Sunday 20 October 2019

Ruairi won't make the grade targeting fee-paying schools

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn

How do you close the yawning educational gap between middle-class children and children from less well-off backgrounds? Several news items this week focused attention on the question.

The first was a finding from the Department of Education that pupils from fee-charging schools are the most likely to go on to higher education.

The second was a finding from the 'Growing Up In Ireland' study that children with well-educated parents are the most likely to do well in school.

The third was a highly controversial proposal by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn that the State divert money from child benefit to pay for a second free pre-school year for young children.

The first finding was absolutely predictable. Pupils who go to fee-charging schools are overwhelmingly from middle-class backgrounds and will almost invariably have well-educated parents.

The Department of Education report should also have told us how many pupils from middle-class schools in general go on to higher education. It is probably not very much lower than the 65.5pc of pupils from fee-charging schools.

In fact, the percentage of pupils (57.5pc) who go from Irish-speaking schools to higher education tends to confirm this. Those pupils are also predominantly from middle-class backgrounds.

So the department's report simply confirmed what we already know, namely that middle-class children tend to do better in schools.

The focus on fee-charging schools will, however, lead to another attack on them and more calls for the number of teachers in those schools to be reduced. This will do precisely nothing to tackle educational disadvantage. Therefore, it is simply another Labour-led attack on middle-class aspiration.

But if one day Labour was to get its way and wipe out all the fee-charging schools (an eventuality that would cost the taxpayer millions per annum, by the way) it would still have to tackle the built-in advantages of the middle class.

Since destroying the fee-charging schools would have no detectable effect on this, how would Labour propose to cancel out the advantage middle-class children get by virtue of the fact that they are middle class?

Hopefully it won't be insane enough to copy the socialist government in France, which has proposed doing away with primary school homework. You see, homework allows middle-class families to build on their advantages because well-educated mothers and fathers can help Sean or Sophie do their homework in ways their less well-educated counterparts cannot.

Doing away with homework would be a levelling down; that is, an attempt to take away the inbuilt advantages of the middle class.

A better way is obviously to level up. That seems to be what Ruairi Quinn has in mind with his proposal for an extra year of free pre-school.

There is some merit in this idea but we should proceed with eyes wide open because some very exaggerated claims are made for the benefits of pre-school. It could also turn out to be a surreptitious way of landing us with a state-subsidised system of universal child-care that a lot of people don't want or need.

Listening to Mr Quinn on 'Morning Ireland' the other day making one unchallenged statement after another, it was obvious that he has been heavily influenced by books like 'The Spirit Level', which make the case for lavish government spending as a way of tackling inequality.

The minister ought to know that 'The Spirit Level' thesis has been serious challenged by, among other books, 'The Spirit Level Delusion'. He should buy it.

It would seem that the minister has also been listening to the likes of Start Strong, an NGO that extols the supposed virtues of pre-school and wants a Swedish-style, universal child-care system in place in Ireland.

What are the virtues of pre-school? Despite claims to the contrary, the only real one appears to be that children from disadvantaged backgrounds will benefit from spending a few hours a day away from home in an orderly setting where they might learn a few things.

Apart from that, there appear to be no lasting benefits and least of all to middle-class children.

Therefore, what Mr Quinn wants can be achieved by targeting the second year of pre-school specifically at children from severely disadvantaged backgrounds. Anything beyond this is simply a way of introducing a free, universal day-care system by stealth.

Except, of course, such a system wouldn't be free at all. Instead, it would cost the taxpayer an enormous amount of money and would probably lead to the wiping out of child benefit altogether.

It would also force parents who want to look after their small children at home to subsidise parents who don't.

Furthermore, because of the punitive taxes involved in free, universal child-care, parents would find it harder and harder to look after children at home and therefore they would have to place them in day-care, like it or not.

This is exactly what happens in Sweden where many parents would rather not put their children in day-care for hours and hours every day.

Mr Quinn ought to talk to Swedish child-care expert Jonas Himmelstrand to get a different view of child-care in Sweden. It's not the fix-all he thinks it is.

The bottom line, therefore, is that tackling educational disadvantage is tough, expensive, often futile and has hidden costs.

This isn't to say we shouldn't try, but targeting the middle class, child benefit and parents who want to mind children at home is emphatically not the way to do it.

Irish Independent

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