Inculcate a wider culture of ambition - Access to education

THE phrase, attributed to the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola, “give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man” points to the power of education and focussed early-life formation. 

Depending on your perspective such a prospect may, or may not, be a positive one. However, the opposite also stands, as many of those denied educational opportunities, or the cultural encouragement needed to exploit them, will confirm.

A child in an environment where education is not a priority, where it is not a driving, defining ambition of a family or a community, faces huge challenges if they are to make the best use of the opportunities offered by our schools and colleges. A new OECD report confirms this and reopens the age-old nature-or-nurture debate so beloved by educational psychologists and social reformers. The OECD, however, frames the consequences of indifference to, or limited access to, education in the starkest human and social terms.

Educational disadvantage, the organisation finds, is a legacy issue in Ireland, far more so than in the great majority of developed countries. It runs through families and communities with disproportionate consequences for children born into very specific environments.

An Irish child of parents who did not complete second-level education stands a one-in-three chance of following their footsteps — of quitting second-level education before securing a leaving certificate qualification — a pretty basic qualification in today’s cutthroat jobs’ market. Across the EU only Italy, Spain, England, Northern Ireland, Slovakia, and Greece have higher rates of children not at least equalling their parents’ educational achievements.

In the majority of cases, though there are spectacular rags-to-riches exceptions, this condemns these young people to at best low-paid, part-time, backbone jobs — or as is ever-more likely in this post-industrial world, long-term unemployment. This must be of even greater concern as social scientists have warned that we on the cusp of an increasingly automised world where there will be a permanently redundant, dependent and non-productive, class who will never find work. This may be just a more dystopian view of the extra leisure time plámás advanced by early technocrats but it has a ring of truth to it that cannot be ignored.

The OECD report considers how access to a quality education can make society more inclusive, facilitate social mobility, and improve the economic circumstances of swathes of society more used to disadvantage. But of course much more needs to be done at all levels. Government must, finally, make a decision that will win it no friends no matter what it decides — how third-level educaion will be funded.

It can make that decision however, secure in the knowledge that a society can, by making education universal and easily accessed, do more to protect itself from everything from Islamic State to hunger, from poverty to hatred, from tax-minimising conglomerates to climate change than by any other means. Yesterday’s announcement of ambitious plans in the sector are just another step in an endless and noble obligation.

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