There’s something about Dublin 6. Don’t you think?

For years, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

It was a strange sensation. What was it? Was it the solid redbricks, the good taste, the drop-in Pilates classes, the sensitively old Volvos, or maybe the Gonzaga waiting list? Could it have been the credit book at Mortons, the bicycles with child seats, the discriminating baristas, discreetly tattooed, or maybe the simple entitled outrage of the Irish Times letters page?

What makes Dublin 6 feel different?

Now I know, because I’ve just read a report from the Higher Education Authority (HEA). It’s actually there in black and white: degrees. This is what makes D6 different – it’s degrees, loads and loads of degrees! It is well-appointed bragging walls in double-fronted Victorian drawing rooms, smothered in university parchment. That’s it. How could you have missed it?

Dublin 6 is third level squared.

A new report on education in Ireland reveals that 99 per cent of teenagers from Dublin 6 go to college. Yes, 99 per cent. We are not talking anything as trivial as “the majority”, nor “a significant proportion”, nor even “the vast bulk”: we are talking 99 per cent here, of all kids, heading to university. Spare a thought for the poor 1 per cent, God bless him.

This is an extraordinary figure, and good for the solid burghers of D6 – all those grinds had to pay off. However, from society’s point of view, a new report published by the HEA this week reveals something extremely deep and concerning about the access to third level education in our country.

We’ve always known that the richer the area, the more professional the parents and the more broadly white-collar the environment, the much higher the chances of going to college, but this report underscores just how extreme a form of “educational apartheid” there is in Ireland.

In contrast to Dublin 6, the figures from the HEA (the top brass of which probably live in D6) show that only 15 per cent of teenagers from Coolock and Darndale (Dublin 17) ever go through the gates of our universities and colleges. Similarly, only 16 per cent of kids from Ballyfermot and Cherry Orchard (Dublin 10) experience Fresher’s Week or have any notion of third level.

Such a ludicrously Third World-esque disparity in our capital city should be a national emergency.

After Dublin 17 and Dublin 10, the areas with the lowest rates of progression to third level among 17-to-19-year-olds are Dublin 1 (28 per cent), Dublin 22 (31 per cent), Dublin 2 (31 per cent), Dublin 8 (33 per cent), Dublin 11 (28 per cent) and Dublin 24 (29 per cent).

All these poor areas are getting poorer – because educational access is the key to social mobility.

I’ll come back to Dublin in a second, but outside Dublin the report also shows that significant disparities still exist between counties. While the national average shows that 52 per cent of all 30-to-34-year-olds have third level degrees – which is the highest in Europe and a great achievement for our country – only 40 per cent of kids from counties like Donegal and Laois attend college.

Why does Donegal lag behind, while Cork doesn’t? What’s going on in Kilkenny, that isn’t in Laois? These are questions that we need to answer, but the inter-county differences are reasonably modest and the overall uplift in education in the past 20 years has been significant, so there’s less of a concern regarding inter-county performance.

Let’s go back to Dublin, because the disparities in the city are really shocking. They are third-world-versus-first-world kinds of differences. When one suburb is sending 99 per cent of its kids to university and another suburb, less than three miles away, is barely sending 15 per cent, we have an apartheid problem.

There are many, many reasons why some children don’t do well in school in comparison to other children, and there are many more people better qualified than me who can explain why this is the case. However, these figures reveal a monumental failure of educational policy in this country.

Education is probably the most important policy used to minimise inequality in a society. The result of a society that gives all its citizens a fair a chance is a sophisticated economy. Education gives people hope and gives people a stake in society. Why do you think there isn’t a Ferguson, Missouri in Germany?

Maybe it is because Germany seeks to, and has largely succeeded in, using its education system to address inequality without compromising quality.

In Ireland, we made enormous strides in giving the rural poor, such as the kids of small farmers, free education, but we have failed the urban poor. A big song and dance was made of eliminating university fees and it was sold as a big move in opening up access to higher education.

But this is only cosmetic, because the educational damage is done early, very early. By the age of five, a kid’s chances are already determined.

Studies show that the key to good educational outcomes is massive early intervention to balance other negative familial factors such as income, parental attitude and the environment you grow up in.

Pouring money into reducing class sizes and providing resource teachers and equipment later on is not as effective as you might think. The problem is that by the time these measures kick in it’s far too late. Disparity in educational achievement between one child and another does not develop over a school career. It only widens.

If one child arrives in school able to read and another child of the same age doesn’t know how to open a book, the gap is already there. Early intervention in education is the key to minimising problems caused by a negative home environment. It is also a good way to involve parents who might not otherwise have become involved in their child’s education.

American research shows that investment in education pays for itself when it is done early. Believe it or not, the cost-benefit ratio of early intervention is measured at eight to one. Later measures such as resource teaching and reduction in class size are in no way as effective. The benefit decreases as the child gets older.

Despite knowing this, our investment in pre-primary education is negligible and our spending on primary and secondary education is well below the OECD average. Yet we give free college places to the kids of D6.

But what is the point in spending vast amounts of money on university if we have whole sections of society that have no hope of getting there? What use are free third level fees when the only people availing of them can afford to pay?

Otherwise, 99 per cent of kids from the already rich and comfortable classes get their stake reinforced and the others, just up the road, haven’t a hope.

If you doubt how close we all live to each other and how divided our society is, just hop on the number 18 bus from Ballyfermot to Sandymount via Ranelagh, look out the window and watch opportunity disappear.

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