A recent report, published by the Irish Times, uncovered the fact that there is a steady rise in the number of students progressing from fee-paying secondary schools to high-points courses. More private school students are attending the top courses in the top institutions than ever before, so much so that privately educated students are now disproportionately dominating Ireland’s higher education sector, once again widening the participation gap between private and public school systems.
According to the Irish Times’s annual feeder schools supplement, 20 out of the 25 secondary schools that send the highest proportion of students to high-points courses are fee-paying. This figure has risen from 16 private schools since 2013. Considering there are 700 secondary schools nationwide and private schools only account for seven per cent of these, their dominance most definitely is not relative, and is becoming increasingly difficult to explain.
Twenty years ago, the Irish government introduced the free university fees initiative as a renewed focus on access policy in the hope that it would enable lower-income students and students from schools in disadvantaged areas to attend third-level education. However, latest statistics paint a very different picture. Speaking to The University Times by email, Cliona Hannon, Access Officer & Coordinator of the Foundation Course in Trinity Access Programme (TAP), addressed the shortcomings of the current access policies. Hannon commented on how “free fees” have made little difference for low-income students. On the other hand, it has enabled a lot of other parents to re-direct their college funds into second-level private schools. Thus, a system that was once introduced to close the participation gap has only acted to aggravate the situation.
One thing must be clear: questioning the dominance of private school students in top university courses is not an attempt to begrudge them of their achievements. But we must question an education system in which the largest student population is the least represented in high-points courses. Statistically, a greater proportion of public school students should be progressing to these same top university courses. So why is it that, time and time again, private school students are coming out on top?
“Free fees” have made little difference for low-income students. On the other hand, it has enabled a lot of other parents to re-direct their college funds into second-level private schools
Organisations like TAP are at the centre of this debate . TAP’s mission statement, set out over 20 years ago, is based on striving to widen access and participation at third-level education in under-represented groups in Irish society. At the core of this organisation is the idea that people with the ability to succeed should be given every opportunity to do so. But does ability guarantee opportunity? The Irish Times’ recent supplement would appear to tell us that it does not.
Hannon examines how private schools seem to have unlocked the secret to Leaving Certificate success: “The Leaving Cert points system has been in place for over 40 years and private schools have simply cracked the code for this machine”, she said. Thanks to the fees paid by parents and the state support received, private schools provide better resources for their students. Each year the Irish government contributes €90 million to the private school sector. This enhanced funding allows private schools to offer smaller class sizes and maximum subject choices. It can be argued that the state should withdraw such funding, essentially making the private school sector fully private, as is the case in the UK. Hannon echoes this sentiment, stating that “people who choose to send their children to private schools should bear the full economic cost. It is no disrespect to the talented students from those schools who achieve places on high status courses, but we have collectively bought into a gaming of our education system”.
On top of this advantage, students coming from private schools are, for the most part, from families with generations of university graduates, according to Hannon. This factor plays its own role in the domination of private school students in the top university courses. It acts as a “peer effect”, focusing these students on high-status, high-points courses. The heightened exposure to these courses is an advantage in itself. Unfortunately, it is the case in many public schools from disadvantaged areas that this same exposure to high-points courses at universities is not promoted.
These factors certainly begin to explain why the majority of private schools hold a 100 per cent progression rate to universities. Considering the revelation of these recent statistics, a private school education may now be considered by some as an insurance policy ensuring a place in a top course at a top institution. This should not be the reality of the higher education system in Ireland. Instead, educational policy reform is needed to ensure greater equality in university progression rates and to close the participation gap.
A private school education may now be considered by some as an insurance policy ensuring a place in a top course at a top institution. This should not be the reality of the higher education system in Ireland
Hannon outlines how the main barrier to high-points courses is academic attainment, and it is much less difficult to achieve high points if you are in a well-resourced school, with significant understanding and support in your family and school community, than from a school in a lower-income community. Often, in schools from disadvantaged areas, fewer students aspire to progress to third-level education due to complicated factors relating to poverty, such as poor healthcare and housing; limited childcare and educational supports; higher levels of students with special educational needs and students from different ethnic backgrounds.
Here at Trinity, TAP works hard to improve access for all students. The organisation highlights the role played by education institutions in overcoming the challenges faced these students who come through the programme. Universities can partner with schools and communities with low higher education progression rates to build strong college-going culture. Such models have been put in place at Trinity such as the Trinity Access 21 project, College Awareness Week, professional development within DEIS schools and alternative entry routes.
In contrast to the seemingly failing “free fees” initiative, these access programmes are working to close the participation gap nationwide. Presently, there are over 1,000 TAP students in Trinity and more than 1,000 TAP students have graduated in the last few years. Educational policymakers should be shifting their focus to these access programmes and doing more to enhance their success.
Academic ability is spread across the social spectrum, and we should not be satisfied that so many young people from these areas are not getting the opportunity to progress to these courses for which they may very well be suited, as outlined by the Irish Times. At present, the way our progression to higher education is organised fails these students and the publications of the annual feeder school supplement should make us seriously question the maintenance of such a system. In this day and age, ability should be equated to opportunity.