LAST week I had a great night in Limerick. I was down to host an evening of music, debate and political cabaret in the wonderful Dolan’s Warehouse. The event was organised by the Northside Learning Hub.

It runs outreach programmes, working with schools and colleges to make education available to as many people in the northside of Limerick as possible (www.learninghub.ie).

There were many teachers in the crowd and the honesty of the discussion was revealing. The teachers wanted to teach, but there was a sense, particularly amongst the primary ones, that they are overburdened. One teacher — a young man — spoke of his despair trying to teach the 4th-class syllabus to children of varying abilities, where he could see children being left behind in front of his eyes. These children will slip back academically, becoming alienated initially from the classroom and then, ultimately, from the school.

On the way back on the train, I was thinking of the extraordinary waste of money that is being poured in to keep Anglo open and considered what could be done with just a fraction of that money. The Anglo bailout will add as much as €20bn to our national debt; can you imagine what spending the equivalent on creating a new education system would deliver?

The crisis gives us permission to change this country, to reset the clock and learn from our mistakes. As unemployment continues its inexorable rise, a recent academic paper byKevin Denny, of UCD, is a timely reminder that economics is about people, not debt.

Debt is simply an accounting identity; the real productive power of an economy is its people. Education and learning is not just about a workforce or about training, it is about making our lives richer. Sometimes this point is overlooked in the constant economisation of the education debate. Sure, having an educated workforce is important but having a learned society is even more so.

Making children happy in school is now essential because, as unemployment rises, the old trends where social class determines educational achievement means more and more children will fail in school.

The reason Denny’s work on educational opportunity for working people is so invaluable is not just because he is a respected economist but because he means it.

Many years ago, I worked as an economist in the Central Bank. Back then there was a dreadful hierarchy in the place, which separated the economists in the bank from everyone else. Because economists in the central bank had to have a minimum of a good masters degree in economics, we were mistakenly put on some sort of ludicrous pedestal vis-a-vis the rest of the staff. I couldn’t believe it when I entered the place — but that was just the way.

It was the old Ireland defined by a weird type of class and education apartheid.

Kevin Denny’s dad, Harry Denny, was a porter in the bank and every time he’d drop up to my office doing his rounds, he talked about his son “Kevin the economist” who was studying at the LSE. Harry was a lovely man and he was so proud of his son. He was proud of Kevin because his son had done what he, Harry, never had the chance to do, which was to use his education. Kevin laughed years later when I first met him and mentioned the chats I had with his dad: “Not many lads from Ballyfermot become senior lecturers of economics.”

And it’s not changing: the abolition of university fees has, according to Denny’s recent paper, made little or no difference to who gets into college (http://www.ucd.ie/geary/static/publications/workingpapers-/gearywp201026.pdf).

In fact, the abolition of university fees 15 years ago did not improve the chances of poorer children getting into university. The paper also explains why this is the case. There was and still is a shortage of places in university, not a shortage of students. The poorer kids who did manage to get the points were normally on the grant anyway so they didn’t pay in the first place. The middle-class children and their families just got a subsidy for an expense that they were planning to make all along.

The most important thing is how the children do in the Leaving Cert. Poor children do badly in the Leaving full stop. For example, after 15 years of free university it is the case that if your father is a professional, you will, on average, get about 90 points more than if your father is a manual worker.

If your dad is “other white collar”, you are likely to get about 50 points more. If your dad is out of work, it will “cost” you about 30 points.

Now think of those figures in the context of the tens of thousands of fathers who have lost their jobs in recent months. If, as seems quite likely, these men find it difficult to get another job, what will the impact on their families be? According to Denny, the impact is significantly detrimental and, if nothing is done to change the education system, will lead to more kids failing in school.

Now let’s join the dots and link the evening in Limerick, the Denny paper and Anglo. We know that stuffing money into Anglo is a waste of cash, we also know that letting children fail in school is not only a waste of cash but it is a dangerous waste of people, both for their own sake and for society’s sake. And now we know that the Leaving Cert is the block. So why not use the Anglo money to fix it? Let Anglo go bust and start again.

If we were to make a massive investment in education to the tune of €20bn we could transform this country. How many proud dads like Harry Denny could we have?

But instead we will use this money to bail out creditors in a bust bank that doesn’t even have an ATM facility.

A country that makes such choices deserves to go bust because only through a massive crisis that sweeps away the status quo can such a place change.

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