To secure that . . . all shall be provided with the means
and facilities requisite for their proper education and
training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.

Democratic Programme of the First Dáil

Class in the Classroom: Who Goes Where?

When the Leaving Certificate examination was introduced in 1924, only a small minority of Irish students graduated to universities and very few, if any, working-class students stayed in school to Leaving Certificate level. At the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, however, things are different. Over half the population now graduates to third-level study of one sort or another. The majority of working-class students now complete the Leaving Certificate, and grant-aid is available for students from the poorest families.

On the face of it, these factors should add up to a more democratic spread of educational opportunity. So why is it that the general population of students in Irish universities is still predominantly from the upper and middle points on the socio-economic scale? Leaving School in Ireland pointed out that in 2014,

young people who attended a school with a concentration of working-class students were much less likely to go on to higher education than those who attended middle-class or socially mixed schools, even [allowing] for individual social background and Leaving Certificate grades. (

The significance of that pattern is enormous. All other things being equal—Leaving Cert results, for instance—students who attend schools in working-class areas are less likely to graduate to third-level study than all others. Those who do move on to third-level are less likely to go to the top universities. And within those top universities, they are less likely to get into the top programmes. Later, they are more likely to work at lower-paid jobs, more likely to be on the million-person public-health waiting list for treatment, more likely to be on the more than seventy thousand-household waiting list for housing, and more likely to find themselves unemployed or long-term unemployed. In addition, as we saw after the 2008 economic collapse, and as we’re seeing again now, they are more likely to lose the jobs they have in a national downturn.

On the other hand, private-school students are more likely to attend and hence to graduate from university, are consequently more likely to work at higher-paid jobs, more likely to have private health insurance, more likely to find themselves in positions of power and privilege, and more likely to survive a downturn relatively unscathed—or even in profit.

So, again, why is it that the socio-economic profile of the population of students in Irish universities isn’t changing? Why is it that removing the most obvious obstacles to working-class participation in third-level education hasn’t resulted in a greater impact on the numbers of working-class students attending our universities? You still don’t hear many Tallaght accents on the quad; even the glacial pace of social evolution should have had some impact.

Two classic studies and a global pandemic may go some way to answering those questions. ‘A Hypothesis-Confirming Bias in Labelling Effects’ by John Darley and Paget Gross and ‘Pygmalion in the Classroom’ by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson explore some of the insidious ways in which social class affects educational opportunities. Yet, important as those findings are, they don’t explain the persistence of the differential between private- and public-school graduates in the university population.

And then the coronavirus pandemic brought with it the update I hadn’t known I’d been waiting for. What emerged wasn’t a problem created by COVID restrictions. What we were seeing for the first time was a long-standing problem exposed by those restrictions—that Leaving Cert results are statistically manipulated such that more students from private schools reach the higher levels of higher education and that fewer students from ‘public’ schools do so. There’s even a name for it: school profiling.

The debacle surrounding algorithmically calculated/manipulated grades made it possible to see why reforms had had relatively little impact on the social make-up of our universities. Those reforms didn’t change much, because that was the purpose of school profiling: to maintain the established status quo. I’ll take a closer look at the whole mess in Unequal Access to Education.

Perception is everything

Darley and Gross’s study examined social perceptions of the relative intelligence of high- and low-level economic groupings. Researchers showed two groups of participants (graduate students at Princeton University) video recordings of a young fourth-class girl, Hannah, in the area where she lived, in a local playground, and at her school.

In one group, participants saw Hannah living, playing, and attending school in a working-class neighborhood. They were told that both of her parents were blue-collar workers with a secondary-school education: her father was employed as a meat packer and her mother was a seamstress who worked from home.

The other group saw Hannah living, playing, and attending school in an affluent suburb. The participants were told that both of her parents were college graduates; her father was a solicitor and her mother a freelance writer.

Immediately after viewing one or the other of these two background videos, participants were given an evaluation form to complete, grading Hannah in reading, mathematics, and liberal arts on a scale from pre-school to sixth class. Importantly, they were given a box to tick for ‘insufficient information’ if they felt they couldn’t judge. Nevertheless, the participants, having seen only the background video, rated the child’s ability level as hovering close to her known school grade. On that basis, participants judged ‘working-class’ Hannah to be slightly below fourth-class level, and ‘middle-class’ Hannah to be slightly above.

The perceived differences between the two Hannahs’ grades were 0.32 for liberal arts, 0.39 for reading, and 0.18 for maths. These are not insignificant differences—for any child in fourth class, to be perceived as lagging that far behind their classmates would be a noticeable distinction.

Both groups were then shown another video recording. In this case, both saw the same recording, in which Hannah responded to 25 achievement-test problems ranging from second- to sixth-class level. Participants were told that the test included ‘easy, moderate, and difficult problems’. Hannah’s performance was prearranged to present an inconsistent picture of her abilities. She answered both easy and tough questions correctly as well as incorrectly. She appeared to be fairly verbal, motivated, and attentive on some portions of the video recording and unresponsive and distracted on other portions. The tester provided little feedback.  

Participants, having seen the ‘objective’ evidence of Hannah being tested, became much more confident in their judgement. Rather than judging the ‘two’ Hannahs equally, however, they showed a reliably greater distinction between ‘working-class’ and ‘middle-class’ Hannah on all three indices: 1.04 for liberal arts, 1.06 for maths, and 0.96 for reading. Remember, all participants had seen the same recording of the same girl giving the same answers to the same questions on the same test. Nevertheless, those participants who believed Hannah came from a lower socio-economic background judged her to be about a full year behind the grade given when the graders thought she was from an affluent background.

When they were asked to explain their evaluations, participants spoke only about the test items on which the child’s performance fulfilled their prophesy. Participants who expected a good academic performance (from ‘middle-class’ Hannah) judged that the test was very hard, which would account for any difficulty she had answering correctly. Participants who expected a poor performance (from ‘working-class’ Hannah) reported that the test was easy, which would account for the facility with which she came up with some answers.

‘Affluent’ Hannah was praised for her ability to apply what she knows to unfamiliar problems’ whereas ‘working-class’ Hannah was reported to have ‘difficulty accepting new information’.

Importantly, the participants’ differing assumptions about the relative intelligence of ‘working-class’ and ‘affluent’ Hannah were comparatively mild—although far from inconsequential—when the graders were aware that class might be a factor (that is, after seeing only the video showing Hannah’s social background). When presented with ‘objective’ information, however, their unconscious bias showed through as much more pronounced. With the issue of social class apparently off the table, and with no resulting guilt or conscious corrective of unconscious bias, the gap between grades given to ‘working-class’ Hannah and ‘affluent’ Hannah increased markedly—even though, when questioned, all participants said that the demographic information was ‘not useful’ in making their evaluations.

Logically, and by their own accounts, none of the participants was aware that their ‘objective’ opinions could have been skewed by unacknowledged assumptions about class and relative intelligence. It’s more than possible that they would not now consciously agree with those assumptions. Nevertheless, their assessments of ‘Hannah’ varied according to her perceived class.

Generations of cultural biases—the ‘truths’ that ‘everybody knew’ as we grew up—don’t disappear because we know better now.

This isn’t just an interesting academic finding; ‘working-class’ Hannah’s educational prospects are already very different from ‘affluent’ Hannah’s even though the two performed identically, what with them being the same girl an’ all. Generations of cultural biases—the ‘truths’ that ‘everybody knew’ as we grew up—don’t disappear because we know better now. They just hang out in our collective unconscious, our Jungian ‘shadow side’. They’re detectable only by their effects, and even then, only if we’re brave and honest enough to examine them.

These results demonstrate the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of a claim to class-blindness, gender-blindness, colour-blindness, race-blindness, etc. on an individual, group, or national level. Had this been an actual test, the differing assessments would have had a serious and ongoing effect on either one of Hannah’s two putative futures, for better (‘affluent’ Hannah) or worse (‘poor’ Hannah).

In our own image

The powerful potential consequences of those unexamined assumptions are demonstrated in the second study, Pygmalion in the Classroom, showing the extent to which teachers’ expectations influence a student’s achievements, grades, and, perhaps more importantly, expectations, both for the student and for future teachers. 

The authors, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, told teachers at a primary school that they were administering a test to identify ‘academic bloomers’, i.e. those who were expected to enter a period of intense intellectual development over the following year. After the test, the researchers let the teachers know that the results identified specific students who would be ‘bloomers’. In reality, the test was a regular IQ test, and the ‘bloomers’ were randomly selected. These students were not in any way distinguished by their test performances.

 The students who had been randomly selected by the researchers and identified as ‘bloomers’ were now testing significantly ahead of their classmates.

Nevertheless, a year later when the researchers returned to the school and administered the same test to the same students, the students who had been randomly selected by the researchers and identified as ‘bloomers’, were now testing significantly ahead of their classmates.

The researchers concluded that the teachers, who didn’t realise they’d been misled and believing that they were ‘harvesting unseen talent’, expected more from these students. And, when we expect certain behaviours from others, we are likely to behave in ways that elicit the expected result or make it more likely to occur (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985). As in the Darley and Gross study, the behaviours, the body language, the small reinforcers, the ‘tells’ that give away a teacher’s bias, are more than likely unconscious. They amounted, nevertheless, in Rosenthal and Jacobson’s study, to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the students who had been randomly labelled as ‘bloomers’ actually bloomed and outperformed their peers.

Later research suggests that the effects are strongest in the first two years of school when patterns are being established. Self-evidently, those effects diminish as the teacher and student get to know each other better or as students establish and settle into their ‘place’ in a complex school social pattern. But, like the unconscious assumptions in the first study, those effects don’t go away: what the teachers ‘knew’ about those students, and the place into which the students themselves had settled, were based on attitudes established in those early years.

So that, with teacher expectations affecting student performance and hence their grades, which will affect the expectations of both student and future teachers, which will in turn affect grades, and so on in an endless loop, and without anybody consciously doing anything, both the grades and the ambitions of working-class students are kept artificially low. 

Cross-national research shows that it is possible to break the loop. Socioeconomic Inequality and Student Outcomes, (Volante et al.) drew from countries, including Germany and Italy, in which educational outcomes for disadvantaged kids improved while educational inequalities declined, and came up with interesting policy suggestions.

That study would be a good place to start as we approach the issue of what on earth we’re going to do next year about the Leaving Cert.

Related articles

Unequal Access to Education
The debacle surrounding calculated/manipulated Leaving Cert grades made it possible to see why students from private schools are disproportionately more likely to graduate to third-level study than all others. That’s the intention—to maintain the socio-economic status quo.

Is the Leaving Cert fit for purpose
Two recent studies asked students whether the skills taught in their Leaving Cert courses prepared them for third-level study. An overwhelming majority said ‘No’, that they had not learned the intellectual skills they would need.