The harder you shake the pack the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.
Boris Johnson

Something you learn when you grow up in a working-class house is that somehow poverty is your fault.
Gary Gannon

Living in Interesting Times

The pandemic has shown us to ourselves in sometimes heart-warming and sometimes alarming ways. On the heart-warming side: neighbours enjoying a socially distanced singsong, bingo games on the balconies of Dublin flat complexes, and long-distance commuters getting to know their families again.

On the alarming side: a worrying emergence, in a startling new light, of the deliberately unequal access to our higher education system in which ‘school profiling’ guarantees that private-school students will continue to be over-represented and that public-school students will continue to be under-represented in our universities.

In an earlier article, I asked why it is that removing the most obvious obstacles to working-class participation in third-level education hasn’t resulted in a greater impact on the low numbers of working-class students who actually get to university. As a partial answer, I suggested two studies. The first examined social perceptions among Princeton graduate students of the relative intelligence of students from different social classes; the study found an assumption among participants that working-class students would perform less well than their more affluent classmates. Shown the ‘objective’ evidence of a young fourth-class girl, Hannah, answering questions on an oral exam, those participants who had been told that the girl was working-class graded her performance as about a full year lower than the grade given to the same young girl by a group who had seen the same video but had been told she was from an affluent family.

Let me say that again. Both groups had seen the same recording of the same girl giving the same answers to the same questions, and yet ‘working class’ Hannah was judged to be a year behind ‘affluent’ Hannah. Apparently, she also had some extra behaviour issues that ‘affluent’ Hannah didn’t.

The second study measured whether teachers’ preconceived expectations of students’ capabilities influenced student achievements. The researchers administered a test to primary school students that they claimed would identify ‘academic bloomers’ who were about to blossom. After the test, they let the teachers know who the ‘bloomers’ would be. In reality, the test was a regular IQ test, and the ‘bloomers’ were randomly selected, and not in any way distinguished from their peers by their test performances. Nevertheless, when the researchers returned the following year, those ‘bloomers’, from whom the teachers had expected more, had indeed blossomed and were testing well ahead of their peers.

And that sort of answered my question, as far as it went. The vicious cycle of lower teacher expectations negatively affecting grades, leading to lowered expectations and lowered grades, and so on contributed to the absence from the universities of working-class students in our universities.

Clearly, there are countless other elements that will affect student performance and progression to third level, including the availability of physical and financial resources both at school and at home and the psychological affects of poverty. As Gary Gannon puts it:

Something you learn when you grow up in a working-class home is that somehow poverty is your fault. You work hard in school. You work hard helping with your siblings and supporting family members who might be ill. You have to go off and get a second job while you are 16 so you can support the family income. No matter how hard you work, it will not be enough to shake off the limitations forced on you because of your family’s wealth, or lack thereof.

But all of this still couldn’t explain the persistence in successive first-year university classes of the differential between private schools’ students and those from poorer schools. Things change. More working-class students are completing the Leaving Cert than ever before, there are Access programmes for ‘non-traditional’ students and grants to help students from poorer families to pay their way through a degree. But working-class students are still seriously under-represented in the university population, and the seven percent or so of the population who attended private schools are still massively over-represented there.

And then times got even more interesting.

Learning in the time of Covid

Covid restrictions made it impossible this year for secondary-school students to sit final-year exams on this and our neighbouring island. In the absence of exams, both the Irish and UK Governments separately decided to calculate students’ final grades based on teachers’ assessments plus government algorithms to ‘standardise’ the outcomes.

That turned out to be not such a great idea.

In fact, completely legitimate outrage followed the publishing of the ‘final’ grades in the UK.

Ostensibly in order to avoid grade inflation in university entrants, each year results are ‘standardised’—manipulated—to reflect previous years’ results from each school. So, nothing changed; the differential persisted, with help from friendly algorithms.

That algorithmic manipulation resulted in students from schools in working-class areas having their teachers’ calculated grades reduced by a hefty chunk while grades for schools in more affluent areas were given a boost. Or, as Boris helpfully put it, ‘The harder you shake the pack the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.’ Bless him, he said the quiet part out loud.

The top of the UK cornflake box looks something like the chart on the right. The  privately educated represent about seven percent of the total UK population, but nearly three quarters of judges, more than two thirds of both top military officers and Government Ministers, and more than half of both Foreign Office diplomats and leading journalists. What are the chances of that?

Before we start feeling smug, however, although private school attendance over here hovers at about the same 7 percent, Donal Lynch reported in 2016 that,

TDs are more than twice as likely to have gone to a private school than the average Irish person. . . . In business, nearly half of leaders of Irish publicly listed companies went to private school. Elite colleges such as Blackrock, Belvedere and Clongowes Wood (which has an especially high CEO count—including Michael O’Leary) made up 40pc of Irish company leaders. The current governor of the Central Bank is an old Blackrock boy. Even the arts sector . . . has lately become colonised by private schoolboys, . . . entitled, dapper, and with an iron ambition concealed by velvet manners.

Half of the 25 schools that sent the highest proportion of their students to third level in 2019 were fee-charging schools. Seventy-two percent of the schools sending their students to the ‘high points’ courses were fee-charging schools. Almost all of private-school students but only 15 per cent of students in the poorest schools went on to higher education.

State support for disadvantaged secondary schools—the Deis scheme—is worth about €60 million a year. State subsidies for the private sector amount to about €90 million a year. (O’Brien, McGuire, and Ó Caollaí, Nothing to be smug about in that.

So that’s how it’s done

To avoid the embarrassing U-turn into which the UK Governments had been forced, the Irish Government wisely decided at the last minute against ‘standardising’ grades. The results were just as shocking as the UK results, showing us what happens when grades are not manipulated.

To avoid the embarassing u-turn into which the UK Governments had been forced, the Irish Government wisely decided at the last minute against ‘standardising’ grades. The results were just as shocking as the UK results, showing us what happens when grades are not manipulated and started us wondering:

  • Overall grades this year are higher than ever.
  • The average H1 grade percentage for the previous three years, 5.6 percent, has increased to 9 percent this year. That’s a sizeable ‘adjustment’.
  • The greater number of ‘improved’ grades this year were earned by students from schools in working-class areas. And a large proportion of the ‘reduced’ grades were given to students from private schools.

What we’re looking at is the inverse of what the algorithms have previously computed each year, their negative shadow. We’ve never seen anything like it before because most of us have never been in a position to compare ‘raw’ Leaving Cert results with the ‘standardised’ version. The Government feels that to make such information public would be unfair and therefore will not release it, even under Freedom of Information legislation. But now that it has escaped, so to speak, and we’ve seen it, it can never be unseen.

And as Aodhán Ó Ríordáin was asking long before the scandalously invisible became shockingly visible, ‘If the Department itself knows that there is an element of unfairness to school profiling, why is it being used to aid in the calculation of Leaving Certificate grades?’ The answer would appear to have risen unbidden to the top this year like a rogue raisin in a box of cornflakes. And it goes a long way to explain the persistence of that differential between the numbers of affluent kids who go on to higher education and the numbers of poor kids who don’t. That was the intention.

That the quads of our finest university should be full of rich kids and posh accents isn’t a bug—it’s the programme.

Interestingly, no law was broken by the practice: discrimination on the grounds of class or post-code is not prohibited by the current Equal Status Act. That is hopefully about to change. Children and Equality Minister, Roderic O’Gorman told the Green Party National Convention at the beginning of October that his Department is to begin a public consultation on inserting ‘socio-economic discrimination’ as a new ground under the Equal Status Act. 

As he said, ‘No one in Ireland should face disadvantage because of their address, or where they went to school’. school profiling is a fairly egregious example of disadvantage supported and perpetuated by Government policy. You’re in that Government, Minister O’Gorman. Do something about it.

Second Grading

It needs to be said that school profiling isn’t the same thing as rationalising grades to ensure that every H1 has the same value as all other H1s and is broadly in line with previous years; that’s obviously necessary. But again, using algorithms can only reproduce the status quo that maintains and benefits private school students and penalises those from schools at the bottom of the socio-economic scale.

Among myriad other problems, it’s impossible for an algorithm to tell the difference between an inflated grade and an outstanding performance; both are not just masked but erased by being ‘standardised’. High-achieving working-class students are consequently hidden from history.

Those problems largely go away when a real person makes a second assessment of anonymous exam grades, ensuring the value of the grade while allowing the outstanding to stand out. In a fair and objective exam, what purpose is served by any further ‘rationalising’ of results?

But we’ve just found out that the Leaving Cert was never intended to be ‘fair and objective’. It was intended to perpetuate the social status quo.

How’s it all going so far?

One of the unintended consequences of the shambles is that one cohort of applicants for colleges and universities this year is going to be caught in a situation not of their doing but that will devalue their results and reduce their chances of getting onto the course of their choice. Students who had completed their Leaving Certificates in a previous year, but are applying to attend University this year, will now find their ‘profiled’ results contesting for places against the ‘higher than ever’ unprofiled results for this year’s graduates, which would clearly be unfair.

Students, parents, and teachers from fee-charging schools are also feeling aggrieved. Carl O’Brien reports that there has been ‘a surge’ in parents and teaching staff in fee-charging and grind schools seeking legal advice because they feel they lost out under the new calculated grades process. They were ‘surprised at the relatively low proportion of top grades they had received at a time when there was significant grade inflation nationally’.

But that’s not how statistical redistribution works. Removing school profiling from the grading system ‘penalises’ private schools with previously high-achieving students by removing the artificial boost to their grades in the same way that it benefits students from other schools by removing the artificial reduction in their grades.

It’s probable that the genuine surprise we’re hearing from private schools’ students, their teachers, and their parents, is due to the grade inflation accepted as normal up to now in those schools—and heretofore guaranteed by school profiling. It’s at least arguable that they had a legitimate expectation that this year’s grades would represent the same level of achievement as they did last year. If they go to court, they may get a sympathetic hearing: any judge presiding over any such court case is statistically likely to have attended a private school, given that, according to Donal Lynch, ‘the judiciary and legal profession are stuffed to the gills with privately educated people’.

Let’s be honest, realistically, an H1 from Blackrock College is still, in practical terms, worth more than an H1 from Ballymun Comp, even given an identical performance. But a big chunk of that privilege disappears when you take away school profiling. The court cases are mounting.

No matter what happens, when the dust settles, some students are going to find themselves facing the underside of the bus.

Any way it goes—unless the Minister can pull several thousand more college and university places out of somewhere—some students are going to feel they were edged out, because they will have been. That’s what happens when successive Governments oversee for generations a rigged system that is suddenly blown open by an absolutely unpredictable event, catching them unawares and overexposed.

No matter what happens, when the dust settles, some students are going to find themselves facing the underside of the bus. But whoever ends up missing their chance of going to university this year, they will find, under that same bus, the generations of invisible students who silently lost their third-level places in previous years because their grades were routinely reduced by profiling. They are, in fact, the functional equivalent of the at least 100,000 children who were missing from national schools every day in the 1920s according to Maighread Tobin. Department of Education reports show average attendance in national schools at the time was below 80 percent and the average school leaving age was 10½ years.

I am not in any way suggesting that missing out on a place at university is emotionally, physically, psychologically, morally, or practically equivalent to the suffering endured by children living so far below the poverty line they couldn’t even see it from there, or those who were transported to industrial schools. I’m suggesting that they serve the same function: they silently support and maintain an unequal social order.

Those invisible students missing from national schools in the twenties and the invisible students missing from our third-level education system right now because of school profiling are, collectively, the crumbs at the bottom of a well-shaken cornflake box.

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