VICTORIA WHITE: Rich kids start halfway down the track of our college points race

I overheard them on Tuesday as they hunched over their shopping, faces constricted with the effort of comparing one grind school, which charges about €7,295 a year to another, which charges €6,900 a year.

Maybe they found out yesterday that their bet had paid off. Maybe their products got medicine in UCD or science in UCC or engineering in Trinity.

Maybe those products will triumph in their careers and the investment will multiply thousands of times over.

It’s more than likely. I’d love to come over all moral and say those kids will have psychological problems for life from being ground through their Leaving by those ferocious mammies but the psychological problems are far more likely among the kids who weren’t in the points race at all.

They’re our concern, as a society.

We can’t just stand by and watch a points race proceed in which, increasingly, richer kids start half way down the track.

It’s not just that it’s unfair, it robs our society of the talents of the kids who stay on the sidelines.

It is a proven fact in the US that thick rich kids do better than clever poor kids.

That’s a society in which children have increasingly been made their parents’ products, invested in according to their means and what they might call their sense of duty.

That’s what self-help means, doesn’t it?

If you want to go on foreign holidays and sit around drinking Sangria don’t blame me because your kid didn’t get grinds and was one of the 3,700 who failed maths in the Leaving.

This way lies the destruction of our society.

Instead of calling for “the need for sacrifices” to finance our kids’ education, as Zurich Life Assurance did earlier in the summer while peddling a savings plan, we need to understand that some parents have nothing to sacrifice and the parents who do and don’t bother shouldn’t be able to wreck their kids’ future in education.

It’s to produce something close to equality of opportunity that we developed a State education service in the first place.

We have to try to systematically rid our education system of the costs which have crept in because of lack of investment and which hobble kids whose parents haven’t “sacrificed” themselves.

Zurich’s breakdown of education costs included many items which wouldn’t be listed at all if our system were working properly.

At primary level, extracurricular activities, at €191, were the most expensive item, though personally I have spent far more than that.

Regular access to these activities has been proven to have a massive impact on a kid’s later success or failure in the US, with careful research showing such kids being 400 times more likely to go to college.

We may scorn the US with their “pay to play” school policies, but at primary level in Ireland we frequently have no sport at all and enrolling in your local GAA, hockey or soccer club can cost heavily in both time and money, no matter how understanding club managers try to be.

Lunches are itemised, when proper school lunches are provided freely or cheaply in every other European country. Ditto for books, which come in at €88 at primary, and €159 at secondary.

The “voluntary contribution” is listed as an expense, which somewhat blows its “voluntary” reputation. Membership of the Parents’ Association is another itemised expense.

Trips at primary level come in at €48 a year and €158 at secondary level, a savage and unnecessary expense for struggling parents.

Grinds are the big expense at secondary level, coming in at nearly €279 per year, according to Zurich’s research, which wouldn’t even buy you 10 grinds in one subject.

My kids have all had maths grinds already, two of them at a grind school at nearly €1,000 each and one of them privately at €30 an hour. They will all have more maths grinds before the Leaving Certificate because they will be pitching for the points dividend of higher maths.

They have all gone to the Gaeltacht, which is State-subsidised but still costs about €1,000 for three weeks and they have all done French courses, costing around the same.

Transition year, the mostly optional fourth year of secondary school which has been shown to gain students on average up to 46 extra points when they do the Leaving, is not even offered in many schools, with research from 2011 showing only 56% of VEC schools offering it as against 88% of community and comprehensive schools and 91% of secondary schools.

My kids — three of the four, at least — have the right footwear for the points race. One is already heading for TCD and the other two have realistic prospects of TCD or UCD, which are local, or UCC if I rent out their rooms.

There have never been more college places but the kids like mine, who did the hockey and the GAA and the grinds and Transition, are increasingly clustering in what they perceive as the “top” universities, an attitude summed up by an American colleague who told me with a straight face, “You need Trinity if you want an international career.”

This is what has happened in the US as the last stage of their seriously competitive and increasingly privatised system, with kids from the top quarter of families in education and income over 17 times more likely to go to highly selective colleges than those from the bottom quarter.

I keep on going back to Robert D Putnam’s elegy for the American Dream, Our Kids, for these comparisons. Many of the most destructive agents in the US system don’t yet apply here.

We do not release rankings of primary schools, which send house prices soaring and tanking in the UK and the US.

We do not officially allow schools to select their students and the forthcoming School Admissions Act will hopefully make it harder for them to avoid kids they don’t want.

We are discussing the unfairness of our college admissions process but CAO sure beats the pleading essays written by Mommy and moderated by a range of professionals which are described by Putnam in the US. Clearly, we don’t have US college fees and the horror of debt into midlife for many students.

There is a lot to celebrate in a system which sends about 60% of school-leavers into universities or colleges of technology and 40% are grant-aided to some extent.

Our workforce is 45% third level-educated.

As a society, we’ve come a long way in a short time.

We must seriously invest in our education system and strictly police the equality measures we already have if we want to stop the spaces growing between the kids on the track leaving some of our best hopes for this society on the starting blocks.


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