Second Opinion: Ireland’s educational caste system affects all aspects of life

Unless the education system changes, the health of those in lower socioeconomic groups will deteriorate even further


Ireland’s education system is grossly unfair, with a knock-on negative effect on health. Educational attainment, not just years in school, is such a major determinant of health that inequalities in education automatically lead to health inequalities.

People who go on to third-level studies are less likely to smoke, to be obese, or to develop chronic disease or diabetes. Every educational qualification adds a few more healthy years to life. Educational attainment gives people hope. Those who look after their health have hope and believe they have a future.

People with few or no qualifications see little point in looking after their health. Why would they? Their future is bleak. Feelings of hopelessness pervade their jobless, poor, low-status lives.

Why eat fruit and vegetables or keep fit if the future is not going to be any better than today?

Two reports published last month should prompt the education and health sectors to work together like never before.

The first, from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), Leaving School in Ireland: A Longitudinal Study of Post-School Transitions showed that “young people from working-class backgrounds were less likely than their middle-class peers to go on to higher education”.

Furthermore, “young people who attended socially mixed schools and, even more strikingly, middle-class schools, were more likely than those from working-class schools to go on to some form of post-school education and training”.

Equity plan

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) also circulated a paper about the development of a new national plan for equity of access to higher education.

According to Tom Boland, chief executiveof the HEA: “an uncomfortable and sobering fact is that deep reservoirs of educational disadvantage, mirroring in large part economic disadvantage, are also part of the Irish higher education story”.

Children whose parents are from higher professional backgrounds are five times more likely to go on to higher education than children whose parents are semi-skilled or unskilled manual workers. Farmers’ children are nearly seven times more likely to get a third-level qualification than children from lower socioeconomic groups.

Where young people live also has a huge influence on whether they are able to avail In Dublin, 99 per cent of children from Dublin 6 go on to college whereas only 15 per cent from Dublin 17 do so. Children from Laois and Donegal are less likely to go on to third-level than those from Galway and Mayo. Overall county figures hide the reality.

In Galway, for example, everyone knows which schools are for children from higher socioeconomic groups and which are for lower socioeconomic groups.

This class-based system is the same today as it was when I did the Leaving Cert in 1966.

Inequity of access has existed for years. Dr James Deeny, chief medical officer for health from 1944 to 1962, wrote in his 1971 monograph, The Irish Worker: A Demographic Study of the Labour Force in Ireland: “One can almost say an educational caste system exists.”

The Government must now deal with, and eliminate, educational apartheid. One way is to control school-admission policies and ensure a fair social mix in every school.

More than 40 per cent of the population have medical cards and all schools from preschool up could be forced to ensure that the social class mix is 40 per cent of pupils from families with medical cards and 60 per cent from middle- and higher-income families. This is not social engineering, it is just being fair.


Apart from the health implications, the unfairness of the education system means the country is not benefitting from the inputs of whole cohorts of talented people.

Ireland needs graduates from all classes to work in the public, private and civil society sectors. The HSE needs more nurses, doctors, and social workers from working-class backgrounds. A 40/60 quota system in all schools will help to make this happen. A fairer, more integrated society is better for everyone.

Unless the education system changes, the health of those in lower socioeconomic groups will deteriorate even further. In another 20 years, policymakers will be scratching their heads about the huge numbers of people with chronic diseases that the country cannot afford to treat and wondering how it all went wrong.

The HEA seeks submissions from all interested parties to the new national plan for equity of access to higher education (2014-2016).

Submissions should be sent by September 30th. See

Dr Jacky Jones is a former HSE regional manager of health promotion and a member of the Healthy Ireland council.

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