The Plight of the Post-Celtic Tiger Irish Child

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One of the most beautiful novels that I have read is The African Child by the late Guinean author, Camara Laye. This autobiographical work retraces his childhood, ending with the author on a flight to France, having won an academic scholarship.

Set during the colonial period, one of the things that stand out in the novel is the benefit of privilege. The South African author, William Plomer, claimed that Laye’s ‘natural ability and enterprise … enabled him to benefit by a French education’. I do not doubt that. However, Laye himself makes it clear that wealth contributed to the development of that ability and made fruitful his enterprise. His family could afford to make the sacrifices necessary to put him through the school in his village, and after that, a more advanced institution in the capital. This distinction meant that Laye was not bound to the path laid out for most of his age-mates. Were it not for his family’s relative wealth, Camara Laye would probably never have become the Camara Laye who played an instrumental role in the advancement of African literature.

I recognise that pattern. The education system that I went through was not too different from a post office processing department. Depending on what one was willing, or more importantly, able to pay, one’s child was put on a certain life path. The best, and most expensive path, began at the gates of private schools. These children, almost regardless of their grades, were the social ‘A-students’. With membership of that group came access to fast track management positions in multinational corporations, and if you played your cards right, the ability to travel abroad and induction into the global middle-class.

At the bottom of the barrel were the rural poor. Statistically, their fate was probably sealed from birth and whatever education they managed to obtain was little more than a formality. At best, it was a means by which society made sure they would be useful tools of labour should the need arise.

In-between those two extremes, the vast majority worked, fought, and did all they could to ensure that they got as close as possible to the most privileged, weary of sinking into the realms of the disadvantaged. There were no illusions about the existence of any sort of equality of educational opportunities. The state had limited resources and those individuals who invested the most personal wealth into their children, it was thought, were entitled to their dividends. Looking back, I suppose the majority did not mind the country’s glaring structural inequalities so long as there was the possibility, no matter how remote, that they could one day be the beneficiaries of that system. In that context, education served as perhaps the most significant locus for national social and economic engineering.

I’m not convinced that the plight of the post-Celtic Tiger Irish child is entirely different. For instance, what is the Irish education system’s raison d’être? A reasonable answer may be that it exists in order to bring about a ‘knowledge-based economy’ (KBE). That, at least, is the manner in which it is most often referred to in public discussion – be that with respect to the analysis of leaving certificate results, or debates on the reintroduction of third level fees. Alternatively, it could be said that the purpose of an education system is to teach people how to think. These ideas are not mutually exclusive, but depending on which is given the greatest priority, the outcome will be very different.

If the primary purpose of education here is to produce a KBE, then does it really matter if vast inequalities exist within the schooling system? Even in a KBE, there is only ever going to be the need for so many scientists and engineers. Rather than deal with the social problems associated with the underemployment of large numbers of highly skilled young people, education could just be viewed as a predominantly private good for social mobility. The children of those who can afford to live in neighbourhoods with the best schools, or pay fees for primary, secondary and tertiary education, can reap the benefits of their good fortune. As for the rest, whatever education the state can afford to offer, utilising its limited resources efficiently, can be made to serve them too. ‘…the secret to happiness and virtue’, wrote Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, lies in ‘liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.’ Under the education for the establishment of a KBE model, inequality is actually a good thing as it plays an important conditioning role which contributes to social harmony and cohesion.

If, on the other hand, the education system predominantly exists to teach people how to think, efficiency cannot be the only consideration. It is not enough to just teach the most pupils at the lowest cost. Nor is the investment into the education of children based on social status justifiable. Education, under this model, is not a private good but a public one, like policing or health care. In which case, one expects a fairly wealthy country like Ireland, even in times of recession, to do all that is possible to ensure universal access to universal standards.

UCD’s Professor Kathleen Lynch once wrote, ‘to claim that one is promoting equality in education without addressing economic injustices it to engage in an act of educational and political delusion.’ The question for the Irish child is whether equality in education is really a value that is held by the majority, or is it just a nice-sounding platitude?

The answer lies in our beliefs about the purpose of education, and more broadly, our values.

 

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