Diversity is key - in education and society
Dr Cliona Hannon of the 'Trinity Access 21' project argues for wider diversity in Irish education
Some of my closest friends have children in private schools. This may be because they were working class themselves and are keen that their children don't slide back down the class ladder. For some, it is because of a dearth of high-quality public schools in their area as a consequence of the dominance of private schools.
People also believe in private schooling because they consider themselves successful exemplars of such education and wish to replicate it. They believe it mainly delivers life-long social capital. Some also choose it for religious reasons.
It is argued that those sending their children to private schools 'just want the best for their children'. I believe 'the best' for my children is a strong public education system that helps them develop relationships with people from all social backgrounds and bring understanding into their adult lives.
Decisions about private education for one's own children have a wider impact. The private education system has buckled the public system in the US. Oxbridge graduates, derived mainly from private UK schools, dominate in all professional and leadership positions across the Irish Sea.
In their 2009 book The Spirit Level Richard G Wilkinson and Kate Pickett marshalled comprehensive data to demonstrate that more equal societies do better on all dimensions relating to quality of life. Countries that embrace the diversity of their local community have the highest standards of literacy.
Only 7pc of our second level schools are private. But 90pc of the top 10 feeder schools to Trinity and UCD are drawn from these schools. Their students comprise about 16pc of first year entrants. This skewed institutional progression is a corollary of the Leaving Certificate points system. I can't help but believe this may be 'the best' for a very small number of children, but not for the majority who will shape our future.
Widening participation is key to this. A colleague in Queen's University Belfast recently told me this "has become sexy" and is increasingly being prioritised.
'Widening participation' was the term adopted in the late 1990s in the UK and Ireland to describe programmes that aimed to address the problem of the higher education system leaving working class students behind. Development of these programmes coincided with a wave of optimism following the election of New Labour in the UK and Clinton in the US.
Twenty years later, developed economies are increasingly marked by the electoral success of far right populists. The UK is in constitutional crisis and about to exit the European Union, a process led by a group of Oxford graduates who are as far from the 'common people' as is possible. The US government is in its longest- ever period of shut-down. In France, the Gilets Jaunes have successfully marshalled their modern-day Blair into a large-scale public consultation process. At least in some part, these developments can be attributed to the increased inequalities that are the hallmark of late capitalism.
It is easy to see why more people may think that 'widening participation' is the least radical way to address big problems. Michelle Obama's autobiography Becoming eschewed the large-scale corrective effects politics might deliver in favour of more education for working class students. That is where she places her faith.
Last year, Cambridge University announced a mind-boggling £500m campaign to diversify access, with the aim of recruiting and supporting more working class and ethnic minority students. In 2016, Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford University adapted the Foundation Course from Trinity College Dublin and has now had three successful cohorts of working class students from areas of the UK where Oxford was failing to recruit.
In Ireland, 25pc of Trinity's intake is from 'non-traditional' backgrounds, in other words, working class students, students with a disability and mature students. All of the universities and institutes of technology have access programmes, connecting them with over 200 schools nationwide which are part of the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) scheme.
Although Ireland has a higher education participation rate, close to 65pc, under-representation of working class students in higher education persists, ranging from 15pc in Dublin 17 to 99pc in Dublin 6.
There has been some progress and a recent Higher Education Authority (HEA) report notes gains in the numbers of working class students progressing to higher education, while an OECD report cites Ireland and the UK as two of the top-five countries with programmes to effectively target under-represented groups.
Each access student has a 'ripple effect' on their family and community, inspiring others to achieve. Since 2014, we have recruited and trained hundreds of access undergraduates to deliver a mentoring programme back in their own communities and there are now nationwide versions of this approach supported by the Higher Education Authority's PATH initiative.
It is a commonly expressed view that there are too many graduates and that many more young people should be directed into apprenticeships. However, I have yet to meet a professional who is planning for their own child to progress to an apprenticeship. So, if the funnel is only so wide, who should be filtered out?
While not all graduates have professional jobs, the penalties attached to non-participation have increased and higher education is arguably a defensive necessity. OECD evidence clearly demonstrates that a higher education qualification, particularly one from a university, is still the best inoculation against the vagaries of the market and shape-shifting employment structures. It continues to deliver lifelong dividends in earnings, health, well-being and civic engagement.
Access programmes are doing their part to improve the higher education progression of talented working class students with unrealised potential.
Things will not get better through widening participation alone but it is an intervention that delivers intergenerational benefits to students and families and supports greater diversity in the higher education institutions.
Dr Cliona Hannon is Director of Trinity Access 21 at Trinity College Dublin