By Tomás M. Creamer
Privilege should never be subsidised by the state. It is unsurprising that there is little sympathy for past pupils of Blackrock College as they resist measures aimed at ending discrimination in the admissions into their elitist institution.
The current Education Minister, Jan O’Sullivan, proposes to bring in new laws in the coming months to end the practise whereby siblings or sons of past students are prioritised a placement in school. This legislation intends to allow for a more diverse social mix into such schools. How Mrs. O’Sullivan expects working class parents to pay the ridiculous fees involved is anyone’s guess.
Some might argue that ‘do-gooder’ education ministers should not interfere with the admission policies of fee-paying schools. After all, aren’t they self-financing? Actually, the state still spends money on fee-paying schools, such as paying the wages of their teachers.
So it is somewhat hypocritical of the ‘rockmen’ (former students of Blackrock college) to be arguing against ‘unjust State interference’ that threatens ‘the ethos and traditions of Blackrock College’, when it is the state that subsidises their self-imposed education segregation from most ordinary people, who can’t dream of paying the fees required.
It’s almost akin to a Ross O’Carroll-Kelly article: life imitating art, you could say.
In principle, I think that Eton-style private schools are a threat to social mobility. They create an ‘old boy’s’ network that can dominate various areas of society, and therefore ensure that their interests are placed ahead of everyone else’s. There is nothing wrong in principle with networking with former school colleges, but when you segregate education based on wealth, you entrench social divides, and allow for a tradition whereby whole generations send their kids to the same school.
Not only are these kids already given more advantages than most from birth – through their parent’s monetary wealth – you also allow them to get to know others who are similarly privileged. This exasperates the sheer advantage that these kids have over those who come from urban working-class schools and broken families.
The disparities in education in this country can be seen clearly from the gap between areas in Dublin in terms of third-level progression levels. In Dublin 6, virtually everyone (99%) goes onto university. In Dublin 17, less than 15% do the same.
Dublin 6 kids are not somehow all inherent geniuses. Dublin 17 students are not just dunces. This has everything to do with the entrenched class divides evident in the capital.
Richer parents can not only afford to send kids to Blackrock and other exclusive schools, but also grinds , while many students in certain working-class schools would struggle to even finish the homework required.
Of course, wealth isn’t everything. In my native Leitrim, progression rates reach 60%, which is the joint first in the country (along with Mayo and Galway) among all the different counties. And Leitrim is far from rich. After all, the county’s population has been in terminal decline throughout the 20th century, until the boom encouraged some people back.
However, it is almost a wholly rural county, and in general, the family and community ties in rural Ireland tend to be much stronger than in the cities, which counts for a lot. I had some difficulties in primary school. Not major ones, but if it weren’t for the support given to me, by my parents, the principle in my local school and the ‘Student Needs Assistant’ (SNA) he employed, I seriously doubt that I’d have managed to come as far as NUI Galway.
The current government policy of cutting back on SNA’s in Primary Schools and guidance counsellors in secondary schools, while continuing to subsidise privileged fee-paying schools like Blackrock, particularly sticks in the craw.
Some may argue that these upper middle-class parents, unlikely the (supposedly feckless) working-class parents, actually subsidise the cost of providing education, through their taxes and through the payment of fees. This is a very self-centred argument that ignores the wider context. Many children of working-class parents are being let down by the system, due solely to their socio-economic background, over which they have no control.
The idea of subsidising private education for the rich is one that should be completely anathema to any civilized western country (except maybe the UK or the US), and while you might quibble about the supposed costs, I believe that the inequality in and of itself is reason enough to cut off all state support for the socio-economic segregation of education.