Intersectionality is a methodological way of studying how different types of inequality intersect and interact with each other and it certainly gives us a better understanding of the dynamics and structures of inequalities within contemporary societies. Intersectionality is an important tool in sociology for understanding inequalities as it highlights that certain types of inequality do not appear in isolation within a society but rather, they all overlap and interlace with each other within a society. “The concept…emerged in response to the inability of various singular analyses of structural inequality to recognise the complex interrelation between forms of oppression”. (Squires, 2008:55). The areas of social class and education are two of the initial aspects of society that we encounter from childhood onward. The first being one that shapes us unintentionally and the latter being an identity determinant filled with prior thought and planning. However, is there really enough planning put into educational systems? Education is an area of society that vastly intersects with other areas such as gender, race, sexuality and more, however, I’ve chosen the area of social class to discuss, as it is an area that finds itself seeping into the foundations of education, causing inequalities, especially during the student’s formative years. In response to this assignment I will be focusing on the ways in which social class or income inequalities intersect with education, more specifically in the education system of the Republic of Ireland. My essay will walk through a student’s stages of education from playschool to third level, focusing on how being of a lower social standing affects education both directly in the forms of schools available and indirectly in opportunities that are accessible. I will speak about programmes that are put in place to help children deemed to be from disadvantaged rural areas both before and during full time education in order to help narrow the attainment gap present in the educational system. The main body of the assignment will look at the impact of private schools on student’s achievement and also on how engaging in part time employment during school can affect academic success. Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of economic, cultural and symbolic capital and Davis and Moore’s theory on social stratification will be used to help sociologically explain the issues of educational and class inequalities within Ireland.
The compulsory age for Irish children to begin attending primary school is 6 years old. Pre-primary education is not compulsory in Ireland however there are many voluntary or private schemes in place in local communities that can prepare children for the transition from home to school life. In 40 schools around the country, where children are at risk of underperforming in primary education due to parent’s social class, and therefore lack of time to invest in the child’s schooling, a scheme called the Early Start Programme is implemented. This is a one-year programme that aims to help children within the ages of 3 and 5 to develop in a way that will reduce these ‘disadvantaged’ children’s chances of failing upon entering into full time education. (DES, 2019).
A huge area of interest regarding the intersection between social class and educational inequalities is the issue of Deis schools found in the Republic of Ireland. Deis stands for ‘Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools’. It is a scheme put in place by the Department of Education and Skills to give an educational advantage to pupils who attend education in areas that are deemed to be disadvantaged. An educational disadvantage is defined in terms of the Educational Act of 1998 as “the impediments to education arising from social or economic disadvantage which prevent students from deriving appropriate benefit from education in schools”. (Citizens Information, 2015). As of 2017, there were 896 Deis schools across the country (698 primary schools and 198 secondary schools). (Pollak, 2017). This a huge increase from a report issued in 2011 where there were only 540 Deis schools in the country. (DES, 2011:1). Although this increase clearly shows an effort from the Irish government to help close the class gap in regard to education, students from these schools still do not score as well academically as those who go to average state-run schools and more importantly, private, fee paying schools.
There have been many studies that have shown the positive impact of private schools on the academic achievement of students in both the United States and the United Kingdom. These studies include the Sutton Trust’s study of the British elite which showed the striking percentages of high paying jobs such as MP’s, judges and even performers that were privately educated. (Kirby, 2016). However, the concept of private schools is something that is lost among Irish people with there being as little as 50 fee paying schools around the country, educating around 25″,000 students yearly. (Irish Links, 2019). If we compare that to the total of 920″,867 students attending primary and secondary school in the country in 2018 (DES, 2018: 1), it totals at around 2.7% of school going children. What is interesting about this is that those who attended private school in Ireland make up a massive 20-25% of the students at Ireland’s most prestigious colleges, Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin but the figures are almost entirely reversed when we look at the 20-30% of Institute of Technology students that have attended Deis schools. (O’Brien, 2018). This truly highlights what is known as the attainment gap. Families in these disadvantaged urban areas do not have the capital to allow them to succeed at the same level at those who do.
There are three levels of capital according to Pierre Bourdieu: economic capital, symbolic capital and cultural capital. Economic capital refers rather self-explanatory to the level of monetary income a person has and also the material skills one possesses. In contrast, symbolic and cultural capital refer to rather distinct attributions collected by an individual. The first refers to the sense of honour and prestige one has accumulated throughout their life. And the latter, cultural capital, is defined in terms of the levels of knowledge and intellectual skills that a person possesses. (Swingewood, 2000: 212). He says that “the reproduction of inequality is done through the transmission of cultural capital”. (Bourdieu, 2013 ). This means that inequality is passed down through generations as a result of what previous generations have learned regarding their status in society. A family’s level of capital influences the type of school that their children are enrolled in. For example, if the parent/s of a particular child do not have a third level degree, or if they have made a living with a manual job such as a mechanic or carpenter, they are more likely to be sent to a vocational school that has a main focus on technical skills for the labour market; opposed to a comprehensive school that centres more on academic subjects that help a student prepare for the transition to third level education. This can be compared to Davis and Moore’s theory of social stratification in which “social inequality is…an unconsciously evolved device by which societies insure that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons. Hence every society, no matter how simple or complex, must differentiate persons in terms of both prestige and esteem, and must therefore possess a certain amount of institutionalised inequality.” (Davis and Moore, 1945: 17). In other words, it is difficult for someone who inherently has low socioeconomic capital to enter into an education of high prestige as those roles that yield higher rewards require extensive and expensive training. Howbeit, even if a student has high aspiration to attain a more prestigious role than their ascribed class would normally result in, such as a doctor but does not have the familial capital to do so, they may find themselves working a part time job to fund their future studies. This however has consequences on examination results, further highlighting the disadvantage imposed upon students coming from lower social classes.
Many Irish second level students engage in part time employment during their Leaving Certificate years. These students primarily come from families of lower classes as they need a wage to help support themselves and their parents as they navigate through the years leading up to university and the high fees associated with them. A study carried out by McCoy and Smyth found that more male than female higher secondary school students (34%) engaged in part time employment than female students (28%). (McCoy and Smyth, 2007: 235). It has been shown that students with part time jobs during school, although developing increased social skills and social capital, have lower levels of academic success due to less time being allocated to studies. Part time work also negatively impacts a student’s general attitude towards school and future aspirations with students who work over 10 hours weekly have a higher chance of not completing secondary school. Lower academic aspirations further lead to lower examination results. (McCoy, 2007: 239).
Students may also enter part time employment as a means of increasing their chances of getting into a university where admissions are operated through UCAS. This is due to the curriculum differences that occur within the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland/UK. Secondary schools or colleges as they are referred to, offer very specific subjects that can easily prepare students for university applications i.e. their grades in these subjects will correlate to whether or not they will be accepted onto their associated course. In contrast to this system, the Republic of Ireland offers a more ‘one size fits all’ approach to higher second level education, with students having three compulsory subjects: English, Irish and Mathematics and the minimum of four other chosen subjects that come from a very limited list. Due to these limitations, it could be said that Irish students who wish to study in the United Kingdom have a much higher reliance on their UCAS personal statements than on their grades. Successful personal statements usually rely on the student having relevant work experience to the course they have applied for, thus encouraging Irish students to engage in part time employment during their extensive exam period. As a result of this, as little as 2″,000 Irish students go on to study in the UK, many of which, have only been accepted due to the ‘clearing’ process. (Stafford, 2018).
Moving on from secondary education, someone from a lower-class background who, despite their reduced likelihood of attending university, does in fact get accepted; has more struggles to face regarding fees. In Ireland, students who are deemed to be disadvantaged are given access to a grant that exempts them from paying fees. The criteria for this grant depend on socio-economic factors – mainly family income. Although this government grant is progressive in terms of educational inequality for lower-class students, it ignores those who are part of the middle-class where their income exceeds the limit that would entitle them to the grant but is still not sufficient to pay the fees required of them. In the academic year 2015/16 44% of undergraduates received a grant. Ireland is the second country in Europe with the highest fees for third level education, after the UK with fees ranging from €3″,000 to €30″,000 yearly for undergraduate and postgraduate courses respectively. (European Commission, 2018). Despite undergraduate fees being abolished in 1996, Irish colleges still require a yearly contribution fee of €3″,000, even for those who are eligible for the free fees scheme. (Citizens Information, 2018). Although, it is clear that the Irish government has made attempts to help lower the class inequality found within the education system, there are still some flaws evident.
As I have discussed, class and educational inequalities intersect with one another in many ways throughout all levels of the education system, from preschool to university. Class struggles can be seen in the ways that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are treated differently in terms of entering into education, with more emphasis being put on the need for them to access schemes prior to school in an effort to substitute the time that more well off parents invest in home life education. During primary school, these efforts are continued with the existence of Deis schools as the student gets older, although they do not prove to be fully effective in closing the attainment gap. I have discussed the inequalities presented for those who do not have the economic means to afford private education and how this leads to higher-class students securing more prestigious university places. This also applies to one’s inability to afford private tutors or ‘grinds’ as we call them in the Republic of Ireland, in the lead up to the state-run exams – Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate. Part-time employment during school years has clearly been shown to negatively affect academic success, further hindering those coming from a lower-class background. I have also briefly talked about the inequality found in the availability of financial aid when it comes to university fees. Overall it is evident that by using the methodology of intersectionality, we can understand how both education and class inequalities can not be examined separately if we wish to fully grasp the extent of those inequalities in a given society, in this case, the Republic of Ireland.
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