Class divide in Irish Education

Jane Purdom investigates DEIS schools and the types of third level education they lead to

An introduction to the class divide in Irish Education

“Trinity News was therefore able to conclude that half of Trinity’s incoming first year students come from just 68 schools.”

In December 2016, the ongoing debate around a class divide in Irish education was illuminated by the emergence of new information. Through the analysis of figures published by the State Examinations Commission and several universities, Trinity News calculated that an Irish student is more than four times more likely to attend Trinity if they have attended one of Ireland’s 51 private schools. These fee-paying schools sent, on average, 13 students to Trinity from a class of 77, or 17% of the year.  The other 628 public schools sent an average of 4 students from a year of equal size. A further proof of the divide was found in that, of 26 schools which sent over 50% of their Leaving Certificate class to either Trinity or UCD (the two highest-ranked universities in Ireland), 22 were private. Trinity News was therefore able to conclude that half of Trinity’s incoming first year students come from just 68 schools. These findings certainly shed some light on the educational divide within Irish education. They also highlighted the problem at a university level, encouraging students and staff of an institution thoroughly entwined with the issue to become more aware of it.

In a wider context, this was only another chapter in an ongoing debate surrounding a divide in the Irish education system. Since 2006, when outward economic prosperity possibly nurtured the issue, statistics emerged highlighting the overwhelming imbalance of private and publicly educated students securing places in Ireland’s top universities. Numerically speaking, figures from these reports largely mirror those of today. It appears that the turmoil of recession did little to combat this trend, suggesting it to be rigid and deeply ingrained within Irish society. Commonly coined “the cheque book education” by publications such as the Independent, these findings led to the criticisms by many of private second level schooling, citing it, along with grind schools, in creating an unfair advantage and thus restricting access to Ireland’s top universities. Some government initiatives were brought in at a local level in order to improve state-funded education, notably that of Parent Child Home Programme (PCHP), a program aimed at young children in socially disadvantaged areas. Trialled in Dublin’s docklands and later expanded to areas in Limerick, the project aimed to improve children’s numerical and literacy skills before they began formal schooling.

Are UCD and Trinity appealing universities?

“She believed that there was indeed a lack of fundamental desire to attend UCD or Trinity, and suggested that the colleges themselves don’t do enough to attract students from working class areas.”

In order to properly understand the divide from the perspective of those most disadvantaged, I spoke with students that had attended a DEIS school (a school of notable educational disadvantage and included in the Department of Education and Skills Social Inclusion Strategy). Here I must acknowledge my own weakness as a journalist; I did not expect to hear an argument that differed hugely from the ones expressed in the mainstream media. What I expected was to hear about a lack of resources and how greater inclusion would facilitate larger numbers of DEIS and public schooled students advancing to universities like Trinity and UCD. What I found was the roots of a much deeper and inherently complex problem. What the articles and the headlines had failed to capture – or perhaps felt that they couldn’t say – was that many of these young people simply do not want to come to these establishments.

I was fortunate enough to begin my research by speaking to a girl who had attended both a private school and a DEIS school during her secondary education. She believed that there was indeed a lack of fundamental desire to attend UCD or Trinity, and suggested that the colleges themselves don’t do enough to attract students from working class areas: “It’s definitely two different worlds and I think that colleges see that. They are less likely to want us, and students see it too, and then don’t think they could go to a good college, so why bother putting the effort in?”

I couldn’t doubt that she posed a powerful argument, one that certainly had to be considered. Are a few pages of a glossy prospectus enough to entice a student who knows no one that went to Trinity, a student who may be the first person in their family to attend any form of third level education? The Trinity Access Programme (TAP) is not without merits, but one must question the value of any program that does not possess a deep, if not fundamental, understanding of the needs of those it means to serve. Furthermore, her words forced me to consider an idea that I didn’t want to: that despite priding ourselves as innovators of social diversity and inclusion, we still have further to go in truly embracing those from economic disadvantage. “They don’t seem to take much notice of schools like ours, we are way down low [in] the social standing, and it’s expected that kids in that school standing are petty criminals and drug dealers, which is sadly true in a lot of cases”.

If I had any doubts of the true extent of the divide in Irish education, they were forever silenced. If I had any doubts that this divide was along social grounds, they too were eradicated. This understanding forced me to consider the complexity of society and class, therefore entwining  myself and my article in the intricacies of this issue. Perhaps now, as a generation that prides ourselves on diversity and inclusion, and our willingness to embrace those in minorities, we are the greatest enablers of the social divide. We think that we truly understand the needs of those different to us, and  often presume that those who do not have what we have are automatically in need of our help.

Expectations seem to play a pivotal role in understanding the people behind these numbers. This was explained to me by means of social standing once more. “If you come from a good social standing people expect good things from you, if you’re from a lower social standing, people expect less […] [In the private school] you were expected to get As and Bs. In a disadvantaged school, the resources aren’t there […] but no one expects it either. Of course there are exceptions, there was a girl in my year who was very smart and she got into Trinity, but then again it was expected of her to go to a good college. She was intelligent and got quite good grades, she didn’t need extra help, even at higher level.”

Was this intelligent girl from the DEIS school always going to go to Trinity? Quite possibly, she was. Perhaps everyone in her life – her family, her friends, her teachers – and maybe even Trinity too, had decided she was a success story the minute she scored well in her Junior Cert.

Difficulty deciding on the right type of third level education

“Is it that perhaps the social pressure to attend a high-ranking university after receiving a ‘good’ second level education means that these options don’t even register with students as paths they may possibly want to go down?”

These issues of expectations and a failure to engage with those it wishes to attract certainly shed some light on the divide in Irish education. However, from speaking with students, I began to understand further that many young people from these schools simply do not want to go to universities like UCD or Trinity. I was fortunate to speak with a student who had, on completion of her leaving certificate, secured a place at Trinity which she subsequently declined. Having also secured places in other top universities, she explained to me her reasons for this choice lay primarily in faults of the Irish education system – as a practical learner, attending somewhere as exam-focused and theory-based as Trinity would have been damaging for both her career and personal development. Several other students that I spoke with also voiced this issue; it is likely that Trinity has a rigid theoretical image amongst school leavers, and that this image is appealing to only some of them.   

When we consider the sheer number of students that private schools are sending to UCD and Trinity, we have to consider the people behind these numbers too. Is it a case that they feel that they have to, in the same way that some disadvantaged students feel they can’t access Trinity? Is it possible that students in these schools are also restricting their choices,  not from top universities, but from practical-based courses, PLCS and apprenticeships? Is it that perhaps the social pressure to attend a high-ranking university after receiving a “good” second level education means that these options don’t even register with students as paths they may possibly want to go down? One student that I spoke with, who had also attended a DEIS school, immediately recognised the influence of parental guidance in academic choices: “I feel that parents who are willing to spend huge sums of money on their children’s education are often quite academically minded and put more emphasis on academic achievement. The parents of the kids who attend public schools often don’t value education as much, and this is passed on to their kids. Although I always wanted to do well in school, my parents often had a quite relaxed attitude towards my studies, and I was never really supervised to make sure that I did my homework or that I was studying.”

My brief but insightful research into the divide within the Irish education system taught me several things: the issue was inherently complex, there are lots of reasons why students choose universities like UCD and Trinity, and that no two students that I spoke with had identical experiences or opinions. Through my gradual unearthing of the layers beneath this divide – choice, expectations, perceptions of the institutions at hand – I came to appreciate the demand for what many would consider an unattainable education system – one that had the resources and abilities to embrace the needs of the individual. It is possible that this ideal will never be achieved as long as classes and social divides exist. However, participation in third level education across state-funded and DEIS schools is increasing, and it is therefore fitting to end this article on an optimistic note. While speaking with a DEIS schooled student who had secured a place in a top university, he mentioned an anecdote that he thought was irrelevant and wouldn’t fit in with what I was writing: “I will always remember a comment made to me on one of my first days in university. One of the girls in the course was from a disadvantaged area and had just about managed to scrape the points necessary to get in. We were all sitting in the pub, as students do, and we were discussing what we thought of the course so far. This girl turned to me and said ‘to be honest I don’t know what I’m doing here’; she mentioned how overwhelmed she felt already. 3 years on, the same girl is probably in the top 5 of the class with regards to academic achievement and, to the best of my knowledge, already has a job secured when she graduates.”

I’d like to think it fits in perfectly.