We have an ideal that all students who enter our schools will be treated equally, that they will be treated fairly, and that they will be offered equal opportunities.
This is a myth. Not true. Good PR.
You see, we live in an incredibly unequal society, and this inequality is reflected in our schools. And this is a fact that our Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, seems to ignore.
So, just how does inequality show up in schools?
Well, all schools receive a running cost from the government depending on the number of students enrolled. And yes, this does sound fair, but the costs of schools are such that the running costs will often exceed the money received from the government. After all, taking the team to a match requires a bus, visiting the Young Scientist Exhibition or going on a field trip for geography requires money. Some schools have more, some have less. And this means the education experience of students can and will vary depending on the finance available.
You see, I don’t really believe the minister understands just what a disadvantage it can be to be from a disadvantaged area. I mean how could he? He hasn’t had to face a pay-cheque of less than €80,000 in years. He went to a nice school (The Bish), and recently got to visit it with one of his advisers (coincidentally also a past pupil of the same school).
The thing is, if you attend a school where most of the parents have a decent wage, then the school looks for a top-up fee to support school activities. These activities could include school tours, proper IT for classrooms (whether tablets, computers or whatever).
If your school is in a disadvantaged area, then things don’t look so good. Being in a disadvantaged area you can expect to see higher rates of unemployment, lack of engagement with education, and social exclusion. In short, schools could not in fairness ask for top up fees from these parents. Any development is dependent on grants (which are getting scarcer).
The picture looks a bit like this:
Just because schools receive a similar grant does not mean that the students will benefit from equal opportunities. The playing field is not equal, a student who starts from a position of disadvantage will need extra help.
Our education system is in a lot of trouble at the moment. Teachers are under pressure; we have a new Junior Cycle programme that is being rammed in despite the concern and opposition of thousands of teachers; school funding is being cut.
And yet, we claim we believe that education provides opportunities for students; that education is valuable; that education is more than just about measuring students. There’s a disconnect there and I hope that someday we get an education minister who actually believes in education and trusts teachers as professionals.
Our students deserve it.