COLETTE BROWNE: End meritocracy myth and drop subsidies to fee-paying schools

THE most pernicious myth gaining traction as draconian cutbacks are implemented across a range of vital public services is the myth of meritocracy.

According to the myth, personal accomplishment is not a function of class or wealth but of grit, drive, and determination. Success, therefore, can be neatly ascribed to innate talent, intelligence and good old-fashioned hard work while money and privilege play only a minor, peripheral role.

Advocates of this thesis maintain that swingeing cuts to supports for the disadvantaged — community employment schemes, lone parents’ allowances, disability support services — don’t really matter that much because the people availing of these benefits can, to quote the Government’s tired mantra, do less with more and work harder to escape endemic poverty traps.

Accordingly, as essential support services are crudely and arbitrarily cut, responsibility for rising inequality levels is divested from the Government and firmly affixed to the shoulders of the most vulnerable.

The inference is clear. If they don’t succeed it’s because they were too lazy, or incompetent or stupid to do so. Not because they were failed by the State. The cream always rises to the top — it’s just a coincidence that the cream is invariably rich, white, able-bodied and middle class.

Some of the loudest proponents of the meritocracy myth can be found in the education sector making excuses for the retention of State subsidies for private fee-paying schools.

Parents, they say, don’t send their children to these schools for vulgar, elitist reasons like wanting to ensure their children meet the “right” people, or because league tables consistently reveal these schools send the most pupils to the most prestigious universities where they study the highest-ranking degree courses. Perish the thought.

No, it’s because they offer a “rounded” and “holistic” education in which children’s talents, no matter what they may be, are nurtured and allowed to flourish. It just so happens that, almost universally, these children’s talents lie in the academic field, where they excel.

Consequently, the schools children attend act as selection mechanisms for the careers they later enter. So, while you’ll find a lot of doctors and barristers who have graduated from fee-paying schools, like Blackrock College or Clongowes Wood, you won’t meet too many cleaners or labourers who have graced their hallowed halls.

The implication of the meritocracy myth is that the preponderance of middle and upper class students entering these white-collar professions means wealthier students are somehow cleverer or more capable than their working class counterparts. How else to explain the totally divergent career opportunities that seem to await children from different backgrounds if we live in such a meritorious society? Continuing this logic, if educational attainment is solely a function of children’s abilities, and is not constrained by class, then what’s the problem with continuing to divide scant State resources among all schools? Why shouldn’t private schools, already raking in €120m in fees, receive a further €100m from the State? Perhaps this is what Education Minister Ruairi Quinn was thinking when he decided to axe 428 teaching posts from the most disadvantaged schools in the country despite the mammoth subsidy for private schools being scrupulously maintained.

The proposed cuts, announced as part of December’s budget, were only reversed after a huge public backlash made it politically expedient to do so. Initially, the minister, the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach had all sought to defend the measure.

Mr Quinn was at it again at the recent Labour party conference when he told delegates that he wasn’t concerned about an OECD report that found pupils from fee-paying schools are about two years ahead in literacy ability when compared with those from vocational schools.

His disinterest is particularly perplexing when one considers that reading ability is a key determinant of early school leaving — something that, one assumes, would be of utmost concern for the minister.

“It all begins at home with the parents. A middle-class child will have a vocabulary probably at least twice the size of a working-class child before they get to pre-school,” he said.

While this is true, with new research revealing that toddlers in professional families hear, on average, three times as many words as children in welfare families, it suggests that inequalities evident when children enter the system are still as entrenched when they exit as adults — another cause for concern for the minister.

Perhaps this is the reason that he appears to be attempting to foist blame onto the shoulders of parents, thereby giving his department something of a free pass when scathing reports, like the damning OECD one he so blithely dismissed, are published.

The notion that class and educational attainment are inextricably linked is certainly nothing new and, as a social democrat, should be something that the minister is particularly cognisant of.

In Ireland, it was a government-sponsored report published in 1965, Investment in Education, which first linked educational and class inequality and prompted the introduction of free second-level education and a raft of other investment in the area. The Government, at the time, understood that one of the nation’s most valuable resources, its human capital, was being wasted with its elitist access to educational opportunities.

SINCE then, sociologists and economists alike have highlighted the need for investment in education as a means of battling social exclusion and deprivation and, indeed, saving the State money in the long term in social welfare payments and prison costs when today’s disadvantaged children grow up to become tomorrow’s disadvantaged, and sometimes troubled, adults.

A particularly pertinent report, published in 1999, sums up the fee-paying quandary: “The financial, cultural and educational experiences of working class students need not, in and of themselves, create educational inequality: what creates inequality is the fact that others have differential access to resources, incomes, wealth and power which enables them to avail of opportunities presented in education in a relatively more successful manner.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the bizarre €100m subsidy that the State gifts private schools every year, even as children all over the country are being taught in ramshackle prefabs in deplorable conditions. The payment must seem especially egregious to those parents with autistic children who have seem their ABA schools shut down by a Government that pledged support in opposition but cut funding while in power and which has latterly even targeted the special needs assistants who facilitate the integration of these children into mainstream schools.

The Government is fond of telling us of the tough decisions that it is forced to take at the behest of the troika, but there is nothing tough about continually targeting the weak in society when attempting to balance the books. In the schoolyard, that sort of behaviour is called bullying.

Private education bestows a huge advantage in life. It’s hardly radical to suggest those who choose to avail of it should pay its true economic cost.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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