Brian Fleming | Blog | 06.12.17

Access to Higher Education - Equality of Opportunity

In a speech delivered recently An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed the issue of access to third level education. He described his government as being ‘determined to work towards building a Republic where every person can reach their potential, and every child has the opportunity to grow up to be the person they can be. What better place to start than by guaranteeing equality of opportunity in education.’ While it is a welcome development that he should speak in such explicit terms the reality is that equality of educational opportunity has been a national objective for over fifty years. The question now surely is why has it not been achieved. As I have outlined elsewhere (Irish Education, 1922-2007; Cherishing All the Children?) the failure to commit sufficient resources to the earlier stages of the educational process, some policy errors and the history and culture of the DES are a central part of the explanation. However, even without significant additional resources, it seems to me that a fairly simple change in administrative arrangements would bring about a far more effective approach to the issue.

Proceeding through the education system is somewhat akin to the Grand National. There are a series of fences to be jumped or transitions to be negotiated. Some children will fall at one of these transition points. Others will have such difficulty overcoming them that catching up is virtually impossible. Over concentration on the last one, the school to college transition, can mislead those trying to address these issues.

The reformers of the 1960s believed that they had solved the issue of educational disadvantage at first and second level. In that context, their decision to place responsibility for the issue of access to 3rd level within the HEA was an understandable one. Given what we know now it was mistaken. Bringing about equality of educational opportunity is far more complex. The decision to establish a dedicated National Office for Access to Third Level Education, in 2003, was a welcome one. However, locating it within the HEA was, again, a serious error. The vast majority of the policy issues that need to be addressed to bring about improvements in our access to third level lie outside the jurisdiction of the HEA and indeed, probably, its competence also.

Rectifying the weaknesses in our education system at earlier stages is the responsibility of ministers and officials in the Department of Education and Skills. The track record on educational disadvantage is patchy, at best. Certainly the introduction of a universal pre-school provision will begin to address the school readiness issue and should bring great benefits, if professionally delivered. Other than that it would seem that the policymakers considered the initiation of the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools programme (DEIS), a decade or so ago, would have the desired impact in achieving national educational objectives. DEIS was a welcome, albeit very limited, initiative. It targeted additional resources to schools serving disadvantaged areas but never to the extent necessary. Schools serving disadvantaged areas tend to be fairly volatile environments and a serious issue can arise at any time. Senior staff, in such schools, spend a lot of their time and emotional energy in day-to-day incident management which inevitably distracts from the educational process. Social justice demands that young people have access to teaching and learning experiences of the same quality irrespective of the school which they attend. Until such time as adequate support services are put into DEIS schools this will not apply in Irish education. The measures needed will include significantly smaller teaching groups, more team-teaching, more time for frontline staff, additional professional expertise of a non-teaching nature, and substantially more investment in learning support, pupil welfare and parent liaison.

Inevitably implementation takes time, and ministers move on, so we need a mechanism to ensure that a focus is kept on educational disadvantage. This could be achieved by removing the National Access Office from the HEA, resourcing it appropriately, extending its brief to cover educational disadvantage at all levels and, most importantly setting it up on a statutory basis. In addition it should be empowered to identify weaknesses in the earlier stages of educational provision which contribute to maintaining the social divide in access to higher education and suggest appropriate policy changes.

Brian Fleming spent twenty-five years of his teaching career as Principal of Collinstown Park Community College which is located in a disadvantaged suburb of Dublin. Following retirement, he completed a course of doctoral studies at the School of Education inUCD. His book Irish Education, 1922–2007: Cherishing All the Children? (Dublin: Mynchen’s Field Press, 2016) is based on research carried out at that time. A subsequent publication Irish Education and Catholic Emancipation, (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2017) traces the interaction between the campaigns for Irish Education and Catholic Emancipation in the early nineteenth century, outlining in detail the roles of Bishop James Doyle and Daniel O’Connell. Brian’s first book was The Vatican Pimpernel: The Wartime Activities of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty (Cork: Collins Press, 2008 and New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2012).


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