Change One Thing: The Leaving Certificate is a form of child abuse
The education system reinforces inequality and disadvantage
Fr Peter McVerry: ‘An overly academic curriculum favours young people from more middle-class backgrounds.’ Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Educational achievement is the single most significant factor in determining a person’s life choices. Most young people get only one shot at it, so a just society must ensure equal access to the education system and equal opportunity within that system.
Although we cannot expect the education system to solve the problems of dysfunctional families or the inequalities within society, we should expect it not to reinforce those inequalities. This is what I would seek to change in education.
Although we are led to believe that the education system can provide a path to equal opportunity, in reality it is a major force in preserving the existing social stratification of society.
If we want a more just education system – and many don’t – we have to look deeper. A housing policy that enables those in the higher socioeconomic categories to cluster together, far away from those in lower socioeconomic groups, creates not just a divided society but a divided and unequal education system, where some schools can benefit from the financial support and skills base of parents to a far greater extent than schools in more deprived areas. This gives some young people a significant advantage right from the start.
One of the most innovative recent policy decisions was Section V of the Planning and Development Act 2000, which required developers to transfer 20 per cent of residential housing output to the local authority for social or affordable housing. This would have made a major impact on the social-housing waiting lists and helped create a more socially integrated education system.
But under pressure from developers and builders, who feared their profits would be reduced, and from buyers in the private housing market, the measure was effectively scrapped.
Educational outcomes for young people are largely decided long before they start secondary school, but there remains much in our second-level education system that promotes inequality.
Although Catholic fee-paying schools are not the most significant issue to be tackled in addressing educational inequality – I am not sufficiently familiar with Protestant fee-paying schools to express an opinion – they are the most visible and blatant expression of that inequality. I acknowledge that some parents struggle and make sacrifices to send their child to a fee-paying school, but these schools ensure, to a large extent, that an already very privileged section of society can secure continued access to those privileges for their children.
Securing privileged access for some young people to the life choices that society offers inevitably narrows the door to those opportunities for less privileged children.
More fundamentally, major changes in both the curriculum and the way students are evaluated are required to make the education system fairer.
An overly academic curriculum favours young people from more middle-class backgrounds. The Leaving Certificate, with its points system, is a form of child abuse, creating enormous pressure on young people that they should not have to endure at their age. The quality of education has become identified with results.
Even worse, many students feel that the Leaving Certificate measures not just their intellectual ability but also their value as people. It is clear from interviews with young people who drop out of school that the predominant reason for dropping out is their experience of the education system itself. The longer they stay in the system, the worse they feel about themselves.
Perhaps those young people who drop out are the modern prophets in the system, asking the rest of us basic questions about the purpose of the education system, about the academic bias within the system, and about the morality of imposing such pressures on young people to satisfy the needs of third-level institutions and employers.
Fr Peter McVerry is founder of the Peter McVerry Trust for homeless young people