School league tables: a snapshot of inequality

Education has a unique capacity to break down cycles of disadvantage. But much more ambition is needed to tackle the class divide in numbers progressing to college


Children born to highly-educated parents in affluent areas have a head start in life long before they reach the school gate. Nowhere is this more evident than in the annual feeder school league tables which show the progression of school-leavers into higher education.

Latest figures show the true depth of the social divide in Dublin, with pupils in schools in the most affluent areas up to five times more likely to go to third-level than those in the poorest areas. This is a scandalously unequal state of affairs.

Education has a unique capacity to break down cycles of disadvantage. Despite the introduction of “free fees” 20 years ago, the gap has narrowed only slightly. If anything, our system is replicating privilege. In recent years, pupils from private schools have tightened their grip on the top university places. Half of the top 20 schools that sent the most students to third level education this year were fee-paying. Yet private schools account for just 7 per cent of pupils nationally.

The Government has spoken often about its aim of building a fair and compassionate society. The rhetoric of equality, however, can flow freely off the tongue. While there are various strategies to improve the representation of working-class young people in higher education, they are modest by any measure. Higher education institutions, which are already underfunded, are in many cases forced to scrape money together for these schemes.

The Deis (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) scheme is producing encouraging results, though the attainment gap with other schools remains far too wide. Much more ambition is needed to tackle this class divide, backed up by proper funding and political will. A parent’s ability to pay should not pre-determine a child’s level of educational achievement.

Tackling true inequality is complex and will involve surrendering privilege. That may involve more places for poorer children at the best universities, which means fewer places for those coached in private schools.