Shane Nolan looks at why private schools deliver better Leaving Cert results than others; the reason may not be what you think.
The Irish Times’ recent list of feeder schools confirms the tendency of private schools to produce students seeking higher-points courses. With 20 out of 25 of the top schools being privately run, it begs the question; what must average schools do to rectify this disparity?
 
When I received an entrance scholarship to UCC in 2014, I had to attend a ceremony acknowledging supposed ‘excelling’ through the Leaving Certificate. Without descending to generalizations, it was clear that among the bizarre robes and formality, that most of the other fifty-nine incoming first years were from well-to-do backgrounds. They seemed more accustomed to procedure and sipped champagne comfortably while I did not, I being but only from a lowly DEIS school.
 
The very Leaving Cert we were being praised for should be noted as an awful and unskilled game in my opinion. However, it raises the question why the private schools are so much better at it? I am evidently joking about my perfectly adequate school, but this idea of inferiority isn’t all that uncommon in the media. Al Porter made interesting points about inequality on Brendan O’ Connor’s ‘Cutting Edge’ but elements came across as crying foul, dare I say, even moaning and indeed failed to find the cause.
 
Our education system is no more intrinsically unequal than most countries. Apart from the worrying issue of rising fees - SUSI offers grants of some degree to many students while I see first-hand the great work the HEAR scheme do in UCC, offering both funding and additional points to encourage students to aspire for higher points courses. Private schools do not possess any secret formula to success, nor do they teach students how to sip champagne or to adorn a blazer correctly (though we may joke otherwise). These schools do, however, provide the simple support of offering direction.
 
Two simple words: career guidance.
 
It’s one thing to expect teenagers to consume twenty sraith phictuirí off by heart, which, despite the claims of the Department of Education, is occurring across the country and must occur to even have a chance of getting the required points. However, that is another matter. It is another thing entirely to expect students to aspire for high points without having an objective, without knowing what they want to do in college and without the support to decide this.
 
There has always been a strong correlation between those accessing further education and the level of education among their parents. It’s a simple case of monkey see, monkey do. For many, it is not uncommon to have parents without complete secondary, never mind third-level education. Neither of my parents sat a Junior Certificate, which was quite common in rural areas such as mine or the inner-city areas of which Al Porter speaks. If the only educated (in the official sense) people one encounters are teachers, then it simply makes it unlikely one will pursue further education themselves. This is just a matter of different generations. It may perhaps stem from unequal distribution of funds to disadvantaged areas but not from any inequality in education itself.
 
Again, going back to the unnecessary ceremony, we were given cards with the names and courses of those who won. It was easy enough to see the trend of lads from Presentation and Christians doing degrees in Applied Maths and Astrophysics. I find it unlikely that these people were staring at the sky one night only to have an epiphany and see Astrophysics as their vocation. It is far more probable that they received a gentle push towards the growing job sectors and thus the support to achieve the necessary points.
 
In my school, career guidance was the duty of two full-time teachers who could simply not cater for 100 Leaving Cert students, no matter how much they tried. An annual discussion of careers, probably after the DATS (another flawed assessment), could be summated to ‘science has jobs’. I know about a dozen former students doing Arts in UCC, many of whom received upwards of 400, even 500 points and who chose Arts due to the failure of career guidance. My point is that rather than bemoaning the fact that some people justifiably want the best education for their children, we should be trying to make one simple yet significant step forward by improving career guidance.
 
There are no perfect and purchasable methods to gaining a good Leaving Cert. Private schools simply have a college-attaining ethos borne through educated parents and cemented by career guidance. Private education will always exist and rightly so, but if we put aside two hours of career guidance a week we would make much needed progress in closing the gap. Fostering a desire for education rather than bemoaning those who attain it easier will be of far more benefit to everyone.