Saturday 18 August 2018

Ed Power: Joe Duffy's RTE documentary 'The Classroom Divide' falls short of expectations

Joe Duffy, The Classroom Divide, RTE
Joe Duffy, The Classroom Divide, RTE
Ed Power

Ed Power

Class divisions in Ireland are all the more insidious for being relatively invisible. Britain has its Bullingdon Club toffs cracking plates over one another’s heads; in the United States the gulf between privilege and poverty often follows racial lines.

The delineation in this country has historically been more subtle which is why Joe Duffy’s investigation of the stratification of Irish education carried such promise.

Finally, someone was confronting head on a divide which bedevils society yet which nobody seems to want to talk about.

Alas, The Classroom Divide didn’t quite live up to these expectations. Instead it ploddingly revisited well-worn territory.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to go on to third level – well yes, we know that – while those from posher parts of Dublin are inevitably drawn into the embrace of the mothership, Trinity College (the only third level institution in Ireland worth attending, the broadcast appeared to suggest).

It was a shame the producers weren’t keener to push past RTE documentary cliché in a film marking 50 years of free post-primary schooling.

Here and there were glimmerings of a more interesting programme. Ubiquitous historian Diarmaid Ferriter set aside his usual professorial reserve to argue vehemently against state support for fee paying schools (yes, you and I are digging deep so the orthodontists and senior counsel of tomorrow can attend Gonzaga).

And it was disconcerting to discover many supposedly "middle class" families are struggling to put their kids through third level – their plight not helped by soaring rents. At a school in Donegal, we met parents whose finances were under severe strain as their children reached college-going age. Nearly one third of third level students, it was reported, lived in poverty – with many required to work part time jobs, at the expense of their studies.

Yet punches were pulled too.

A nice monk from Glenstal Abbey (open to boys of any background, so long as mum and dad can fork out €11,000 year) beatifically explained that, though his students were privileged, the real challenge was to raise standards across the board.

But how did he reconcile his Christian faith  – Jesus being no friend of the high and mighty – with the fact that the institution of which he was a member was buttressing a fundamentally unjust system? 

The question didn’t appear to have been posed and on we pushed.

Also absent was the autobiographical element Duffy’s involvement promised.

The Classroom Divide started promisingly, with the Liveline presenter reflecting on his upbringing in hardscrabble Ballyfermot. Yet the story ended when young Joe reached the hallowed gates of – where else? –  Trinity College.

classroom divide 2.jpg
Joe Duffy on The Classroom Divide, RTE

Did this kid from the wrong side of the tracks struggle to blend in?

Was there snobbery – and what of the friends left behind in Ballyfermot? A pinch of first person experience would have considerably enriched the documentary.

Instead, it went through the motions without any devastating insights. Could do better.

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