Education in Ireland still shaped by social class despite decades of investment

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The Minister of Education recently announced the extension of the Deis program (Promoting equal opportunities in schools). 310 additional schools are admitted to the program and an additional 32 million euros are provided for this purpose. This is a welcome development, especially for the schools involved. A refined and more focused identification model based on more detailed census statistics led to this development. The reality is that many should have qualified and been admitted earlier, but better late than never.

If the extension of the Deis device is an important development, it is regrettable that the minister did not also take the opportunity to announce a complete evaluation of the whole device.

Deis has been operational since 2005 and, although it has been the subject of several evaluations, to date no serious review or restructuring of the system has taken place.

The complex and intractable nature of educational disadvantage, together with the lack of any comprehensive review of the Deis regime, is such that it is difficult to be definitive about its impact.

Although the evidence suggests that progress has been made in closing the gap between Deis and non-Deis schools, it seems fairly clear that this progress has been limited, despite the program spanning more than 16 years old. Interestingly, the minister is committed to this expansion of the Deis program so that no school will lose out as a result of her announcement.

Is this implying here that students in every school in the Deis program are always so disadvantaged that the school cannot exit the program?

Cheap

Educational disadvantage is a complex and multifaceted issue. As such, it does not lend itself to easy or cheap solutions. Our research indicates that the Deis program is grossly underfunded relative to the challenges faced by school communities in striving to meet the needs of their students.

The program is also poorly structured in that it does not meaningfully address the particular organizational needs of the schools in the program. Since 2006, at primary level, the program has recognized the range of disadvantage that operates in Deis schools, with the level of disadvantage in some schools being more acute than in others.

Thus, at the primary level, the program operates at three levels or bands reflecting the extent of disadvantage evident in a school. No such system exists at post-primary level. The idea that all post-primary schools serving disadvantaged areas are the same has always been absurd. The recent announcement does not specify whether this approach is reformed or not. In the latter case, it is extremely disappointing, given that the more detailed figures now available would facilitate such a decision.

Equality

In the Education Act (1998), we made a commitment to ensure that we have a truly inclusive education system in which the needs of all pupils are to be catered for effectively.

This goal was reaffirmed when we joined the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 and is part of the current Agenda for Government. A serious effort to achieve this goal is long overdue.

Despite the introduction of the Free Education Scheme in 1967 and the abolition of third level fees in 1995, participation in education in Ireland continues to be determined by social class.

The very existence of a category of schools called Deis schools, located in disadvantaged communities, and which generally accommodate a greater number of students with complex learning and behavioral needs, underlines this point.

If marginal progress has been made since the implementation of the Deis system in 2005, the “school disadvantage” (a disempowering label that has an objectifying effect) continues to be considered as a school problem, with a lack of recognition and response at the political level to its fundamental and profound relationship to the wider economic inequalities in Irish society. The time to act is now.

Professor Judith Harford and Dr Brian Fleming, School of Education, UCD.


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