Social justice: lagging behind

Ireland placed amongst the lower-achieving EU countries with education a stand out concern

A sharp dose of realism can be upsetting. But it is a useful antidote to misconceived notions of achievement. Exceptional progress has been made in rebuilding the economy, while maintaining social cohesion, following the catastrophic crash of 2008. Recovery remains a work in progress, however, and poverty indicators are high, compared to a decade ago.

This reality is reflected in findings by a German-based philanthropic foundation that places Ireland amongst the lower-achieving EU countries in terms of social justice, with spending on education and poverty-prevention measures being of particular concern. Using the same indices employed by the independent agency Pobal, which recently charted areas of disadvantage within Ireland, the German institution assessed our performance within Europe.

Rather than reduce aspirations, the findings should prompt us to do better

Education was a stand out concern, particularly at pre-school level, where State spending was recorded at just 0.1 per cent of GDP. That put Ireland in 21st place out of 28, but the ranking may have improved because of recent Government decisions. Two years of free pre-school care will finally become available from September 2018. The report also found disadvantage and affluence levels are affected by our secondary education system – involving private and public schools – which facilitates privileged access to higher education.

Overall, Ireland comes in at 17th place, and finds itself in the company of southern and eastern European states. Nordic countries top the list in terms of social justice while Ireland trails the UK, France, Belgium, Poland and Malta. These are not the outcomes you would expect from the "best little country in Europe". Rather than reduce aspirations, however, the findings should prompt us to do better. Policy changes and investment in social services will be needed. Being ranked within the top five of socially inclusive European countries, with good public services, would be a huge achievement. Great leaps forward sound impressive, but tend to fall flat. Change that invites participation from all sections of society is more effective.