The annual list of feeder schools to Ireland’s higher education institutions was released by the Irish Times this week. The list illuminates a disturbing inequality across Ireland in third-level education. Out of around 700 schools in Ireland, 52 are private, but students from fee-paying schools – predominantly located in the wealthiest parts of Ireland – overwhelmingly occupy places in high-points courses. 20 of the top 25 schools whose students go to high-points courses are private, up from 16 in 2013.
In disadvantaged areas of Dublin, some schools see no students going to higher-points courses. In fact, only 15 per cent of students in these poorer areas may go to third-level at all. However, bridging this stark divide is not an easy task. Trinity itself has poured significant investment into the Trinity Access Programme (TAP) and associated programmes to increase student numbers from disadvantaged backgrounds. Their efforts are substantial and varied, acting as a model for other access programmes internationally. But the Annual Equality Monitoring Report, released earlier this month, indicates that there is still more work needed.
In the Trinity Long Room Hub on Friday, Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, spoke about the difficulty in increasing access to education, stating that “you can’t talk about universities independent from the rest of education”. Indeed, it is far earlier in the chain of decision-making that an individual chooses their course, if they choose one at all. Private school pupils benefit from an expectation that they will progress to high points courses in third-level education. They also have access to a higher standard of teaching and to grinds – both financially and culturally, and will be surrounded by many people who have the same opportunities as them. A school with money to play with can afford to acquire the best teachers. A struggling school, with the associated problems of a disadvantaged area, will not so easily tempt teaching staff.
Stratifying Ireland’s education system does nobody any favours. Efforts to address this must look towards more nebulous factors, such as expectation, culture, and access to educational support. The inequality here will not be addressed overnight, but understanding the intangible barriers is a key way to equalise who studies where.