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. John Bissett:

I am a community worker on the south side of the city and was a youth worker in the past. One of the things that it is important for me to say is that when I was a PhD student, I used to read about reproduction in education or the reproduction of inequalities in education. After 30 years, I know what reproduction means. It means very little change in the educational circumstances of large numbers of young people, particularly in working-class communities. The key point I want to make is that the education system is philosophically based on the foundation of equality of opportunity. That is a critical mistake and we need to change it. We should replace it with what is called equality of condition, a fundamentally different way of looking at how the education system is structured which has critical connections with the economic and financial system to give people the wherewithal and resources to participate in education in a realistic manner and in a more general sense in the society in which we live.

The philosophy based on equality of opportunity is a liberal philosophy that has become common sense and a doxaas the Greeks call it such that people think it is the only way. In 1960 the Council for Education advised the State that we should not have a fully public secondary school education system. I argue that today equality of opportunity is the new problem we face. It is based on meritocracy - the idea that IQ plus effort equals merit. The problem is that it ignores structural injustices within Irish society, principally in our economic structures. We live in a capitalist society that produces inequalities due to the nature of its structure. The equality of opportunity model presents the system as if everybody can make it if he or she just applies himself or herself and in such a way that those with the most intelligence will rise to the top when, in fact, the problem is that for lots of people the system is rigged from the beginning. The myth of equality of opportunity is very powerful and difficult to break down.

Education is full of class practices. Groups with more resources are able to buy their way through via private education resource packs to privilege or to enable their children to do so. This option is not available to large sections of the population, be they working-class, of other races or ethnic groups or women. Things such as extra tuition, grinds, out-of-school activities and other capital items about which people like Pierre Bourdieu have written extensively are transmitted to and inherited from one generation to the next.

We have had some changes in the education system over 30 or 40 years in terms of participation rates at the various levels.

My argument is that relatively little has changed since the introduction of post-primary free education. One of the key questions is on what values do we want the system to be based. Are they competitiveness and places for the talented few? How will nurturing, trust, solidarity and care fit into the education system? Effectively, we have a system that has been built to manage inequality and is presented as a fait accompli, the natural state of affairs, when we could fix and completely restructure it.