Third level Access Schemes: What’s the Story?

In 1984 I took up a position as principal of a newly opened second-level school in a severely disadvantaged area. Employment among parents was in excess of sixty per cent. A survey carried out two years previously found that nobody living in the catchment area had a third level qualification. So, as the school approached full cycle in 1989, the question of third level access became a priority issue. Indeed it was also identified as a major issue, to be addressed nationally, in various official publications during those years. There were some community based responses often supported by Partnership companies. We were involved in establishing one such effort which, with some DES support, and limited but welcome help from the private sector, brought about significant improvement. A potentially more important development occurred when the Higher Education Institutions began to take a more active role, because of the far greater resources at their disposal. This included the appointment of access officers and the introduction of various initiatives to make going to college a more realistic option for children from poorer backgrounds and disadvantaged areas. Many third level colleges have access to significant philanthropic funds and began to devote portion of these to the access issue. In addition, the Higher Education Authority, in deciding on the level of annual funding available to individual colleges, began to take the institution’s access activities in account in determining the block grant.

During my time dealing with the issue I met many extremely dedicated people, at both second and third level, working with great commitment to improve the situation. Yet, as we know, notwithstanding all this effort, and fairly considerable expenditure, progress is extremely slow. At the same time I would always have considered third level access policies were certainly contributing to improving the chances of disadvantaged pupils and closing the gap between them and their peers throughout the education system generally. A recent experience caused me to wonder if that assumption is always valid.

The case relates to a large urban area where the local population is served by five schools. Schools A and B are voluntary secondary schools. Both charge quite a significant voluntary contribution and one (perhaps both) charges for other items such as some school exams which traditionally were set and marked by teachers in the Irish education system. They admit pupils from the entire area. The remaining schools, C, D and E, all serve localities that are disadvantaged, some more than others. Each of them qualifies for the DEIS designation by all the familiar socio-economic and educational criteria. These schools accept all applicants from their own immediate areas.

Each year the national daily newspapers produce their college feeder lists. To put it mildly this approach is controversial. Over-hyping college as the best option, not affording enough attention to alternative routes to college, placing undue emphasis on Leaving Certificate results, ignoring a lot of the other very important work done in schools and not affording enough attention to the Further Education sector are among the most frequent criticisms. These are observations I would share. Also, these figures tend to be miss-interpreted. During the Celtic Tiger years it seems that editors of, and correspondents in, property supplements tended to appoint themselves as arbiters of what constituted a ‘good’ school. Yet at their core these lists, if properly assembled and calculated (not always the case), must indicate something. The figures for 2016 indicate that schools A and B had progression rates above 6o per cent.   For schools C, D and E the corresponding figures varied between 30 and 45 per cent. So, we can say with certainty that there is a significant gap to be bridged. Happily for those attending schools C, D and E some help is at hand. The DEIS scheme provides additional resources to such schools. It can reasonably be argued that such assistance is not at the required level but that’s a debate for another day. Help is also provided by a number of Higher Education Institutions and their access schemes.

So the state is providing additional resources through DEIS and third level access programmes, supplemented by a community based initiative,  to enable students in the three schools bridge the gap. That’s where this saga becomes distinctly odd. In the case of schools A and B, which have relatively high progression rates there is another Third Level Access programme offering considerable assistance. It is understandable, of course, that the principals of those schools are happy to accept additional resources. Naturally a school principal will welcome help from a legitimate source which will further the ambitions of his/her pupils. However, one must question the decision making process of the Access Programme. Securing places at third level is, sadly, a competitive process. Not only do disadvantaged students lose out in getting such places but even for those who are successful there is inequality in the courses they access.  In summary, public funds are being used to level the playing field, in accordance with government policy, in the case of schools C, D and E.  At the same time, public funds, supplemented by philanthropic resources, are being expended in the opposite direction, to ensure that the gap remains in place or may be even widened.

A fairly obvious question arises. Is this a unique or unusual case? So, I sought information from both the HEA and the DES.  It turns out that all DEIS schools have access to a third level access scheme which, of course, is good news. The position in relation to non DEIS schools is less clear. The HEA has no information on this topic. The DES is ‘aware that some receive support from access schemes, but we do not hold data on this’.

The social divide in access to college has been a problem in Irish education since the foundation of the state. In recent decades successive governments have adopted policies to tackle the issue. A plethora of reports and action plans have been issued. Targets have been adopted and often missed. Progress has been very slow, which is particularly unsatisfactory given the life-time benefits that accrue to those with a third level education. This is a deep-seated problem reflecting weaknesses throughout our educational system. In such a situation scarce resources need to be targeted to those most in need. In the DEIS plan 2017, the Minister, among many very useful plans and objectives, lists an intention ‘to assess the impact of current initiatives to support equity of access in Higher Education Institutions in the last quarter of 2019. With the allocation of an additional Junior Minister to the DES, and given that she has been assigned specific responsibility for Higher Education, it seems reasonable to expect this review to be carried out far sooner.

Brian Fleming is a retired teacher and author of Irish Education, 19222007: Cherishing All the Children?

The Mulvey Report

It is always interesting to see whether the policy making apparatus of government learns from previous experiences. In this context, I took a particular interest in the process of assessing the needs of the North-Inner City of Dublin which has culminated in the recently published Mulvey Report, as we have been through a similar process previously. In November 1991, a particular incidence of violence, in the Dublin suburb of Ronanstown, prompted the then government to set up an interdepartmental committee to devise a response. The Minister for Justice, Ray Burke, made it clear that this was to be a high-level group, looking at all aspects of the problem.  Ronanstown was to be taken as an example for such areas of disadvantage.  Nominees of six government departments, at assistant secretary level, were joined by representatives of the Gardaí, the Probation and Welfare Service, the IDA and the local authorities.  The task was to recommend measures aimed at addressing the difficulties, not just in Ronanstown, but in disadvantaged urban areas generally.  Particular focus was placed on the need for a wider consideration than just that of policing and was to include factors such as unemployment, educational disadvantage, healthcare and similar issues.  In the light of the seniority of those representing the various government departments and agencies, a fairly substantial set of recommendations might have been expected.  In the event the report on Urban Crime, Lawlessness and vandalism, (informally known as the Ronanstown Report) was quite limited.     I watched the process unfold at fairly close quarters as I was serving as principal of the local community college. A particular weakness in the approach taken is that there was no independent expertise involved in drawing up the report. So, the representatives of the various departments brought forward projects, which were already under consideration, and some new but hardly radical ideas, and these were incorporated in the plan. While this resulted in certain improvements there was nobody present to question whether the projects included in the plan were comprehensive enough to tackle the underlying problems. As regards education, while some extra facilities were made available to the particular locality nothing emerged which might have significant impact in similarly disadvantaged areas elsewhere.  To a certain extent there was an effort to avoid that pitfall on this occasion by involving the vastly experienced Kieran Mulvey. Whether he had enough or indeed any independent advice available to him is a moot point. Certainly there is nothing in the education section of his report which will radically alter educational outcomes. Yes there are worthy proposals in the report. These include, for example, steps to align existing services and develop links between schools, training organisations and employers. A forum representatives of all relevant agencies is to be established. Early Years intervention is to be supported and tailored career guidance is to be made available to post-primary students. All this will help, of course, but is not sufficient to change educational outcomes to a very significant extent.

The second weakness in the case of the Ronanstown report was the lack of an effective implementation process. In fairness, Mulvey and the government have sought to address that weakness this time round by establishing a group to oversee the process, supported by guaranteed ring-fenced funding. However, the failure to include enough expertise in its membership is to repeat the mistakes of the past. The group is to be headed by an independent expert, who will act as an executive chair reporting to a ministerial taskforce, but otherwise to consist representatives of various departments and agencies which, together with the political system, have failed disadvantaged areas in the past. There is one hopeful sign. Mulvey has recommended a three-year review of progress. If this is independently carried out in a transparent and robust manner a more radical approach may emerge.

Twenty five years after the Ronanstown Report was issued the area is still educationally disadvantaged on all the familiar measurements. In the next quarter century the North Inner City is likely to see many important improvements. Sadly, transformation in educational outcomes is an unlikely eventuality unless a more comprehensive response emerges. 

Review by Prof John Coolahan in the Winter, 2016, edition of the Leader the quarterly journal of NAPD.


“Irish Education 1922 – 2007:

Cherishing All the Children”


By Brian Fleming (Dublin Mynchen’s Field Press, 2016, pp. 550)


In this extensive study of Irish education during the first eighty-five years of independence, Brian Fleming takes as his lodestar investigative guide the phrase from the 1916 Proclamation “Cherishing all the Children of the Nation Equally.”  He ignores an alternative interpretation of this phrase as meaning treating all the religious / political sectors of the island of Ireland equally.  He focusses on the phrase’s import for the promotion of equality of educational opportunity and provision, and more precisely on equality of access and participation to second level education.  This proves to be an illuminating approach which throws much light on the policies, attitudes and influences of key agencies – church, state, unions and parents – on the evolving educational process over this time period.

The welcome strength of the book is not in establishing an original or novel understanding of the inadequacy of the powers that be in addressing real educational inequality.  This has been long understood.   The welcome strength of the book lies in the thoroughness in establishing the contextual factors, the inadequacies of policy and response, the absence of strong public demand, the weaknesses in follow-through monitoring, and a reluctance to view educational equality as a human right in a democracy.  This is achieved through very thorough research of primary sources, the national archives and other archival data, official publications, an extensive range of secondary sources and a large number of interviews with key personnel.  The outcome is an enrichment of our understanding of the interplay of persons and events on educational development in independent Ireland.  While the focus is on the educational equality theme, the process of investigation throws light on many related issues.

The author divides the work into four main sections.  The first relates to the legacy aspects of the pre-independence education system. The second is interestingly entitled “Inertia”, and covers the period 1922 to 1959.  This is followed by “The Window Opens, 1960-80”.  The fourth analysis section covers the period 1981 to 2007.  The four core sections are topped and tailed by the Introduction and a final section, “In Retrospect.”  Overall, the book is a valuable addition to the increasing number of studies on the history of modern Irish education.  It is also timely in being published during the decade of commemorations.

In the pre-independence chapter, the author pays insightful attention to the content and fate of the MacPherson Education Bill of 1919.  It brought together a range of reform proposals for the structure of the Irish education system, which had been evolving over a number of years.  However, the very strong opposition of the Catholic hierarchy to the measure, interpreting it as a potential major intrusion by the state and civic agencies on their control of schooling.  As well this being a major factor in the Bill’s defeat, it sent long-lasting messages to politicians in the new state, emerging in the post 1922 era.

Apart from the Labour Party Education Policy 1925, which sought to revive features of the Bill, politicians during the first four decades of independence shied away from educational reform, other than in curricular issues, particularly in relation to the Irish language.  In 1933, the new Fianna Fail Government toyed with the idea of educational participation by expanding a scheme of “secondary tops”, whereby some primary schools would be allowed offer secondary school subjects for older pupils.  The government consulted the hierarchy who demurred stating, “the scheme involves a further extension of state control.”  The government dropped the matter, the author seeing it “as a failure of political will.”  It was suggested that the school leaving age should be raised in 1935, 1944 and 1947, but politicians did not act on this, and the issue was allowed drift.  The author has interesting comments on the nature of the wording of the education clauses in the Constitution of 1937.

There is no doubt but that during the inter-war years economic and political difficulties were not propitious for social reform. It is also the case that internationally the promotion of education inequality was not a political priority in these years.  Very late (p.415) in his study, the author states, “Inequality in education is a feature of many systems throughout the world.”  This was particularly the case in the twenties and thirties, and some reference to comparative patterns at that time would have enriched the perspective in treating of the period.  The author does make one reference to international development when he refers to the RAB Butler Education Act of 1944 in England, and its successor in Northern Ireland, in 1947.  These measures were prompted to expand educational opportunities for the less well-off sectors in society.  However, there was no such legislation in the Republic of Ireland in the post-war years.

The author underlines the weaknesses of the Council of Education Reports of 1954 and 1962. The 1962 Report stated “secondary education for all is utopian if only for financial reasons ... there are also educational reasons ...”  against it.

The nineteen sixties was a period of very significant economic, social, and cultural change in Irish society, well captured by the author.  It is in this context that a breakthrough is made on increasing access and participation in post-primary education.  The Investment in Education Report (1965) was a catalyst in this regard.  The author stresses its significance, but if he had used direct figures from the Report, it would have made his point about inequality more emphatic.  The Report followed through the educational fortunes of the age cohort of 55,000 pupils at the time.  It showed that 17,500 of them left school by end of primary, 11,000 without having obtained a Primary Certificate.  Of the 37,500 who went on to post primary 13,500 left without sitting a junior cycle certificate examination.  Of the original 55,000, only 9,500 sat the Leaving Certificate. The statistics for social class engagement indicated that pupils from the wealthier A,B, and C social categories were shown to have a four to five times greater chance of participating in post-primary education than the D,E,F poorer categories.  The various political parties became aware that education was becoming an issue of public concern and debate, and produced education policies.  The author deals with the political and policy issues very well in these crucial years. The work of Ministers Hillary, Colley and O’Malley is carefully analysed.  The author gives great credit to Taoiseach Lemass’s adroit support to these Ministers on carving out a more adventurous educational policy.  The key element for the author’s thesis is O’Malley’s “Free Education” and free transport scheme. In some ways, the free school transport buses, topping the hedgerows as they traversed the byroads and boreens of rural Ireland, as the state reached out to embrace pupils in rural areas, was the most public manifestation of a change in state policy.  Fleming gives full credit to O’Malley’s social justice concern and to the role of Sean O’Connor, Assistant Secretary at the time.  However, the author is also strong on the limitations of the measure and the lack of follow through monitoring on whether it achieved its objectives.  In his view the “window of opportunity” closed in 1968, and this valuable initiative was not built upon, nor the momentum for further advances maintained.  He regards the seventies as a period of consolidation.  He records a range of criticisms on the limitations of the educational equality agenda which set in.  These came from personnel such as Bill Hyland, Michael McGreil, Joy Rudd, Tim Kellaghan, Dale Tussing.  The author’s quotation from Donal Mulcahy would seem to catch his own evaluation:

To make adequate provision for increased participation and meeting the ideal of equality of educational opportunity for all, it is necessary to take account of the various needs, interests, aptitudes, and home and socio-economic background of all pupils. And in this regard the attempts of the 1960s were very limited ... it was a failure to assess the full extent of that challenge (p.284).

The author indicates that the White Paper of 1980 did nothing to advance the situation and gives the withering verdict, “It was published because it was promised.  Publication was deemed more important than content”, (p.270). In this context, on p.275, the author states “No serious effort was ever made to define the objective of equality of educational opportunity,” which verdict might have been appropriately voiced earlier.

In his analysis of the period 1981 to 2007, the author indicates that the economic climate of the eighties did not facilitate aims set out in Minister Hussey’s Programme for Action in Education and The Ages for Learning (1984).  From 1987, a sequence of seven national programmes were agreed leading up to 2008, by the national partners, led by the government.  While these agreements favoured improved teacher-pupil ratios and some additional measure for disadvantaged areas, the author concludes that “the vast bulk of the resources were thinly spread across all schools” and is not impressed by the approach taken.

The nineties and early years of the new century were a period of unprecedented consultation, reportage and legislation on Irish education. The author examines most of the key initiatives from his vantage point.  He quotes from the OECD Report of 1991, “The fact remains, however, that inequality in education persists” (p.301) and from the C.M.R.S., “It is now clear that far from breaking the cycle of poverty, education has become, albeit indirectly, the main mechanism by which that cycle is perpetuated”, (p.367).  These external and internal perceptives highlighted the continuing challenge.  Interestingly, while the author notes “Irish research indicates that benefits are most likely to accrue at the stage of early learning and with disadvantaged children”, (p.373), he takes no note of the National Forum on Early Childhood Education (1998), the White Paper 1999, nor the NESF Report on Early Childhood Education (2005).

However, there is no doubt that debate, during these years, focussed strongly on aspects of educational disadvantage, and useful initiatives took place. Among such was the Report on Educational Disadvantage in Ireland, 1995.  Arising from the Education Act of 1998, an Educational Disadvantaged Committee was set up in 2002.  It produced four reports between then and June 2005. The author devotes considerable attention to this agency and praises it for the rights-based principles of its final report, titled “Moving Beyond Educational Disadvantage”, and the set of objectives it set out. He also highlights that its presence and work did not seem to find favour with the Department of Education and Science, which in May 2005, produced its “Delivering Equality of Opportunity for Schools” (DEIS), independent of and without informing the Committee of its preparations.  The author evaluates the DEIS scheme as being less thorough than what the EDC was promoting.  He is also critical that the EDC, which the 1998 Act had decreed should be a permanent agency, was not re-established during the period of his review.  Other agencies such as the Education Welfare Board were set up and made contributions to equality of treatment.

In the Retrospect Section of his book, the author, drawing on some sociological and political studies, engages in reflection on the changing role and influence of stakeholders in the policy process over the period.  Quite clearly, in the first four decades of independence the church was the major influence on the control and management of schooling, particularly at second-level.  In the sixties and seventies the state took the initiative and became more the shaper of changing policies.  In the most recent decades the author suggests that the power of the church has been in decline, but the power of the teaching unions has been in the ascendant, in association with the State.  The impact of parents he finds to be still rather peripheral.  The author also reflects a good deal of the structure and influence of the Department of Education and is generally critical of it. I think that he underestimates its changing character since the mid-nineties.

It should also be noted that significant progress was made over recent decades on participation patterns in post-primary education, which stand in strong contrast to the situation revealed by the Investment in Education Report, in 1965.  The proportion of early school leavers now in Ireland, at 6.9% is smaller than the EU average, which is 11%.  In 2015, 92.7% of Irish 20 to 34 year olds had attained Leaving Certificate or its equivalent, the third highest proportion of the EU member states, and they were also above the average for completing post-primary education of both the EU and OECD countries.

The author’s treatment ends at 2007, before the impact of the economic recession, whose cutbacks impinged very much on the economically marginalised and provision for traveller education.  The author’s focus in the book is very much on inequality issues affecting the economically disadvantaged. However, in contemporary society the concern about inequality and the rights of all citizens is much broader than this.  The concern for equality in theeducation system needs to encompass inequalities arising from school class, disability, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation.  The various obligations arising from human rights conventions and treaties place obligations on education systems to maximise the participation and achievement of all children in the society.  Quite clearly, we in Ireland,, are just at a stage of the process of coping with this challenge.

The author of this book has rendered a public service in his analysis and evaluation of how we have dealt with inequality of education in the past.  His work lends weight to the thesis that coping with the challenge of educational inequality is a task for national policy as a whole, rather than for the education system as a sector. “Cherishing All the Children Equally” in education continues to be a national challenge.  Perhaps, with the centenary of the 1919 Democratic Programme in the offing, Irish society may commit itself to embrace the more comprehensive challenge to equality set out in paragraph four of that document

Irish education, 1922-2007 - Cherishing all the children equally?

In Brian Fleming’s recent book he takes the commitment in the 1916 Proclamation to cherish “all the children of the nation equally” and  traces the development of policy-making in Irish education subsequently, in that context. The roles played by politicians including de Valera, Lemass and Cosgrave, together with those who have served as Minister for Education, and other parliamentarians, are outlined.  The nature of the Dept. of Education as it changed over the period is analysed.  The impact on policy formation of the Churches, Teacher Unions, Managerial Bodies, Parents’ groups, the Constitution, the Judiciary, lobby groups and the Media are all reviewed.   Evidence is supplied from official reports and otherwise to illustrate that the objective has not been achieved. Some weaknesses in the policy-making process were identified. However, the essential reason why equality of educational opportunity has not been achieved is as a result of a lack of leadership at administrative and, more particularly, political level, supported by a largely unconcerned society.

         During the research a wide range of archives, books, journals, contemporary newspapers and the private papers of some individuals were consulted. Interviews were undertaken with thirty-three individuals, consisting of senior policymakers, their advisers and others who observed the process at close quarters. These included, former Ministers for Education, retired senior department officials, leaders of teacher unions, management bodies and parents’ councils, education correspondents, and a former professor of education. Further details:

A ‘fascinating informative book’ which he would ‘highly recommend’.
(John Walshe speaking at ETBI Annual Conference).
‘This insightful book exposes a lot of hypocrisy. The Irish revolution was far from revolutionary in the field of education.’ 
(Ryle Dwyer, The Examiner, 13/08/2016).

The new Minister for Education

To a certain extent, the policies and actions of the new minister Richard Bruton will be determined by the education section of the programme for government. It is based largely on the Fine Gael manifesto which was strongest in the area of early years and primary education and less than comprehensive in other areas of formal education. The programme contains some valuable proposals. The addition of a second pre-school year and the concentration of pupil-teacher ratio reductions particularly at junior and senior infant level are significant promises. The long-lasting value of early intervention is well-established in numerous research reports world-wide so this is a welcome development. The document mentions Pupil Teacher Ratio (PTR) reductions elsewhere in the system but without specific detail. Perhaps this is just as well. The evidence suggests that marginal reductions of PTR have no impact on educational outcomes. Specific commitments to increase the numbers of speech and language therapist and of psychologists, by 25% in each case, are likely to improve services significantly. As regards special needs, the document is more circumspect indicating that the possibility of progressing sections of the Education of Persons with Special Educational Needs Act will be examined. As regards small schools, none is to be closed against parental wishes. I can see two sides to this issue. The need to strengthen the role of parents both nationally and locally is a welcome objective of the programme so the small school undertaking is in line with that. How justified it may be in educational terms is a moot point.

In the matter of the availability of non-denominational education, the programme is more reassuring in that there is a clear and specific commitment to increase the numbers of schools in this category, presumably at both primary and post-primary levels. Also there is reference to increasing capitation grants to schools at all levels though no details are provided. An unusual feature is the proposed new Schools Excellence Fund to support innovation and reform at school level. In theory this sounds fine. In practice as the DES currently does not assess schools with any degree of rigour and transparency, it is hard to know how ‘excellence’ will be defined and identified. When we look at second-level specifically, the proposals are limited, though the restoration of ex-quota guidance teachers will correct a decision that was ill-advised no matter how scarce money was.

My particular interest is in educational disadvantage and I welcome the fact that it has such high priority in the document. I’ll be watching with interest to see what emerges in the Action Plan for Educational Inclusion which is to be produced within a year. In that context, the plan to increase the mandatory school leaving age seems very odd. Given that thousands have either left the system before the current figure of 16, and more are still on the books but actually disengaged from the process, I would have thought that was the place to start. The question of the class divide as regards access to third-level is dealt with by a commitment to implement the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education produced by the Higher Education Authority. Time has proven that this is a fairly intransigent problem. Other than providing poorer students with adequate financial support the solutions lie in the earlier stages of the educational system. So, relying on the HEA, which has no role in these areas, to bring about radical improvements is a flawed strategy.

Third-level issues generally are just touched upon in the programme while a decision on the funding issue is awaited. There is little sign of comprehensive thinking in relation to the further education sector.

The lack of detail in the programme as regards education opens up the possibility that the new minister, Richard Bruton, has more freedom to introduce policies of his own than might otherwise be the case. The question arises what can we expect? His time as education spokesman in opposition, albeit some time ago, together with the approach he has taken as a Minister for Enterprise and Employment more recently, offers some clues. Four possibilities strike me, two of which are specific and the other two more general.

As spokesman on education, Bruton prioritised strongly the issue of educational disadvantage particularly strongly. In 1998 he produced document entitled ‘Not just another brick in the wall’ specifically on the topic. It was extremely well-researched and innovative. Also in 1998 he contributed as opposition spokesman to the debate on the Education Act. The minister at the time, Micheál Martin, had included an excellent provision for the setting up of an independent Educational Disadvantage Committee on a statutory basis. Bruton proposed at that time that one of the committee’s functions would be to equality proof the policies of the Department of Education but this was resisted by the then minister. I’m sure that if it had been adopted the system would be far more equitable by now. Mind you, the Education Disadvantage Committee was abolished years later, a decision which was, in my view, very regrettable. It looked to me like the work of a latter day Sir Humphrey Appleby. 

The further education sector has been the Cinderella of the Irish education system for decades. Like its parent the VEC system, it has had to struggle for existence in the face of official attitudes which were close to indifference. I have a feeling that Richard Bruton’s experiences, particularly those in Enterprise and Employment for the last five years, may bring about significant changes.

In more general terms I associate him with two particular traits, intellectual rigour and accountability. Lobby groups seeking policy changes that are not supported by clear and well-founded research evidence are likely to make little progress. Accountability is not a strong feature of Irish education but he will endeavour to apply it to all including the DES and himself. The programme for government commits him to produce a three year strategy for the DES within the first hundred days and to measure it subsequently. I suspect that this will be a far more serious process than is usual.

It may surprise some but I think it is possible that he could turn out to be the most radical Minister for Education in years. There are of course powerful conservative vested interests in Irish education and we know that these will not be persuaded to agree to innovation very easily. It is important to remember that the last Minister for Education who introduced a period of radical improvement in the 1960s, Dr Hillery, would not have been so successful but for the full support and active involvement of the Taoiseach of the day Seán Lemass. So, the challenge is great and he will need support from the highest levels of government, and others with influence in the education community, if he is to radically improve services for our children and young people.


School Attendance

A report in the Irish Examiner on 6th April detailed the case of a Limerick mother who was sentenced to a month in jail for failing to send her son to school. The prosecution was initiated by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, after the boy missed 23 of 26 school days in the first term of 2014. Following the initiation of proceedings attendance improved somewhat but last year his absenteeism rate was over 70%.

Some years ago I had the opportunity to conduct some research on the issue of school attendance. The problem is multi-causal and ‘one fits all’ solutions are of little use. My examination of the issue included tracking the attendance patterns of a cohort of pupils over their school careers. In the vast majority of cases patterns of irregular school attendance begin to become obvious at a very early stage. Intermittent attendance at primary often results in poor attainment levels. These in turn often prompt disaffection when the pupil is in the early years of post-primary level leading to even poorer school attendance. If ever there is any point in taking a court action against a parent of a pupil with poor attendance patterns, which I doubt very much, initiating it in the case of a 14 year old is almost certainly a waste of time and resources. In this particular case the futility of the approach taken is underlined by the fact that by the time the sentence was passed the boy had reached 16 years of age and was not legally obliged to attend school in any event.

In the last few weeks there were two other interesting developments which relate to the school attendance issue. A report released by the Dept. Of Education & Skills focuses on those who leave the school system without completing the full cycle.  In it figure those who were attending post-primary schools in September 2010 were traced to see how many were still in the system one year later with the obvious exception of pupils who had left on completion of the Leaving Certificate programme in the interim. It seems that there were just over 7,500 of these ‘early leavers’. The report does not indicate how many of these were less than 16 years of age. It seems reasonable to assume all those at junior cycle level together with some of the 4th years were in that category. The figures suggest that something over 4,000 children and young people were in breach of the minimum school leaving age regulation. The numbers, like the pupil in the court case, who remain on the books but are, in essence, disengaged from the process, are likely to be multiples of that. Strangely the DES report makes no mention of those who either leave during the course of the primary cycle or fail to transfer to post-primary school. The probability is that there are a significant number in this category also. So, all in all, there are many thousands who leave the education system, or become disengaged from it to all intents and purposes, before the age of 16. A second development was the discussions with between the main political parties and Independent Dáil Deputies regarding government formation. It was reported that one of the points of agreement that emerged from the discussions was to increase the minimum school leaving age by one year to 17. One would have thought that a more urgent priority was to tackle the issue of the thousands of pupils who essentially disengage from the system or leave it entirely before they reach 16 years of age and so are in breach of the current legal requirement. Last year it seems that Tusla engaged in court action in about 500 cases. Even if the argument is advanced that court action may help in some circumstances, clearly they are only scratching at the surface of this issue.

In fairness to those in the education welfare services of Tusla, they, together with personnel in schools, international research makes it clear that tackling pupil absenteeism is a particular challenge. Usually irregular attendance at school is symptomatic of a huge range of other factors which will be different from case to case. In the Irish situation a further difficulty arises from the setting up of the welfare service and the drafting of the Education Welfare Act under which it operates. The Act was introduced in 2000. Unfortunately there is no evidence that the DES gave detailed consideration to the complexity of the issue or made any serious attempt to measure its extent prior to drafting the legislation. Coming up with a solution to a problem without detailed consideration of its nature and extent is never advisable. Inevitably implementation issues and problems arose after the Act was commenced and these have hampered those dealing with the issue since. I doubt that the educational welfare service has had a marked impact on school attendance patterns since it was introduced. Certainly a ‘value for money’ audit would be likely to raise serious questions. On the other hand all is not lost as I’m sure that a lot has been learned in the past decade. Taking this into account it might be a good time to start again.

Hopefully, when a new Oireachtas Education Committee is formed the members will take an opportunity to examine the Education Welfare Act and its implementation. Some amendments to the legislation and a properly resourced welfare service taking a more strategic approach it its role, based on early identification of problem cases and appropriate supportive intervention, might emerge.


Education —A non-issue politically?

Education policy was a virtual non-issue in the recent general election campaign. None of the party leaders addressed the topic in any significant way. I think it’s fair to say that the education manifestos were notable for a lack of original thinking and indeed, with one or two exceptions were not very comprehensive. Yet education is far and away our most significant and costly intervention in the lives of young people. The question arises therefore as to why it seems to matter little in political discourse.

The exit poll carried out by Behaviour and Attitudes on behalf of RTÉ may afford us a least a partial explanation. 1418 individuals were asked to identify the issue that most influenced their first preference vote. The health service was listed by 20% of those questioned, closely followed by management of the economy at 18%. The remaining issues on the list all scored less than 10%. Of these 3% of those questioned mentioned education as the most influential factor in determining their first preference vote. When the figures were broken down by age it is noticeable that there was a far greater concern regarding education among people in the 18-24 age group at 17%. Presumably quite a number of the respondents in this sub-group were still directly engaged in the education system. The figure for the 25-34 age group at 5% was slightly greater than the overall figure which probably reflects the concern of those rearing young families. On the other hand those over 50 displayed less concern about the topic at 1%.

The responses were also broken down by social category with those in the ABC categories at 3%, C2DE at 2% and F no score. Responses were also analysed under the heading of the political party for whom those interviewed had voted. Again the variation was very limited ranging from 2 to 5% with the exception of the Independent Alliance, Independents for Change, and AAA-PBP each of which registered zero percent. It could be argued that a word of caution would have to apply in these cases as the numbers of respondents in those sub-groups was relatively small at 50, 20 and 74 respectively. On the other hand, however, it is noticeable that in the case of The Labour Party, The Social Democrats and the Greens, where the numbers interviewed were also below 100, the figures ranged between 3-5% of the respondents listing education as the most influential factor in their decision-making.

Overall it is clear from this that the electorate as a whole is relatively uninterested in education policy. Why this should be the case baffles me somewhat. It may be that while we are anxious to secure the best for our own family members the rights of the generality of children and young people are not high in our list of priorities. Even without focus groups politicians generally are keenly attuned to the issues which concern voters. The lack of meaningful discussion among the parties and politicians on the topic in the recent election campaign, and indeed previous ones, obviously reflects thinking in the wider society.

While this may be the most significant reason for the lack of political engagement with the topic another contributory factor may lie in the development of the Irish education system over the decades. Traditionally education provision was in the hands of the churches. The State’s role in the 19th century was limited to providing some, though not all, the necessary resources. Gradually the State accepted responsibility for issues such as curriculum and teacher qualifications. However, generations of politicians, with few exceptions, and the bureaucratic apparatus supporting them, have displayed extreme reluctance to go beyond that. The political parties’ manifestos when they address educational issues, as during the recent election, tend to limit themselves to supporting some of the ideas put forward by interest groups. While no doubt many of these are worthwhile some original thinking is also desirable. The State has been happy to disavow all responsibility for what goes on in schools, sometimes with tragic consequences. Indeed this hands-off approach is enshrined in the constitution of 1937 and there’s no evidence of any desire among the politicians and mandarins in Marlboro’ Street to change that state of affairs. This is a deep-rooted culture in Irish education and continues to flourish as the Department of Education seeks to hand over the running of schools to anyone who may be interested in taking on that responsibility and affords interest groups too much power. Eventually the implications of the significant legal victory of the extremely courageous Louise O’ Keeffe at the European Court of Human Rights will have to be considered. Hopefully this will lead to a comprehensive discussion on the role of the State should play in education policy formation in a democratic republic. In the meantime the laissez-faire approach to education policy prevails.


A FG-FF Arrangement

Implications for Education Policy

One of the distinctive and, to my mind, disappointing features of the recent general election campaign was that issues in regard to education policy attracted little if any attention or comment.. Quite why this should be the case is difficult to understand. Education is our largest, most important (and costly) intervention in our children and young people, yet I cannot recall any party leader or prominent politician addressing the topic during the election campaign. At the time of writing, some arrangement between the two biggest parties seems likely to emerge from the government formation process. So, it’s necessary to revisit the main points in their election manifestos in order to have some idea of what policies might be implemented in the next few years.

Both parties produced reasonably comprehensive policy documents underpinned by an effort to cost their proposals. It is surprising how many campaigning groups active in the education field, and media organisations, produced summaries or checklists of manifesto proposals without examining the costings.  It’s not clear what purpose such an exercise achieves and indeed it probably serves to mislead. Newstalk was one honourable exception and researchers there pinpointed a serious difficulty with the education manifestos of parties generally in calculating the financial implications of their proposals as we shall see.


Primary Education

The main issue addressed at primary level by both parties is the question of class sizes. Currently the pupil teacher ratio (PTR) at primary is 27 to 1 (lower in DEIS schools serving disadvantaged areas) which determines the teacher allocation to each school. Each one point reduction requires the appointment of 250 extra teachers at an approximate cost of €15 million. Both parties pledge a significant reduction in the PTR over the term of the next government. In the case of FF, the commitment is to reduce the average class size to 23 whereas FG proposes to concentrate the reduction on junior and senior infant classes which will be calculated on the basis of a ratio of 18 to 1. Neither party makes clear whether a similar reduction is intended for DEIS schools. The cost of these proposals is estimated and included in the manifestos. However, as Newstalk highlights, the figures provided are based solely on the cost of hiring an appropriate number of additional teachers. Every time a school recruits an additional teacher, non-pay costs arise in the form equipment and materials for that person to use in class. There may also, in particular cases, be a need to employ additional SNAs as a consequence. Even more significant in financial terms would be the question of accommodation. Obviously in many schools the additional teachers could take classes in hitherto empty classrooms. In other locations, however, it would be necessary to build additional classrooms. At a current cost of €200,000 to build and equip a single classroom the cost of implementing the pledges given by each of the two parties would be huge. It would be unfair to criticise them for not estimating the cost of the additional accommodation that would arise. To carry out the necessary research on which to base a figure would be a huge task. However, one would have expected that this large omission from their calculations would have been mentioned in any serious manifesto. The only reasonable conclusion one can draw is that the changes in class sizes pledged by both parties, which in each case is the major item in their education manifesto as regards primary level, are unrealistic and unlikely to be achieved. Instead, what’s likely to happen is that small incremental changes will be made without reaching the target figures. Unfortunately, research indicates that changes of this nature have no impact on outcomes. Only significant reductions have a noticeable effect. In this context, the FG idea of targeting whatever resources are available on early intervention at infant class level has much to recommend it

In other less expensive areas of the manifestos as they relate to primary education, there are large areas of agreement though different in some details. So, agreement between the parties on the need to improve capitation grants, spend more on ICT, increase staffing in the National Educational Psychological Service, and improve speech and language therapy services, increased funding for continuous professional development of teachers at both primary and secondary level, should be achieved easily.

On a number of issues which have proved controversial, the parties are vague or non-committal. So on the patronage issue FF states that children, irrespective of religion, should be allowed attend their local school and that selection criteria need to be drawn up for over-subscribed schools. FG commits to allowing for more multi and non-denominational schools. As regards the two-tier salary scales which discriminate against new entrants to the teaching profession at both primary and secondary levels, FG ignores the issue whereas FF pledges to address this anomaly without offering precise details. Similarly as regards the moratorium on filling posts of responsibility in schools, FG is silent on the matter. FF intends to restore assistant principal posts beginning in 2017 but makes no mention of special duties appointments. This may signal an intention to drop these from the management structure altogether. I suspect many would see merit in this idea because, in reality, the duties attached rarely if ever merited the designation ‘management’.



As regards post-primary level, any agreed programme which might emerge between the parties is likely to reflect strongly the FF manifesto if for no other reason than the fact that the FG one is remarkably slight on issues specific to that sector. FF has adopted as a key educational strategy the restoration of ex-quota guidance provision in schools. They also have proposals for the non-pay element of funding of schools in the ‘free’ education scheme (i.e. excluding those which are fee-paying). This lack of equity in such funding has been a matter of contention for decades. If memory serves me correctly, there have been at least two expert groups which have reported on the position and made recommendations for significant changes which were ignored by successive ministers. It is often asserted that schools in the voluntary secondary schools are very poorly funded by comparison with their counterparts in the Community and Comprehensive sector with those in the ETB (formerly VEC) sector lying somewhere in between. Anecdotal evidence and my own experience lend credibility to that view. Some years ago, a programme of additional capitation funding to assist the voluntary secondary schools was introduced but it ceased when the recession hit the country. FF has committed to reintroducing this equalisation funding scheme. The problem with this approach is that it is a fairly blunt instrument in that it ignores the existence of parental voluntary contributions. A very small scale survey I undertook some years ago across all types of post-primary school indicated that the level of voluntary contribution ranged from zero in a DEIS school to €1,000 per child per annum in a school located in one of the leafy suburbs. So the voluntary contribution can distort the picture quite considerably. It’s not just a question of the sector to which the school belongs. The nature of the catchment area has a huge bearing on the resources available to a school. While the general assertion is true and schools in the voluntary secondary sector lose out in terms of state funding there are very well-funded schools in that and the other sectors. By the same token there are schools in all three sectors operating with meagre resources at their disposal.

An area of potential disagreement between the parties relates to ideas which can be grouped generally under the heading of accountability at both primary and post-primary levels. The DES released a discussion paper last year entitled Advancing School Autonomy in the Irish School System. The ideas outlined in it has attracted FG interest but little from FF. Bureaucracies, as a general rule are not noted for devolving power especially ones like the DES which have little at their disposal in any event. Quite apart from the merits of increased autonomy at school level, it is likely that any proposal along these lines will gain much traction as it will be interpreted as a move to transfer responsibility for the performance of our schools as far as possible from Marlboro’ Street. In particular a game of pass the parcel in respect of accountability for teacher performance has been ongoing for decades and it is unlikely that school boards, principals, or trustee bodies will prove naïve in accepting a primary role in that regard. More particularly, teacher unions are likely to exercise their powers of virtual veto in respect of any move towards increased accountability.  So the FG proposals requiring annual school reports, target-setting in which parents will be involved, strengthened self-evaluation processes, a mechanism for addressing the issue of what are described as failing schools, an effective complaints procedure for parents, implementing fitness to teach regulations and making the teaching council more independent and effective, all have sensitive implications. A FG-FF coalition government might agree to address some of these issues. Certainly it would have a strong enough parliamentary majority to resist the vested interests and establish the state as the primary policy maker in Irish education. Of course previous administrations in a similarly strong position have declined to take steps in this direction so whether any FF-FG coalition would do so is open to question. On the other hand if a minority government emerges it is unlikely that politically sensitive issues will be addressed   irrespective of which of the major parties is leading it.


Third Level & Further Education

An expert group has been looking at the issue of the funding arrangements for third level education. While both parties support increased funding for the sector specific commitments are missing as they await the report of the expert group. This increased funding in the case of FG would be conditional on eliminating waste. It seems that one issue under consideration is the re-introduction of tuition fees which might be more closely related to the economic cost of the courses being provided. A student loan scheme to support such a development seems a likely outcome. The fact that the report of the group was awaited afforded the parties a reason (or perhaps excuse) to sidestep the issue. The current registration fee attracted some attention as the Union of Students in Ireland campaigned for its abolition. FF proposes to freeze it at its current level for the next five years whereas FG ignored the issue.

Friends and former colleagues working in the further education often describe it as the Cinderella sector of state involvement in Irish education. There is ample evidence to support this view as I failed to identify in their manifestos evidence of any detailed thinking or policy by either party on the issues and challenges facing further education.


 Educational Disadvantage

My particular interest relates to policies designed to combat educational disadvantage. In the primary sector, schools in the more disadvantaged areas are supported in the form of a lower PTR. In proposing reductions in the general PTR neither party indicates that the lower one would be reduced proportionately. So it would seem that the discrimination in favour of schools serving disadvantaged areas is going to be reduced in relative terms. At second level both seem to focus on extending the DEIS scheme to other schools. This might be seen to imply that it an adequate response to the needs of the schools currently involved. There is a hint in the FF manifesto that they recognise that this is not the case to what they propose to do as a response is not very clear. FG’s intentions are also vague as they commit merely to producing an action plan for social inclusion within a year.  As regards the School Completion Programme, however, FF is quite specific promising to restore cuts made in recent years. At third level the dominant issue in recent years has been the question of funding. A more longstanding one, and in social terms a more significant issue, has been the question of access. For decades we have had ample evidence that access to third level is strongly related to socio-economic status. For many people from poorer backgrounds a third level education is not a realistic option because of circumstances outside their control. The FF proposal to increase the Student Maintenance Grant and the Student Hardship Fund would certainly help but the issues are more fundamental than that and reflect deficiencies in our education provision far earlier in the system. All in all the manifestos of both parties are disappointing on the issue of tackling educational disadvantage and creating equality of opportunity for all. In fairness, the same comment could be applied to the manifestos of the smaller parties also.


Brian Fleming

The Educational Disadvantage Committee; A Strange Case


The Educational Disadvantage Committee (EDC), as provided for in the 1998 Education Act, was appointed in March 2002 by Minister for Education Michael Woods. As specified in the legislation, the term of office was for three years, and, unusually in Irish education, it was designed as an expert rather than a representative group. The Act specified that no more than half of the members were to be nominees of education partners’ groups. During its term of office, the group submitted four important reports to the Minister for Education on the issue of identifying disadvantage and targeting resources, teacher supply and staffing in disadvantaged areas, and integrated delivery service and priority areas for action in adult and community education.

It concluded its term of office with a final report, Moving Beyond Educational Disadvantage. In it, the committee identified a number of principles that it felt should underline any national policy. This was a rights-based approach to equality, inclusion of diversity, integration of strategies, structures and systems, coherence of provision, focused target-setting, and measurement and monitoring of outcomes and results. This led to a strategy based on three goals: Achieve educational equality in the broader context of achieving social inclusion. Provide inclusive opportunities for learning at all stages of the life cycle, from birth onwards. Improve the mainstream school system so that all young people aged from three to eighteen receive an education that is appropriate to their needs.

In relation to each of its objectives, the committee recommended a course of action, including priority investment in disadvantaged areas, which was to be carried out in a strategic manner; provision of adequate resources to the National Education Welfare Board; more integrated practice between the various governmental departments, local authorities and agencies, both voluntary and statutory, involved in the provision of services to children and young people; the promotion of high standards of literacy and numeracy across all age groups, using schools as locations for before- and after-school education programmes, providing timely and effective support to ensure that no learner is left behind; and recognising alternative provisions such as Youthreach as meeting the requirements for compulsory schooling, preventing early school-leaving by providing appropriate intervention programmes in pre-school, primary, post-primary and in the community. The EDC set out a number of conditions that needed to be in place if the strategy were to be successfully implemented. These included a clear focus on outcomes, availability of the necessary resources, effective communication of the strategy to all the relevant parties, and an emphasis on measuring and reporting outcomes.


In May 2005, Minister for Education Mary Hanafin launched the DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) Programme. It acknowledged the work of the EDC as having been central to the development of the plan. Of particular interest was its greater focus on the objective assessment of schools being incorporated into the programme, and an integration of various initiatives was proposed. Extra funding was to be made available to about 150 designated secondary schools, including an additional grant under the School Books Scheme, resources to fund a Whole School Literacy and Numeracy Strategy, inclusion in the Home School Community Liaison Scheme, and School Completion Programme. A total of forty additional guidance counsellors were assigned, and the Junior Certificate Schools Programme demonstration library project, which then incorporated eleven schools, was extended to another ten. As an essential part of the programme, school planning and target-setting measures were to be provided. Curricular initiatives, such as the Junior Certificate Schools Programme and the Leaving Certificate Applied were to be made available to those schools serving disadvantaged areas, and which were not already providing them. The various initiatives that had previously been made available to such schools were to be integrated in a school-support programme, and outside agencies such as the Education Welfare Board were seen as important participants in ensuring progress. A commitment was also made to disadvantaged areas in the form of early education and primary provision, together with an indication that the issue of access to third level would be developed with the support of the National Access Office. Progress on the implementation of plans was to be reviewed on an annual basis. It is noticeable, however, that no effort was made to analyse the educational needs of particular areas, their extent, and the resources needed to overcome them.

In its final report, the EDC welcomed the introduction of the DEIS plan. However, it pointed out that its own plan went further, being based on the belief that ‘schools alone cannot achieve educational equality’. Therefore it stressed the role of other bodies, government departments and agencies, together with the voluntary sector, in working towards a bigger social and economic change agenda. In particular, it stressed the importance of encouraging marginalised communities to identify their problems and work towards their solution in tandem with agencies of the State. The DEIS plan had a more narrow focus, essentially outlining actions that should be taken within the formal education system, thereby excluding the possibility of intervention with pre-school children, whereas the EDC had identified that as a priority. In addition, the EDC sought to ensure ‘joined up action at both local and national level’. The vision outlined in the EDC’s final report was ‘not only equality of opportunity and equality of participation but equality of outcomes and equality of condition’. Another distinctive feature was the emphasis placed on supporting the teachers in schools, an issue that received little attention in the DEIS document.

The term of office of the first EDC, due to end in March 2005, was extended to June to allow it complete its final report. The department’s production of the DEIS plan in May came as something of a surprise to members of the committee. It is clear that they were unaware that the department had intended taking this step, even though some senior officials had been attending meetings of the EDC. ‘We were gazumped’ is how one member with long experience in the ways of government departments recalls his feelings. In his view, the representatives of the department who attended EDC meetings never really engaged with the process but ‘made a pretence of doing so’. Another member refers to officials engaging in discussions only these concerned a ‘pet’ project. The fact that various officials had different ‘pets’, which were in competition for resources, made the work of the EDC more difficult:


I had a feeling that the EDC was considered by some to be an unacceptable intrusion into the decision making role of the DES. The EDC could advise but the DES will do its thing.


The chairperson of the EDC, Áine Hyland, sensed a ‘lack of support which I never understood’ among department officials, and a feeling that ‘somehow it had been set up without their approval’. Of course it is possible that Micheál Martin, when he included the idea of an EDC in the legislation and then decided to make its establishment imperative, was acting contrary to the advice of his senior officials. However, the former minister is quite clear, in recalling these events, that this was not the case.

Subsequently, the final report of the EDC was printed but never officially launched. When the term of office of the first committee ended, it fell to the Minister for Education and the government to appoint a new committee, as required by law. There is no evidence of any urgency on the part of the department or the minister to appoint members to commence a new term of office. It was not until six months had elapsed, after the EDC went out of existence, that the department wrote to various organisations in January 2006, advising that the ‘process of appointing a new committee is now underway’ and seeking their views ‘about the composition and future work of the committee’.  A background note accompanying this letter emphasised the department’s commitment to implementing the DEIS plan as a key priority and foresaw a role for the EDC in this regard. ‘In line with its advisory role, the advice of Committee will be sought by the Department in relation to the effective implementation and evaluation of DEIS measures generally.’ The note also advised that the minister intend to appoint a chairperson and committee at an early date. Most of the educational partners replied within the next month or so. The matter of the future work of the committee was addressed in some responses. Many agreed that the new EDC should have a role in overseeing the implementation of the DEIS plan. Some of the submissions echoed the findings of the final report of the first EDC in calling for a more comprehensive, holistic, rights-based approach to the issue of educational disadvantage. Just over a year later, the minister indicated in response to a parliamentary question that the views as expressed by the various groupings were being considered, following which ‘the members of the new committee will be appointed’. However, after a further two months had elapsed, the Minister for State at the Department of Education, Seán Haughey, outlined a new position:


The government has decided as part of the decision on the rationalisation of agencies in the 2009 budget that a formal statutory committee is no longer required in order to advise on the issue of education and disadvantage.


In view of many controversial decisions announced in that budget, in relation to education and other matters, the abolition of the EDC did not attract significant attention.

As the setting up of an EDC was a requirement of the 1998 Education Act, legislation was required to abolish it. This came before the Oireachtas in 2012, seven years after it last met, notwithstanding the legislative requirement to have an EDC in the meantime. Minister Ruairi Quinn expressed the view to the Seanad that the EDC ‘is no longer required since the establishment of DEIS’, and that ‘the implementation and evaluation of DEIS has been continuously supported by ongoing consultation with education partners and stakeholders’. Subsequently, in the Dáil, he advised that the Educational Research Centre and the department’s inspectorate had evaluated DEIS and that he was confident that the ERC and other research bodies would continue to provide data on disadvantage, and inform future policy decisions.

These events are difficult to rationalise. More than three years elapsed between the end of the term of office of the first EDC and the announcement of its abolition. This delay clearly suggests a marked reluctance to appoint a replacement EDC. The explanation that the decision was made on financial grounds is not persuasive even allowing for the stringent times.  When questioned as to why the EDC had not been informed that the DEIS plan was in preparation, a senior official explained that the Official Secrets Act prohibited the sharing of such information. Such a rationale is considered to be laughable by insiders interviewed during this research. The minister’s comments in the Dáil and Seanad, implying that consultation with the partners and commissioned research on DEIS is equivalent to the role an independent statutory committee might have fulfilled in evaluating provision, is not convincing. A second EDC would have an agenda wider than DEIS in any event.

Another possibility is that the work of the EDC, and the reports they produced, were of little value, but no such assertion was made. This episode, as more than one insider put it, ‘is about control’. Perhaps it is to be expected that a department that traditionally had such limited control over events should resist any further diminution by conceding power to others. The department officials gave a hostage to fortune when they assigned a role for the proposed second EDC to advise on DEIS. Unwittingly, they had come close to Deputy Bruton’s suggestion of the EDC equality- proofing the policies of the department, and decided to reverse Micheál Martin’s initiative of 1998. More specifically, the EDC was as close as we had ever come to an independent evaluation process of educational provision since the Investment in Education exercise in the 1960s.


Brian Fleming

Access to Higher Education

Time for a New Approach

In August 1968 the Minister for Education, Brian Lenihan, announced the setting up of the Higher Education Authority. Three years later it was placed on a statutory basis. Amongst the general functions assigned to the group was responsibility to promote ‘equality of opportunity in higher education’. Ground-breaking research, which Monica Nevin carried out in UCD, had established that entry to college was largely confined to those belonging to middle or upper class families. So, difficulties with this matter had been well known to Irish educational policymakers.

I think it’s reasonable to say that the Authority did little to address the issue in the early years. It was not until a decade had elapsed that the HEA set about determining the extent of the problem. It commissioned Patrick Clancy and Ciaran Benson to carry out research in the Dublin area. Their report, published in 1979, indicated the difficulties faced by members of particular socio-economic groups in accessing third level education. In fairness, having started the process the HEA continued by commissioning further research.  Dr Clancy assessed the national picture in Participation in Higher Education published in 1982. This was followed by further series of reports by him in which he analysed various cohorts of Irish school students and their patterns of access to college. Since his final study was published in 2001, others have carried out further analyses on similar lines.

Clancy’s reports, and indeed subsequent ones, continued to highlight the problem. His studies identified the issue of the educational experience of young people earlier in the education system as being of significance. In particular, he described various transitions throughout the education system of which access to college, and completion therein, are merely the final two. In a sense securing a third level qualification is akin to a hurdle race. Entry to college is the penultimate obstacle and course completion is the final one. However, starting with a child’s readiness for infant school there are many hurdles to be crossed in the interim. So, early intervention is essential.

Aside from reports commissioned by the HEA the issue of access to third level education was considered in a wide range of official reports in the 1990s. These included Green and White Papers on Irish Education, the Report of the National Education Convention, The Commission on the Points system, the Report of the Steering Committee on the Future Development of Higher Education and the Report of the Advisory Committee on Student Support. I recall that the office which I occupied, as principal of a school for whose pupils this was a very relevant issue, contained a plethora of reports on the topic. Without underestimating the work that had gone in to producing these reports the need for concrete steps to be taken was long overdue.

In September 2000, the Minister for Education Michael Woods established an Action Group to consider the development of a coordinated framework to promote access to third level education by disadvantaged students, who are the focus of this article, as well as mature applicants and students with disabilities. They suggested that a national office for equality of access to higher education should be established within the HEA “to draw up policy proposals and to oversee the implementation of the National programme in close liaison with the Department of Education and other stakeholders.”  While the creation of a national office is an idea that obviously had merits, the location within the HEA was somewhat strange and likely to create implementation problems.  The HEA, then as now, had no function in relation to pre–school, primary or post-primary education. 

In any event, the National Office for Equity of Access to Higher Education was established within the HEA in August 2003 and produced, in late 2004, an action plan to cover the period of 2005–7.  This was followed by a second national plan to cover the period 2008–13. In the interim a target of 72% of the cohort proceeding to third level by 2020 had been set in the National Skills Strategy released in 2007. Within this average figure the National Access Office, in their 2008–13 plan, specified that all socio-economic groups would have entry rates of at least 54% by 2020. When this target was determined there were a number of socio-economic groups who were seriously under-represented. For example, young people from the socio-economic category ‘unskilled manual’ were estimated to have progression rate 27%. In order to reach the 54% figure interim targets were set to mark progress. These were 37% (2010) and 42% (2013) en route to 54% by 2020. In reality very little progress was achieved and these and other targets were missed by a wide margin. The idea that this group could double its participation rate by 2020 illustrates clearly that the HEA, presumably in consultation with the Dept of Education and Skills, failed to understand the challenges faced by pupils from poorer families and schools serving disadvantaged areas

Missing targets is not a major problem, of itself, provided a detailed assessment is carried out to determine the reasons for the failure and steps are taken to address these issues. There is no evidence of any such analysis contained in the recently released National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education, 2015 – 2019. Of course any such an exercise would almost certainly have focused on deficiencies in provision at the first and second levels of the education provision as well as a failure to provide adequate resources to students at third level. Organisations such as the HEA, which operate under the aegis of the DES, are little more than branch offices of the mother-ship and so, to all practical purposes, are not noted for robust comment on the policies of the Department. In the recent plan the 54% target has been set aside quietly and a new figure of 35% by 2020 has been promulgated in respect of those in the group most under-represented.

This article may be interpreted as a criticism of the personnel who have worked on this issue over the years in the HEA. That is not the intention. In organisational terms their position is impossible. Research by Clancy and others clearly point out that improving access to college depends largely on activities earlier in the young person’s educational experiences. Yes, disparities in access rates to college are a serious problem. Fundamentally, however, they are symptoms of deeper problems and deficiencies in educational provision at earlier stages. A number of factors in the young person’s earlier educational experience have a bearing on the access to college issue. Of these educational attainment is of greatest significance. There is a strong link between parental socio-economic status and attainment levels in school and it begins to have an impact at a young age. This relates not just to the individual student or his /her family but also to the school attended. The challenges facing schools located in deprived areas are many. The result can be to restrict the pupil’s chances of reaching his/her attainment potential because of inhibiting factors within the school. Restrictions on choice of subject and levels at which it is taught are but one example of this phenomenon. So, the pattern of access to college for certain groups is established many years earlier. In order words the odds are stacked against many young people from an early age.

A secondary issue is the question of aspirations including those of parents and teachers as well as the individual students themselves. Career guidance teachers and schools generally are called upon to promote high educational aspirations among their students. Undoubtedly this is important but encouraging high aspirations when a student’s achievement level is disappointing is unlikely to have a significant impact. His/her experiences at primary and second level inevitably impacts on the young person’s aspirations to proceed to further education and this, in turn, affects performance and attainment. In a sense it is a vicious circle.

The adequacy or otherwise of the third level grant system is often cited as a factor in the access to college issue. Though secondary in significance to prior attainment levels an adequate grant system is essential for young people to proceed into and complete third-level education. It has been estimated that at best the grant currently available meets between a quarter and a third of average expenditure. In these circumstances many young people from poorer families even if achieving to their full potential in school may not consider going to college as a realistic option.

In summary, action to improve access to third – level education needs to be taken earlier in the primary and secondary sectors, and indeed at pre-school level. The HEA has no role whatsoever in these matters and probably only limited expertise. Marked differences in participation rates at third-level are a problem that is not caused by higher education providers and so, they are not well placed to resolve it. At best they can make an important, albeit limited, contribution to bringing about improvements.

Clearly these limitations impact on how the HEA and the National Access Office see their role. In preparation for drawing up the recently released plan a wide public consultation process was initiated. As part of that meetings were held with 12 organisations/individuals working in the education field, broadly defined. None of these were operating at pre-school, primary or second level. Even more striking is the response to public advertisements seeking submissions. Fifty eight individuals/organisations responded with three choosing to remain anonymous. Almost fifty of the submissions came from organisations active in the education field. One would have expected to see contributions to the process from all the national education partners including the teacher unions, the various managerial bodies, patronage organisations and Parents Councils at primary or second level. A very striking feature is that only two of these bodies made submission, namely NAPD and ASTI. In addition, and to the credit of those involved, one individual school facing the challenges posed by educational disadvantage on a daily basis, St Dominic’s Secondary in Ballyfermot, also made a submission.  It seems probable that the explanation for lack of engagement in the issue by the first and second level education partners is a perception that the access is a third-level matter. Assigning responsibility to the HEA for access to college obviously contributes to this misconception.

Many would agree serious effort needs to be made to address the issue of access to college and to bring about equality of opportunity in that regard. While resources are often listed as the most important factor in ensuring progress it can be argued that organisational change might have a more significant impact. In particular, the status of the National Access Office needs to be reviewed. It was reasonable in 1968 to assign the question of access to the HEA. The government at that time believed that it had brought about equality of opportunity at primary and post-primary level. Subsequent experiences have illustrated that this optimism was misplaced. The challenges that need to be overcome in achieving a satisfactory progression pattern through the education system to higher education are quite intractable. The HEA has had foremost responsibility for dealing with these in the Irish education system. Progress has been made but significant disparities remain. Huge numbers of people have missed out on the chance to fulfil their full potential. It is reasonable to suggest that after almost 60 years a new approach is urgently needed. To enable it to fulfil its remit the National Access Office should be established on a statutory basis, independent of both the DES and the HEA, located elsewhere, such as in the Dept. Children and the Family, with a separate funding stream. Such a radical change will only come about as a result of strong commitment at political level. In a particularly progressive move Micheál Martin included a provision in the 1998 Education Act making the appointment of a statutory Education Disadvantage Committee obligatory. It began work in 2002 and produced a number of valuable analyses and recommendations. Unfortunately, the existence of an independent voice commenting on educational provision was too much for policy makers in Marlboro’ Street to bear and it no longer exists.

Brian Fleming

Education History © 2017