Sunday 25 September 2016

Two-tier education system in marked contrast with 1916 vision

In my opinion...

Published 04/05/2016 | 02:30

Dr Brian Fleming
Dr Brian Fleming

An essential part of the 1916 celebrations must be some consideration as to what sort of a society we have now. My particular focus, in this regard, relates to how our education system meets the needs of those who face particular challenges because of their socio-economic circumstances.

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As principal of a post-primary school in a severely disadvantaged area, I observed the two-tier nature of our education system and often wondered why it contrasted so markedly from the vision contained in the 1916 Proclamation and the Democratic Programme of 1919. Retirement allowed me to consider this question more deeply by engaging in some research* (see below).

There have been three distinct phases in the formation of education policy since Independence. During the first period, until 1959, no real steps were taken to bring about equality of educational opportunity. Indeed some opportunities to do so were avoided for fear of upsetting denominational interests which were the dominant force. By contrast, for a time during the second phase, 1960-80, the Lemass Government adopted a more central role in determining policy.

While the primary motivation for this new approach was economic, significant social benefits resulted following the 'free' education announcement of 1966. It soon became clear that these changes were insufficient to bring about full equality of educational opportunity.

In 1971 this was pointed out by members of the Investment in Education team whose work had been crucial in bringing about reform in the 1960s. However, by then government attention had moved on to other issues and for the remainder of that decade the education world was dominated by a struggle for power between vested interests.

The final phase of the period under review, from 1981 to 2007, saw some important changes. As the influence of denominational interests began to decline, the teacher unions became more powerful. Other interests, such as parents' groups, management bodies were consulted but, in reality, had limited influence. The DES reverted to its traditional role of juggling between interest groups.

A number of initiatives were introduced which improved the educational experiences of many disadvantaged pupils. However, they were incremental in nature and not radical enough to bring about equality of educational opportunity. By 2007 it was still the case that educational attainment reflected social background, young people from working-class backgrounds were less likely to complete the full post-primary cycle, with many thousands dropping out before reaching the minimum school leaving age of 16, and there was a social class divide in access to third-level education. In 2016, the picture is largely unchanged.

This relative failure to achieve national objectives can be ascribed, in the main, to underinvestment, particularly during the Celtic Tiger years. A secondary issue has been a failure to target resources sufficiently to those most in need.

A couple of factors can be advanced to explain this state of affairs. The most obvious one is that there has been a failure of political leadership on educational issues over the decades. Education policy has never been high on the agenda of any government with the exception of a period in the 60s. The portfolio is seen as having minor status in cabinet. To my mind this reflects a more fundamental reality.

The evidence suggests that educational policy is not of major concern to Irish citizens and politicians act accordingly. We are of course very interested in ensuring the best possible start in life for our own children and those in our wider circle. It seems that this concern does not extend to the generality of young people, and that Irish society is unwilling to prioritise their needs.

Dr Brian Fleming is former principal of Collinstown Park Community College, Dublin, and author of *Irish Education, 1922-2007: Cherishing All the Children, available from educationhistory.ie

Irish Independent

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