Education in Ireland and the Human Development Index: We Are Still Among the Very Best

Ireland is the 3rd best country on Earth in which to live according to the United Nations Human Development Index. 

Mr Joseph Kelly, Naas CBS

Joseph Kelly, Teacher at CBS Naas.

—By Joseph Kelly, Teacher, Naas CBS 

Irish Education and Economic Maintenance

The impending reopening of schools is predicated on the fact that much of our economic cohesion depends upon it. Politicians have made this blatantly and unashamedly clear. It is increasingly possible that we will open schools, for whatever length initially, regardless of what conditions of virulence we will face. Teachers have now become vital, not necessarily as educators and carers, but as cogs in an economic machine. We need to ‘open the schools’ because keeping them closed indefinitely will effectively bleed money and resources at a rate our government simply cannot countenance.

Competitive Tendencies

Lurking in the shadow is the fact that education exists in a competitive world, in a global league, and has done so for decades. From small-scale competitive comparisons between schools, the national league tables of college entry and school completion, right up to international trends and standings, the insatiable desire to classify, rank, and evaluate national ‘performance’ is ever-present.

Whether we open or not, and for how long, and how successfully, will be subject to international scrutiny and classification. ‘If they can do it in Denmark’, etc., will be the cry from some media quarters – we have heard it already. Even though many teachers choose to ignore such judgements, statistics, and reports, in favour of the more altruistic, voluntary, and vocational aspects of the job, a glance at the macro-picture every so often is a useful exercise.

Human Development Index

It is a fact that Ireland is among the best countries in which to live. And despite everything up to the emergence of Covid-19, it remains one of the best places in which to attend school. The United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) is a worldwide classification of almost 200 countries that evaluates the quality of life experiences around three key metrics: life expectancy, education, and income. In crude terms, it measures how long you will live, how educated you will be, and how much money you will earn if you live in a certain country. When all the qualifying factors are considered and statistical anomalies smoothed away, Ireland is the 3rd best country on Earth in which to live.

This might come as a surprise to some – and yes, success and failure are relative concepts. But there is no harm in looking to the positive aspects of this result. Without doubt, the quality and depth of education in Ireland should be celebrated right now, as they clearly contribute to our top-tier ranking by the UN in human development.

The figure for education in the HDI is measured by combining average adult years of schooling with expected years of schooling for children, each given a 50% weighting. According to the latest figures available, we finish 7th in this educational metric when adjusted for inequality in society. While this puts us behind some education heavyweights such as Denmark, Norway, New Zealand, and Australia, we are still ahead of the much-lauded Finland and Sweden, our neighbours in the UK, and the wealthiest nation on earth, the United States. Add in our life expectancy (82.1 years) and a per-capita average income of over €55,000, and this elevates us to the bronze medal on the HDI podium.

Small Comforts

These are small points of comfort in a global pandemic, but they do tell us two things. Firstly, Ireland is well disposed to cope with short-term upheaval in education, compared to what other nations must face. This is mostly because we have coped admirably with having the largest primary-school classes in Europe and a longer school day than most of our neighbours for many years. None of this is ideal or entirely justified. Teachers have managed tough conditions for years, so I suspect they will not abandon all hope now that we face such huge uncertainty. Our teachers’ professionalism, resilience, and empathy are the hallmark of what we do and could be the envy of other nations.

Secondly, the emphasis on education, for both children and adults, particularly on things like inclusion and school completion, has contributed massively to our elevated status in the HDI. This needs to be seen in the longer historical context of how greatly we have improved in these areas since the 1980s.

We must continue to value education for all, irrespective of school closures, short-term outcomes, and crude league results. Part of educational excellence is not in scoring best in the tests, or whether we ‘keep the schools open regardless’, but in our engagement with difficult processes and overcoming barriers and obstacles. Covid-19 is a major obstacle to be managed and overcome, however that may be achieved. I am confident that teachers in Ireland, despite massive misgivings and genuine concerns about health and well-being, will do what they do best and manage to see through the current crisis.

Future Results?

We are all living through a situation of great change and upheaval. When the next HDI figures are released, hopefully post-pandemic or at a time when a vaccine eases our global concerns, I hope that Ireland does not slip from its lofty spot. The index could be seen as purely academic, but this is not an excuse to undervalue, ignore, or trample on the contributions made by the teaching profession in earning this position.

Quality teaching and learning remain central means by which Ireland ‘takes its place among the nations of the world’. If our healthcare workers flattened the curve and dealt with the first wave of the coronavirus, the teaching profession will play a significant role in managing any subsequent waves in the future. I hope we are properly resourced, supported, and recognised in doing so.

 

Voice For Teachers has spoken – but who is listening?

 

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