Tackling class gap in higher education must start much earlier than third level

Opinion: Despite well-crafted speeches, we still don't have equal access to education

News this week that the class gap in higher education has not narrowed and that students from more affluent families dominate high points courses is hardly a surprise. Despite the introduction of "free" secondary education in 1967 and the abolition of third level fees in 1995, access to third level education in Ireland continues to be contingent on socio-economic status.

This is defined as a measure of one’s combined economic and social status and tends to be positively associated with better health. The three common measures of socioeconomic status are education, income, and occupation all of which have been consistently found to be allied to academic attainment in the Irish context, and indeed beyond.

Policy response

The response of the Irish government to educational disadvantage has been to adopt a policy of positive discrimination, whereby additional resources are allocated to schools which cater for a high number of students from low socio-economic status backgrounds.

Educational disadvantage is defined in the Education Act of 1998 as “the impediments to education arising from social or economic disadvantage which prevent students from deriving appropriate benefit from education in schools.”


The Deis (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) scheme was introduced in 2005 as a formal, systematic response to educational disadvantage, providing a range of evidence-based supports to target educational disadvantage. Although there are levels and degrees of disadvantage across Deis schools, broadly speaking they schools typically cater for higher than average numbers of students from lower socio-economic status backgrounds, students who are non-native speakers of English, students from the travelling community, and students with complex needs and emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Deis schools will also experience lower attendance levels, higher numbers of newly qualified teachers and higher rates of staff attrition. They tend to be structured in accordance with ability grouping with a marked difference in the curriculum offered, and with a tendency for the Leaving Certificate Applied to dominate. Teaching practices in Deis schools can be more didactic and teacher-led, and career guidance is often geared more towards pastoral care and counselling than CAO preparation. All of the above inevitably have a fundamental impact on the capacity and likelihood of students in these schools to access third level education.

Narrowing the gap

While there has been some narrowing of the gap in terms of examination performance and retention rates to Junior Cycle and Leaving Cert level between Deis and non-Deis, students from Deis schools are still over-represented among early school leavers and substantial socio-economic status-related gaps have been identified for those students who complete Leaving Certificate.

The gap is most glaring in terms of access to third level education where the impact of socio-economic status background on educational attainment and achievement is most stark. Fundamental questions must be asked in relation to the slow rate of progress being achieved. Recent research we have undertaken demonstrates conclusively that Deis post-primary schools are grossly under-resourced by comparison with others in the free-education scheme.

Is the system itself indirectly promoting and perpetuating inequality? Is it now time to take a closer, more comprehensive and rigorous look at the lived reality of educational disadvantage and recognise that any policy response must be multi-faceted and meaningfully resourced, working in concert with those at the coal face, and most importantly acknowledging that this is not an issue schools alone can address?

Time to act

Donogh O’ Malley, minister for education, took radical and risky steps in 1967 in order to open up secondary schooling to all, irrespective of social class. We have had numerous well-crafted speeches from politicians across the political spectrum in the intervening decades, all pledging their own and their party’s commitment to ensuring equal access for all to education, irrespective of social class, however, we have yet to witness the vision, leadership and determination of O’ Malley in realising this objective.

Recognising the urgent need to tackle educational disadvantage, private industry through their philanthropic foundations have more recently demonstrated leadership in this area. The Z Zurich Foundation, for example, announced a euro307,000 investment to launch Power 2 Progress last month, an initiative taking place in Deis schools.

Such initiatives can be life-changing for students in participating schools, breaking the cycle of educational disadvantage.

Professor Judith Harford is VP for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the College of Social Sciences and Law, UCD and Dr Brian Fleming is a post-doctoral researcher in the School of Education, UCD.