Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills

Education Inequality and Disadvantage: Discussion

4:00 pm

Dr. Katriona O'Sullivan:

When we consider the issue of educational disadvantage, we can sometimes forget that at the heart of the conversation are real people. Therefore, I want to start my statement by telling my story.

I am a doctor of psychology who graduated top of her class from Trinity College Dublin. I have published several research papers and book chapters on widening participation and presented at many conferences worldwide. I currently work in the University of Oxford in partnership with the Department of Education in examining the impact of following alternative access routes. To many, I am your average middle-class woman, but I am also the daughter of two heroin addicts. I was a teen mom having had a baby at the age of 15 years and an early school leaver. For a long time I lived on Benefit Street and felt comfortable working in a café around the corner from here serving people like me fried eggs and bacon, but through many supports and interventions, I have been able to over-achieve and outperform many of my friends in education and employment and navigating the dark arts of the system. However, it has not been easy. It is my view that there is no easy solution to the problem the committee is addressing.

I have been privileged to have read about and research what educational disadvantage is and how it impacts on lives. I have also been able to develop activities and work in areas in which people have been moved successfully from disadvantage to advantage. I bring with me some of the views I hold.

First, I think the DEIS scheme does not work in the stance it has taken. The recent review showed that it only had a significant impact on school planning and that levels of literacy and mathematics had only improved in line with all national improvements and that there were still large disparities between DEIS and all other schools. I would change the programme, including the prescribed sets of activities in which all schools included in the scheme must participate from primary through to second level. They should include subject support, aspiration-building activities and college awareness programmes. It is not enough to ask schools that are already stretched in time and resources to plan their own activities when we have a body of knowledge which shows what works and what does not. I would include an internship programme for all DEIS schools under which companies would commit to taking students from DEIS schools in transition year. I would also provide tax benefits for the companies involved.

On a more national scale, I would reform the higher education access route, HEAR, scheme and make the points reduction bigger and regulate it across higher education institutions. To date, each institution manages its own entry requirements. They are "interpreted" in differing ways. I would formalise the path from the leaving certificate applied programme to third level and from further to higher education. It is not the job of higher education institutions to try to recognise programmes or build relationships with further education colleges to formalise these routes. I would also recognise access routes by creating incentives for higher education institutions to develop routes to their courses from access and community programmes for the hard to reach groups - prisoners, lone parents and those who are severely marginalised.

I thank the joint committee for listening to my views and would welcome questions.