To be Honest: Private school scholarship schemes only point up the crushing inequality in education

A retired principal of a DEIS school writes...

David Zaworski, one of the boys who featured in The Scholarship, an RTE documentary series about Belvedere College’s bursary scheme under its social diversity programme. Publicity shot from Loosehorse/RTE.

David Zaworski, one of the boys who featured in The Scholarship, an RTE documentary series about Belvedere College’s bursary scheme under its social diversity programme. Publicity shot from Loosehorse/RTE.

Tue, Apr 22, 2014, 02:00

As a retired principal of a second-level DEIS (Delivering Equality In Schools) school serving a designated disadvantaged area, I watch with interest the regular debates about private versus public education. Those who can afford it sometimes feel they can buy a better education – better pupil-teacher ratio, more subject choice, better facilities – and the privilege that goes with it.

A recent documentary series, The Scholarship on RTÉ, for example, on disadvantaged students competing for scholarships at a private boys’ school, Belvedere College in Dublin, pointed up the inequalities at the heart of the education system.

As a television documentary it was compelling, but afterwards I felt angry and frustrated that such crushing inequality still exists.

The average DEIS school population is made up of many bright and ambitious students like those applying for the Belvedere scholarships. It will also have around 10 per cent from the Travelling community, and 25 per cent presenting with some special educational need, from mild to severe. English will not be the first language for around 25 per cent of students. It will most likely be supported by the National Behaviour Support Service to help cope with the number of students with challenging behaviour.

Few parents will have gone to third level and many will not have completed second level. Many students will have difficult family situations, including poverty.

The DEIS school deals with all this by attempting to break the cycle of inequality and has faced several cuts in recent budgets. The pupil-teacher ratio is more favourable than in fee-paying schools but this obscures other cuts, which have hit hard.

Those cuts include resource hours for Traveller students and the loss of the visiting teacher for Travellers. These cuts may undo good work in the smooth transfer of Traveller students from primary to secondary. The challenge of keeping them in school until Leaving Cert remains; the vast majority of this cohort now remain in school until Junior Cert, but this could unravel.

Roma students are particularly vulnerable, having lost English language support.

DEIS schools, with the excellent support of the School Completion Programme, attempt to fill the gaps which do not exist in more privileged areas.

Three months of summer holidays only exacerbates the disadvantage. Students mostly do not have the luxury of a month in the Gaeltacht, a summer course learning a foreign language, a sports or art and crafts camp or holidays in a foreign country with its mind-broadening experience.

DEIS students arrive back at the end of August and teachers almost have to begin again, such is the educational and experiential chasm that has developed.

The School Completion Programme, funded by the Social Inclusion Unit of DES, along with third-level access programmes, do their best to bridge such chasms. It is an uphill struggle. Book rental schemes alleviate some costs, but even with them, families still have to find €60 or more for books per child.

If all schools had the financial resources of a private school a lot could be done. A fee-paying school of 1,000 students with fees of €5,000 per student, gives a school €5 million to put the icing on the cake. That’s a lot of icing.

The fact that Belvedere and other private schools, in their munificence, offer scholarships is commendable. To call it a “social diversity programme” is an exaggeration. It merely highlights the deep inequalities in our society.

Money alone will not solve the problem. Current austerity measures are exacerbating the situation.

This column give a voice to those interested in education. Contributions welcome to

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