Privileged parents finding ways to give children ‘unfair’ education advantage

Oireachtas committee hears of need to better represent children in care in policy making

Privileged parents will always find a way to give their children an advantage in education despite public policies aimed at promoting equality of opportunity, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

Kathleen Lynch, professor of equality studies at UCD, said the equality principle which governs education policy is theoretically based on merit.

However, she said access to grinds and trips to Irish colleges are among the ways better-off students can secure an educational advantage.

“Major social and economic inequalities inevitably undermine all but the thinnest forms of equality of opportunity in education because privileged parents will always find ways of advantaging their children in an economically unequal society,” she said.

Prof Lynch cited US research which shows that parental investment in children’s education outside of school is now a major barrier to equality within education, as it often exceeds state investment per capita inside school.

"There is a need for a systematic review and regulation of the private - for-profit - education market in Ireland at all levels of education," she said.

Without equalising conditions between students, particularly equalising economic conditions, she said students  cannot participate equally in education.

‘Private capital’

She gave examples of Irish and music as two Leaving Cert subjects that rely heavily on “out-of-school private capital investment”.

By contrast, poorer children, those with disabilities and from ethnic minority, lone parent or immigrant backgrounds face much steep barriers.

Prof Lynch’s comments were made in a written presentation to the Oireachtas committe on education on Tuesday which examined the educational experiences of vulnerable groups .

The Care Leavers’ Network highlighted the challenges facing young people in the State’s care system.

Wayne Dignam, founder of the network, said young people in care are particularly vulnerable and are more likely to be suspended, leave school early or to have mental health problems.

He said many of the 6,000 children in State care have had harmful life experiences before coming into care, on top of the disruption and uncertainty that comes with being taken into care.

“They have had to be removed from their family home by the State, because of their family circumstances such as mental health issues, neglect, abuse, drug and alcohol addiction,” he said.

“Children in care, and care leavers, experience trauma, loss and attachment difficulties.”

Earlier trauma

Mr Dignam said the education system was a key way to allow children recover from their earlier trauma. However, he said it was often only making it worse as it failed to understand the challenges of children in the care system.

He said there was no specific mention of children in care in national polices to boost equity of access to higher education. In addition, official statistics on the primary school population do not record whether children are in care or not.

“We suggest, therefore, that this committee recommends a high level national working group to specifically address the cross-departmental responsibilities of the State to children in care, and to develop a report, within one year, on actions required to improve educational outcomes. This group would have the support of many stakeholders within the care system,” he said.

The Department of Education said that significant progress has been made in relation to increasing participation in education by most socio-economic groups.

It pointed to investment in Deis or disadvantaged school which has helped boost the proportion of students remaining in school until their Leaving Cert has climbed to almost 85 per cent, This comparers to 93 per cent for non-Deis schools.

“While this represents a strong increase and a narrowing of the gap between Deis and non-Deis schools, it is evident that a gap still remains,” the department said.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent