Education for All?

The Legacy of Free Post-Primary Education in Ireland

by Judith Harford (Volume editor)
Edited Collection XII, 248 Pages


This book, commissioned to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the introduction of free post-primary education in Ireland, examines its origins, legacy and impact. The contributions are written by a range of scholars internationally recognized for their expertise in the fields of history of education, sociology of education, education policy and curriculum. Collectively, they theorize both the historical context for the introduction of free education as well as the impact of the initiative on the promotion of equality of opportunity. The book takes a long view, bringing new knowledge to the field by analysing previously unexamined primary sources, drawing on up-to-date research on educational disadvantage and assessing the changing emphases of Irish educational policy over time.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Foreword (J. J. Lee)
  • Introduction. Origins, Legacy and Impact: Reflections on the Free Education Scheme in Ireland (Judith Harford)
  • 1. Patterns of Attendance at Irish Secondary Schools from the Establishment of the Independent Irish State to the Introduction of the Free Education Scheme in 1967 (Tom O’Donoghue)
  • 2. The Birth of the Free Education Scheme (Áine Hyland)
  • 3. Agency and Advocacy: The Key Actors behind the Free Education Initiative (Judith Harford / Brian Fleming)
  • 4. The Impact and Aftermath of the Free Education Policy Initiative (John Coolahan)
  • 5. Responding to the Neglect of Aims in Irish Post-Primary Education (D. G. Mulcahy)
  • 6. Educational Inequality: Is ‘Free Education’ Enough? (Emer Smyth)
  • 7. Economic Inequality and Class Privilege in Education: Why Equality of Economic Condition Is Essential for Equality of Opportunity (Kathleen Lynch / Margaret Crean)
  • 8. The Development of the Institutes of Technology as a Key Part of the Higher Education Sector since Free Second-Level Education (Tom Boland)
  • 9. The Curriculum Response to ‘Free Education’ and the Raising of the School-Leaving Age (Jim Gleeson)
  • 10. Changing the Educational Landscape: Transforming Teacher Professionalism? (Ciaran Sugrue)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

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I would like to thank the scholars who contributed chapters to this book, all leading authorities in their fields. It has been my pleasure and privilege to work with them in bringing this volume to completion. I would also like to extend my thanks to Professor J. J. Lee for his support for this initiative from the outset and for penning a succinct and thought-provoking foreword. Similarly, I wish to thank Professor Tom O’ Donoghue for his insight and expertise in this as in so many of my academic endeavours. I acknowledge funding provided by the College of Social Sciences and Law, University College Dublin, and the Department of Education and Skills for the Royal Irish Academy symposium from which this book emanated. Finally, thanks to Peter Lang and in particular Christabel Scaife for her expertise and professionalism. ← vii | viii →

← viii | ix →



For all the vicissitudes of the past fifty years, it is clear that the 1967 free education scheme remains one of the most important developments in the history of independent Ireland. Although it is clear that much remains to be done, the initiative opened up unprecedented opportunities for further education beyond primary school to generations hitherto condemned to an educational system that equipped the vast majority of the population for an existence as only hewers of wood and drawers of water at home, and often not all that much better abroad for many first-generation emigrants. Even though numbers at second level were rising gradually, the pace of change remained grossly inadequate to provide opportunities for the large majority of children to either achieve their own individual potential or enhance their collective potential contribution to the economic, social and cultural welfare of the country. That the 1967 initiative occurred when it did, even if many of the measures might have emerged gradually, especially after our entry to the EU in 1973 – but nobody in 1967 could have been certain of that – was crucial in transforming attitudes towards the importance of education for Ireland’s future. For all the intervening vicissitudes and frustrations, it is sobering to wonder where Ireland would be today had the pace of educational change remained so plodding. And so it might have, but for the idealism, energy and determination of a handful of politicians and civil servants determined to open up the wider opportunities for the next generation that had been largely denied to their own. Even after 1967, there would be numerous frustrations. Not all later policymakers, either in politics or the public service, would display a passion for fostering greater educational opportunity for all children, which in turn would have required far more extensive change in the wider socio-economic value system than the political culture would permit. ← ix | x →

Among the multiple merits of this indispensable volume is the way it lifts the curtain on the manner in which a policy-making process driven by a relatively small number of people passionately committed to reforming an educational system based essentially on concepts of class privilege, however skillfully, even at times idealistically, enveloped in the capacious folds of both ecclesiastical and lay rhetoric, moved to one based primarily on the concept of human rights. For the brutal reality was that advance to second level in education, much less third level, was far more determined by pocket power than brain power. The residue of that mindset still remains. If far more young people now enter second level and indeed third level doors, the question has to be asked how many are still left on the outside, or at least stuck in the steerage levels of higher education, and why. That the divides between different levels of opportunity are happily no longer nearly as glaring as fifty years ago does not mean that much work does not remain to be done to ensure that no child is left behind through flaws in the education system itself.

This timely and significant publication draws together global thought leaders in the field of education. The editor has selected her contributors shrewdly, with chapter after chapter repaying not only reading, but rereading and deep reflection, while her pungently compact introduction provides so admirable a guide to the contents that it would be trying to gild the lily to seek to summarize it. What does emerge from the absorbing chapters by those at the coal face in lifting the curtain on the process from which Donogh O’Malley’s 1967 free education scheme emerged, is the crucial difference that personality and hard-headed idealism can make, when expressed in the commitment of even a relatively small number of politicians, civil servants – and yes – academics, for all the differences of emphasis among them. What can only be inferred is the potential for resistance in conservative circles that obliged the Taoiseach, Sean Lemass – whose support was crucial but who sensed the potential for resistance – to play a canny game, worthy indeed of de Valera in tactical if not necessarily ideological terms – to facilitate the initiative while purporting to appear hesitant, at least up to a point. Indeed, one may wonder at how narrow may have been the window of opportunity to drive through such a scheme given O’Malley’s untimely death and the premature resignation as Taoiseach on ← x | xi → health grounds of Lemass himself. The role of Paddy Hillery, too, one of the most understated and underrated Irish politicians of his generation, and of Paddy Lynch, a seminal source of ideas to policymakers, can be seen to warrant yet further research. Equally, it is clear that Sean O’Connor and Bill Hyland both played significant roles. Given the speed of change in today’s world, and the churning waters in which so frail a craft as Ireland has to navigate, it can be argued that over the medium term, much less the long term, as our educational system goes, so does Ireland go. This volume should be indispensable reading not only for professional educationalists, but for all those who care about the future of our country.

There always remains scope for improvement in every field of human endeavour, if only because progress by definition requires sustained raising of the bar. Among the many striking features of this collection is the astute editorial blending of accounts of the extraordinary achievements of the 1960s with expressions of impatience at challenges still to be overcome. The result is a volume that illuminates the remarkable achievements of the 1960s’ revolution – and revolution is not too strong a term, however taken for granted it may now be – but the tendency of one generation to take for granted earlier achievements is itself the best tribute that can be paid to the inherited legacy. The challenge confronting the present generation may in some respects be even more formidable, for it requires significant shifts of perspective in the wider society that cannot be achieved by the earlier conjunction of the idealism, dedication and political commitment of a relatively small number of exceptional individuals in crucial political and administrative positions. The dynamic stimulated by this absorbing collection should in itself propel Ireland forward on the route towards the goal of an ever fairer, and ever more effective educational system in the widest possible national and individual interest. ← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 →


Origins, Legacy and Impact: Reflections on the Free Education Scheme in Ireland

This book, commissioned to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the introduction of free post-primary education in Ireland, examines its origins, legacy and impact. Chapters are drawn from a range of scholars internationally recognized for their expertise in the fields of the history of education, the sociology of education, education policy and curriculum. It may be hard to imagine for school-goers today, but up until the introduction of free education, only a minority of young people went on to participate in post-primary schooling, with fewer still going on to third-level education. Participation at both second level and third level was directly contingent on social class and while some scholarships were available, they had a negligible impact on the promotion of equality. By the mid-1960s, one-third of all children were leaving full-time education upon completion of primary schooling and less than 60 per cent of all fifteen-year-olds were remaining in school, a scenario Donogh O’Malley (Minister for Education, 1966–8) described as ‘a dark stain on the national conscience’.

While a number of scholars have elsewhere examined the significant social, political and economic developments of the 1960s (see, for example, Daly, 2016; Fleming and Harford, 2014; Walsh, 2009), there has been a paucity of research examining the significance of the ‘free education scheme’, and there has been even less research on the subject which blends both historical and contemporary commentary. Collectively, the chapters in this volume address this deficit, theorizing about the historical context of the introduction of free education, as well as the impact of the initiative on the promotion of equality of educational opportunity. The book takes a long view, bringing new knowledge to the field by examining previously ← 1 | 2 → unexamined primary sources, drawing on research on educational disadvantage, and assessing how policies have shifted over time. The early chapters, namely those of O’Donoghue, Hyland, Harford and Fleming, Coolahan and Mulcahy, explore the historical context for the introduction of the free education scheme and examine how such an initiative transformed the educational landscape. Identifying the 1960s as one of the most progressive periods in the history of education in Ireland, they identify the economic crisis of the 1950s as the trigger for a more ambitious and strategic policy approach. This was a time characterized by austerity, political instability, industrial and agricultural decline and mass emigration. For the majority during this period, education was not a priority; rather, it was a matter of survival. T. K. Whitaker, the noted economist and secretary of the Department of Finance, described the decade of the 1950s as one of stagnation, emigration and high unemployment, in which ‘the mood of despondency was palpable’ (Whitaker, 2006, p. 8). The later chapters by Smyth, Lynch and Crean, Boland, Gleeson and Sugrue adopt a more panoptic view, assessing the impact of the free education scheme over time. In doing so, they focus on implications for curricular reform, for the development of the institutes of technology and for teacher education. Central to these chapters is the enduring influence of social class across the educational experience.

The book commences with a foreword by Professor J. J. Lee, in which he reflects on the significance of the 1967 free education scheme in opening up unprecedented opportunities for further education beyond primary school to generations of pupils. Considering where Ireland would be today had ‘the pace of educational change remained so plodding’, Lee observes that the scheme remains one of the most important developments in the history of independent Ireland. He further contends that the execution of the scheme was down to the vision, resilience and political acumen of a handful of politicians and civil servants.

In Chapter 1, Tom O’Donoghue sets the scene for the expansion of education in the 1960s, charting patterns of attendance in the period from 1922 to 1965. In an analysis punctuated by interrogations of a number of ‘invented traditions’ (Hobsbawn and Ranger, 2017), he argues that, notwithstanding popular views to the contrary, the great majority of those ← 2 | 3 → who attended secondary school during the period were drawn from the socially advantaged sectors of Irish society. Furthermore, this particular sector constituted only a small percentage of the total potential secondary-school-going population at the time. In Chapter 2, Áine Hyland draws on her experience as a civil servant in the Department of Education from 1959 to 1964 and as a research assistant with the Investment in Education team from 1962 to 1964 to assess the significance of the Investment in Education (Government of Ireland, 1965) report and the role played by the Development Branch of the Department of Education in initiating and implementing the free education scheme. In line with subsequent chapters, Hyland identifies a conservative and insular approach to educational policymaking in the decades prior to the introduction of free education and an education system dominated by private interests. As later chapters illustrate, what this meant in practice was that the system favoured those in a financial position to participate in education, reinforced the dominant hegemony, in particular the values of a deeply conservative Catholic Church, and excluded those at the margins, who had neither the social nor the cultural capital to challenge the existing orthodoxy.


XII, 248
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (March)
Free Education Ireland post-primary education
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018. XII, 248 pp., 2 b/w ill., 8 tables, 8 fig.

Biographical notes

Judith Harford (Volume editor)

Judith Harford is Professor of Education at the School of Education, University College Dublin. She has published internationally in the fields of history of education and teacher education policy. She is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (London) and the Massachusetts Historical Society (USA) and an International Clinical Practice Fellow of the American Association of Teacher Educators.


Title: Education for All?