Thursday 25 December 2014

Gene Kerrigan: Furthering inequality in divided society

We can't squander the brain power of the lower classes either morally or practically, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 25/09/2011 | 05:00

As Europe teetered last week on the brink of prolonged economic depression, three intellectual giants stepped forward to give us the benefit of their thinking. They included George 'Hooky' Hook, the media celebrity who does a much-lauded routine as a rugger bugger and all-round loveable grump. And Peter 'Suds' Sutherland, stupendously wealthy banker.

On the face of it, George was concerned only with protecting the state subsidies of fee-paying schools -- while Peter sought to protect the entire country from the ravages of economic meltdown. But look a little deeper and you see they were standing shoulder to shoulder in defence of Civilisation As They Know It.

Hooky's contribution in our hour of need was a lengthy article in The Irish Times -- headlined, 'In defence of fee-paying schools'. He treated us to a tear-jerking account of his poverty-stricken childhood and the determination of his hard-working parents to get him an education beyond primary level.

From this, George has drawn his beliefs about the superiority of fee-paying, exclusionary schools.

The Irish Times is a serious newspaper, so it didn't just give George's side of the story. The rest of the page was taken up with . . . well, a second defence of subsidised second-level schools. This time from Gerry Foley, Belvedere College principal. This was titled, 'Time to end this divisive debate on private education'.

What divisive debate? It seems that back in June, Ruairi Quinn released a discussion paper on second level admissions policies. The Irish Times took fright. And gave George space to denounce Ruairi as a "self-confessed atheist and socialist".

Now, when George was a lad, people were often caught in possession of unapproved beliefs, denounced and urged to "confess". But, George, the world has moved on from McCarthyism. Besides, I've no idea what Mr Quinn's spiritual beliefs are, but his socialism is of the Bertie Ahern variety -- to be proclaimed when useful, but not terribly evident in practice.

George's article was odd. His parents' sacrifices show the value of fee-paying education, so . . . well, so what? George went to second level at least a dozen years before the Donagh O'Malley reforms of 1969, which opened up second level to all. Doesn't George know about O'Malley? Didn't anyone in The Irish Times read this piece before it was printed? Did no one enlighten George?

In George's day, you either paid for second-level schooling or you didn't get it. Today, parents buying private schooling have a different motivation. They seek the exclusion of outsiders -- defined largely by class. This isn't just a snobbery thing -- it's aimed at maximising the points achieved, by excluding all but the sons and daughters of the already well-heeled. And creating a loyalty network that will serve the pupils well in their post-school life.

Evidence? Well, Gonzaga College, for instance, has a no-northsiders-need-apply policy, stated openly. You have to live south of the Liffey. This can't be about serving communities in proximity to the school -- we've pointed out before that areas such as Drumcondra and East Wall are closer to Gonzaga than are southside Killiney and Dalkey.

George argues that hard-working parents are entitled to give their children an elite education. Here's George: "Is the system elitist? Yes it is. But the world is based on elitism of talent, intelligence, hard work and willingness to sacrifice."

George leaves out money -- the elitism, the access, the exclusionary networks, based purely on money. George genuinely believes such schools are not alone exclusionary but superior, despite the evidence.

Now, those of us who confess to unapproved beliefs have no problem with private education -- if that's your wish. Go ahead. Just don't ask people excluded from such schools to help pay for them. And the rest of us currently subsidise them to the tune of a hundred million euro a year.

Gerry Foley likens private education to piano lessons for one's kids. People have a right to spend their money as they see fit, he writes, and if that means piano lessons or private schooling, so be it. Well, the comparison is limp. When my neighbours treat their kids to piano lessons they don't knock on my door, asking me to contribute to the price of the Steinway. And piano lessons teach a skill -- they do not create an exclusionary social network.

Gerry puts the old argument that parents who send their children to fee-paying schools are taxpayers. "They are entitled to free post-primary education for their children." Yes, they are, Gerry. But they should not have the right to take that entitlement behind a fenced-off reservation from which others are excluded -- whether by lack of money, or by falling foul of any of the other exclusionary criteria commonly used.

Let's leave aside the hundred million euro subsidy. Let's even leave aside the creation of social divisions based on wealth. Why did Donagh O'Malley open up second-level education? Was it mere do-gooding? I don't think so.

The education system of O'Malley's day created a ruling elite drawn from a very narrow wedge of the middle classes. And inbred ruling elites are bugger all use. In 1963, almost half of university students failed their first-year exams. Their main qualification for rising through the system was their parents' money.

A modernising Ireland couldn't afford to squander the brain power of the lower classes. Even today, though, the influence of the exclusionary networks is disproportionate. When the economic storm hit, it was not unusual for the likes of banker Peter Sutherland (an old Gonzaga boy) to take to the airwaves to lecture the government on what needed to be done. That government included former Gonzaga alumni Eamon Ryan and Ciaran Cuffe.

Peter turned up on Morning Ireland last Thursday. His, said Cathal MacCoille, "is not a voice that can be easily ignored". And that's true -- because RTE and the rest of the media fall over one another at every chance they get to ladle the old lad's opinions over our heads.

What did Peter have to say that couldn't be easily ignored? He suggested that there be even more austerity. He wants it "front-loaded". He said -- and I kid you not -- that "we've begun to turn a corner".

In short, he said the kinds of things that Brian Lenihan said last year. And that Michael Noonan says this year. Nothing he said was beyond the capacity of the average Fine Gael backbencher.

In April 2008, Peter denounced those who "make things appear worse than they are" and dismissed talk of a "bubble". We could, said the banker, "confidently look forward to continuing growth above the EU average for the next five years and beyond". Five months later the banks collapsed.

Since then, the elite have sought to transfer the cost of 30 years of debt-based, deregulatory policies on to the citizens, claiming the bust is purely a fiscal problem. It's Greece, it's Ireland -- no, it's Spain, it's Italy. . .

The refusal to accept the systemic nature of the crisis, the delusion that we can keep -- and deepen -- the structural inequalities, including exclusionary education, has led us to the brink. And right across Europe, at a time when we're desperate for fresh thinking, the same stagnant, pampered knee-jerk elites prevail.

Sunday Independent

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