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.
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. A parent’s ability to pay should not pre-determine a child’s level of educational achievement. Parents choose to pay for private education because they believe it confers an advantage on their children.
Ireland has only 55 fee-paying schools, with about 25,000 students between them, but their graduates have a disproportionate influence in society. A recent report in this newspaper noted that more than half of the Cabinet attended private schools.
Kevin Denny, an economics lecturer at University College Dublin has written extensively about education. Denny believes that fee-paying schools also facilitate a sort of class consolidation. “The people who send their kids to Gonzaga or Blackrock, it’s not just for Leaving Cert results. It’s for their social circle and whether you want them to play rugby and want them to grow up with certain groups of people,” says Denny. “It’s hard to justify why kids are so dependent on the lottery of birth,” he says.
Kim Bartley, the maker of the RTÉ documentary series, The Scholarship, explains" They will have a network of friends born into families of lawyers or doctors . . . It’s completely over their heads now, but some of the kids they are in the same year as have well-known or wealthy parents in positions of power in society. That’s the reality.”
Derry Amphlett, principal of Our Lady Immaculate primary school in Darndale says: “There is a question of social justice there. Just because a child is born and grows up in Darndale, should they not have the same possibilities and access to opportunity as children born and brought up in other areas?”