Private schools send vastly disproportionate amounts of students into the top courses. Bill Lozenge questions why this is the case.

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A REPORT on feeder schools, recently published by the Irish Times, has indicated that educational inequality is alive and well in Ireland. The annual publication reveals the number of students from every secondary school that progress to third-level education.

The figures for 2016 revealed that of the twenty-five secondary schools sending the highest proportion of students to high-points courses, private schools accounted for twenty. This is despite fee-paying schools only accounting for 7% of the country’s secondary schools. The disproportionate representation of private school students in the top courses represents an education system that is deeply flawed.

“of the twenty-five secondary schools sending the highest proportion of students to high-points courses, private schools accounted for twenty”

When the government introduced free university fees for lower-income families, its hope was that dismantling the financial barrier to third-level education would lead to a reduction in the participation gap. Now, twenty years later, it is clear that the measure produced little results.

The plan relied on a meritocratic conception of education, where the students with the greatest abilities and drive would rise to the top, untethered from their burdensome financial situation.

However, this vision is overly simplistic, and we must not forget the social dimension that is a key component of academic success. If we fail to acknowledge this, we suggest that the consistency with which the best performing students emerge from the private schools of South Dublin is a mere coincidence.

We suggest that cutting the resources of the most disadvantaged schools is acceptable, as the most talented students will succeed regardless. We suggest that students that fail to achieve success can be dismissed as lazy or stupid, having only themselves to blame.

Inequality in education is the consequence of a divergence in access to the resources. It thus enables only some students to take advantage of educational opportunities. One study discovered that the social class of a school is a more reliable indication of whether a student will proceed to third-level than the students’ own social background or academic record.

A student attending a school with a predominantly working-class student population is less likely to proceed to third-level than if they were to attend a school with a largely middle-class population. Certain schools nurture a specific climate of expectation, where higher education is promoted from an early age. It is almost taken for granted in middle-class schools.

In response to this, the ESRI (Economic and Social Research Institute) recommended in a report that all schools should seek to instil this culture of high expectations.

The same report discovered that while students in middle-class schools considered advice from their own families to be more informative and useful than that from their school’s career guidance counsellors, the reverse was true for students in working-class schools. Students whose parents did not attend third-level education lack a valuable resource in understanding the full range of their options. This results in a social class difference in aspirations to higher education that is evident as early as the junior cycle.

“Certain schools nurture a specific climate of expectation, where higher education is promoted from an early age. It is almost taken for granted in middle-class schools.”

A 2016 Tasc report shows a strong negative correlation exists between a child’s self-image and their social class background. By 13, children have internalised their inequality by reducing their expectations and thus just 36% of children aged 13 from the bottom-income decile expect to achieve a third-level education in contrast to 65% from the top-income decile.

This is a huge shift considering there is no correlation between household income and cognitive potential at nine months. Positive school climates and high expectations from the beginning are thus key in determining the choices students make about attending university.

But not everyone is convinced that the feeder report’s findings are a cause for concern. A recent article in the Irish Times actually criticised the report for implying that it is preferable for high numbers of students to enter third-level courses after secondary school, rather than beginning an apprenticeship or other vocational training.

It also suggested that there is a snobbery around higher education, where students that are not well-suited to third-level courses are pressured into them. The piece recommended that we should develop a model for apprenticeships more in line with Germany’s, which enjoys a great popularity among students due to its high social status.

However, such a response ignores the main issue that is highlighted by the feeder report. Of course, all students across the social spectrum should be encouraged to examine the range of their options upon finishing secondary school, to determine for themselves whether they are better suited to a third-level course or an apprenticeship. The problem is that current figures suggest that the students that are the ‘most suited’ for third-level courses are constantly emerging from the fee-paying schools of South Dublin.

The disproportionate representation of students from these schools on the top courses suggests that many students across the country are not being exposed to the full range of options, but are systematically excluded from aspiring to third-level by a lack of resources.