again, evidence from the US shows that early
intervention in pre-schools for poor children and more active teaching of the very young yields enormous benefits. Invest money in PhD students as we are doing and the rate of return falls completely.

So where’s the problem? Why are we so reluctant to have a real vision in education? There are two main problems as I see it. First, the political problem. Long-term gains don’t interest political parties that are up for re-election next year. There are few votes in a strong vision for the longer term.

Second, the teacher unions. If teachers are pushing for radical change in educational investment or policy, their case would be stronger if they were serious about delivering the best possible education to Irish students. But they are still much too defensive about under-performing teachers. And that undermines their wider credibility as agents for change with the general public.

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