Private educational privileges. By Niall Crowley
The current defence of inherited privilege in the debate about the Education (Admissions to Schools) Bill is ugly no matter how you dress it up. There is the call to ethos and tradition, the soothing reassurance that this is not about excluding the disadvantaged, and the satisfying flexing of legal muscle and ‘contacts’. There is the inevitable support of the Catholic Church.
The Bill requires schools to implement an admissions policy that respects “principles of inclusion, equality and the right of parents to send their children to a school of the parents’ choice”. That seems right and proper. An accompanying draft regulation sets out that, where there are more applicants than places available, priority may not be given to a relative of a former student of the school. Schools are allowed to seek a derogation from this which would allow no more than 25% of available places in any school year to be filled by application of a past-pupil criterion.
The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection found this derogation too generous. They suggested it was “unclear as to why the relevant percentage was set at 25%” and that “there should be no such derogation, and that a school should not be permitted to give priority to a student on the grounds that he or she is the son or daughter of a former student of the school”.
The Catholic Church rushed to the barricades. The executive chair of the Catholic Schools Partnership stated: “We are strongly of the view that admissions should not be dealt with by legislation”. The elite ranks of the privately educated then moved in. The ‘Unions’ of past pupils of some fee-paying schools took up the cause. This was despite their schools still being able to protect privilege behind the barrier of high fees.
They did so without consultation with their alumni ‘members’ on the assumption that this defence of inherited privilege would inevitably be supported.
The Belvedere Union wrote to its members, “This isn’t just a threat to us, it is a threat to all schools in the country who rely on the goodwill, generosity and buy-in of past pupils”. Money in other words is the tradition, to be defended.
The Blackrock Union wrote to its members: “Blackrock College has operated a fair and transparent admissions policy without unjust State interference” and “The admissions policy has engendered a positive community spirit through many generations of ‘Rockmen’ and has never before been so unjustly challenged by the State”. Transparent: perhaps, but fair? On what definition?
Gonzaga Union sought to “maintain its autonomy in admission policy” but “this should not be interpreted as a desire to foster privilege or exclude pupils from entry to Gonzaga”. But – whatever the desire – it patently is about privilege and exclusion.
A discrimination case taken by a Traveller woman whose son was not admitted to Christian Brothers High School in Clonmel has recently ended up in the Supreme Court. The complaint was about the school’s policy of giving priority to students whose fathers were past pupils. It was pointed out that Travellers were statistically much less likely to have a father that attended secondary school. Only 10% of that child’s parents’ generation progressed to secondary school compared to 66% of the general population. The Equality Tribunal found this policy to be discriminatory, though the High Court overturned the decision – and the Supreme Court decision is awaited.
A 2009 ESRI study on the integration of pupils in schools considered the effects of admission practices and polices on the distribution of ‘newcomer’ pupils across schools. Some of the selection criteria applied by schools were found to exclude newcomer pupils including giving preference to those applicants with siblings already in the school and to children of staff or past pupils. This was already leading to a level of segregation at primary level.
Those most engaged in this defence of inherited privilege are fee-paying schools which couch their defence in terms of autonomy and freedom from state interference. This is principle-free self-serving selectivity, given their equally stout defence of state interference when it comes to any challenge to the €100 million annual subvention to these schools – from the state.
Education is the engine of equality. Particular scruple is required to avoid the privileged perpetuating their privilege through weasel words that underplay the signicance of exclusionary practices in private education. •