Thursday 27 November 2014

'College gates must be open to all school-leavers'

Published 20/08/2014 | 00:00

Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan has said she won't band fizzy drinks in schools
Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan has said she won't band fizzy drinks in schools

There is an uncomfortably familiar ring to much of what we read in the Higher Education Authority (HEA) document about advantage and disadvantage in terms of college entry. It would be easy to say, "sure we know that" or that "some things never change".

That is the point - things have not changed, when we might have expected that they would.

Why should two children starting life in any of the country's maternity hospitals today end up with different life opportunities, just because one will be going home to a farm, or a Victorian pile in south Dublin and the other to social housing? Equality of access drove the "free" second level education of the 1960s, "free" third-level fees of the 1990s, and there have been, and are, many well-intentioned strategies at national, community and college level sharing that aim.

Much progress can be measured as a result, including the nine in 10 second-level student now going on to sit the Leaving Certificate, a figure that has risen since the economic crash because of the lack of jobs for school-leavers.

We know that in some areas and in some families, they will all be packing their bags for college in the next few weeks, on the road to a fulfilling career. It may not be a priority for them now, but research also shows that the enhanced life chances enjoyed by graduates includes, for instance, better health.

But, in disadvantaged areas, or within certain socio-economic groups, among the nine in 10 Leaving Cert candidates who got their results last week, it is likely that only one or two or three will be registering in a college next month.

The needs of modern business and industry is raising the qualifications bar, even for entry level jobs, and those who do not make the leap to third-level education will be left further behind.

There is often comment that farmers and the self-employed do best out of the student grant system, giving them a financial cushion to facilitate their education ambitions for their children.

Improving equity of access is not about reducing their chances, but ensuring that everyone else enjoys the same access, and working closely with excluded communities to bring them into the fold.

New Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan has a lot on her plate, but this must be a priority.

Irish Independent

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