Class and education in Ireland: ‘Disadvantaged students cannot thrive’
No Child 2020: We invited ‘Irish Times’ readers to give their views on the issue
At a disadvantage: while middle-class girls thrive, working-class boys struggle. Photograph: Moment/Getty
No Child 2020 is an initiative by The Irish Times providing a sustained focus on child welfare and children’s issues. We explore the problems facing children in the Republic today and offer solutions that would make this a better country in which to be a child. For more see www.irishtimes.com/nochild2020.
Despite official efforts at combating disadvantage in Irish schools, a huge class chasm remains. While middle-class girls thrive, working-class boys struggle. We recently invited readers to give their perspectives on this issue. Here is a selection of your responses.
Dr Catherine Rossiter
I believe that class is an issue in Irish society from before a child is born. If the parents of the child, and particularly the mother, are not well nourished and in good health the child enters the world already at a disadvantage. This disadvantage, once started, will statistically continue in pre-school, primary and secondary school. It will also impact on whether the adult child will consider third-level education. Thus I believe that the question of whether class is an issue in education is actually asking the question too late in a child’s development.
In my experience working in third-level education, students from any social-class grouping can find accessing and continuing in education challenging for a myriad of reasons, such as financial reasons, peer and family expectations, health and family difficulties, low self-confidence and learning self-esteem. Social class can in some instances help educators to identify students who may need more support than others. However, in the midst of the need to label students by social class we must not forget that education is a right for all children. And finally, we in society and those in Government must never forget that all children can and will benefit from the opportunities of education. This will only happen if we focus on the student and their education rather than viewing them and their educational needs through the prism of their social class label.
Since its implementation in 2005, the Deis action plan has managed to successfully tackle disadvantage by significantly improving student attainment and attendance, as well as pedagogical practices that underpin teaching and learning overall. It has brought communities together and it has successfully traversed the class divide in many Irish communities. However, one of the first things I learned when I studied educational disadvantage during teacher training was that disadvantage is faceless. The majority of children that will experience educational disadvantage here in Ireland will not attend a Deis school. Therefore, a needs-based system of delivering equality of opportunity in schools must be considered if we are to progress in tackling inequality.
The issue of class in the Irish education system is difficult to deny. Look at teachers themselves and how they came to be in their position. I’m a Montessori teacher in an affluent area of Cork city and I’m working simultaneously towards my masters in primary teaching. This is a privileged position I find myself in, as the masters alone costs €15,000, with an inclusive €100 registration fee and two stints in Irish college at €750 a go in addition to the paid fees. Financing a loan of this sum requires certain assets which the majority of people in their mid-20s don’t have.
So before it even begins the system has eradicated a huge proportion of potential teachers through sheer cost. The remaining are white, middle class, predominantly women, such as myself (with an increasing number of men, thankfully). This fails to reflect the diversity of Irish classrooms. Students from all backgrounds are exposed to one class of person for the entirety of their education.
Examining the route to becoming a teacher highlights even more clearly the inequalities in education. How can child A, who works hard, goes to school every day, but comes from a lower-income family, compete with Child B, the middle-class child who works equally as hard but has access to grinds, intensive Easter/summer courses, trips to Irish college etc? When the CAO points are released, who is more likely to get the spot at the teacher training college?
The answer is not to criticise the middle-class parent for providing the best possible opportunity for their own children: it is to question why the CAO is the only direct route. Changing a system involves substantial money and risk. What government would be willing to do this, especially as those in power are the same individuals whom the system is built for. The exam-passers and middle class.
Is class an issue in the Irish education system? Class is THE issue in the Irish education system. The student from the school in Dublin 5 is not innately inferior to their counterpart in Dublin 6 – believe me, I’ve shared classrooms and lecture halls with them both. By the time sixth-year rolled around in my Deis school, most of my fellow classmates were disheartened and had set their sights low. University was never spoken about, because people like us didn’t go to university. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Despite being inculcated with low expectations and a fear of failure, I quietly decided I wanted to go to college shortly after the beginning of sixth year. With the help of Susi, I made it to DIT. I graduated last year with first-class honours. I’m currently studying towards a masters in DCU and have upcoming interviews with some of the biggest companies in the world. I feel compelled to write this because most of my friends from secondary school are locked out of this experience, while others who attend schools a mere 15-minute drive away consider it a rite of passage. I believe our Deis schools need a radically new approach.
While I don’t have much room here to propose ideas, some changes could include the following: intervention programmes aimed at students who have disengaged with school, developed at a Department of Education level; transition-year work-shadowing programmes developed in partnership with the plethora of MNCs on our doorstep; replications of the excellent Project SUMS initiative. Speaking as the first member of my family to get a degree, I know change is possible.
I’m a sixth-year student who plans to study economics in TCD or UCD, but getting there is tough. I went to a Deis school up until fifth year.
When I was doing my Junior Cert, only four or five out of 60 students in my year opted for higher level in each subject. I felt this false sense of intelligence.
On my first day in a non-Deis (yet still a community) school I felt left behind. I was in a maths class where the students around me had been taught higher-level maths five or six times a week for their Junior Cert, when I had only been taught it for 30 minutes during one lunchtime a week because 95 per cent of my class was ordinary level.
I honestly am so grateful that the teacher bothered with the few of us who really wanted to do well.
I am completely intelligent enough for maths, and I had a lot of making up to do to get on par with the rest of my class. That is not fair. Talented kids are being stripped of their worth due to their financial and geographical backgrounds.
I believe if I had been given the opportunity since the beginning of secondary school I would have done so much better in school. Kids can’t thrive when they are from disadvantaged areas, and when they do it’s worth a lot more. We can’t afford grinds, we don’t get after-school study, we can’t do revision courses.
I was born into homelessness and poverty, which would persist for the rest of my childhood, and I am one of the rare few to have been schooled in Ballyfermot, Dublin 10, and to hold a first-class degree from Trinity College and a masters and PhD from the University of Oxford. Where did it all go right for me? A job working as a shop assistant in Trinity opened my eyes to a world I’d never have known otherwise. You can’t be what you can’t see.
If you listen to the language of, say, university presidents, you’ll notice how middle class it is. “Jobs that don’t exist”, “complex problem-solving”, “leadership”, “creativity”, “teamwork”, “empathy”, “emotional intelligence”, “people management”: this is all middle-class stuff, and school kids are bombarded with it and told that the key attribute to have is adaptability because they’ll have at least 12 (white-collar) careers in their lifetime. There’s never anything about work ethic, reliability, craftsmanship etc. And the problem is that the universities are now addicted to students – we need more and more of them so we keep our heads above water. Secondary school is seen now as no more than prep for higher level. We need to somehow decouple the senior cycle from entry to university before any of these issues around parity of esteem can be addressed.
As somebody who has experienced many challenges with education in my early childhood and late teens, and is currently studying in university having left school after transition year, I can say with certainty that I believe the Irish education system benefits the more advantaged and middle-class students. I returned back to education at age 21, completing part-time access at Maynooth University and full-time access with DIT (currently at City Campus in Technological University Dublin). My success in these programmes would not have been possible without access to the internet and my inquisitive nature to learn via YouTube and Google. Furthermore, applying for internships now, and realising how big companies perpetuate this divide after school in terms of the points requirements for summer work programmes, it clearly shows me the divide between working- and middle-class students.