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

Quid pro status quo

In an earlier article, I asked why it is that despite the removal of the most obvious obstacles to working-class participation in third-level education, ‘the general population of students in Irish universities is still predominantly from the upper and middle points on the socio-economic scale’. And as a partial answer, I suggested two studies that measured assumptions about intelligence levels and social class in education that shape a student’s future by defining their horizons.

That sort of answered my question, as far as it went. But it didn’t explain why, despite Government grants and Access programmes and all the other advances, and despite the massively increased numbers of working-class students who complete the Leaving Cert, the halls of Irish Universities still echo with the sounds of poshness. And then, last year, the pandemic stripped back a layer of bureaucracy and showed us why so little had changed. What emerged wasn’t a problem created by Covid restrictions. What we saw for the first time was a long-standing scandal exposed by those restrictions.

Keeping a grip

When final-year exams were made impossible by Covid-19 for students graduating from secondary schools both here and in the UK, each Government separately decided to calculate students’ final grades based on teachers’ assessments. Ostensibly to prevent grade inflation, they used algorithms to ‘standardise’ those known assessed grades—as they do each year with exam results.

We found out that ‘standardising’ meant silently increasing the grades of students from fee-charging schools and, equally silently, reducing the grades of students from schools in working-class areas. And this wasn’t an inadvertent statistical snafu. The algorithms did exactly what they were intended to do: to the extent that they could, they made it highly unlikely that you would ever meet a doctor with a Tallaght accent.

In the UK, when the ‘standardised’ results were released, the roars could be heard from space. For the first time, the hefty chunk deducted from grades awarded to working-class schools was visible, as was the significant boost given to schools in more affluent areas. We saw how, in Boris Johnson’s helpful phrase, the harder you shake the box, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.

To avoid the embarrassing U-turn into which the UK Governments had been forced, the Irish Government decided against ‘standardising’ grades. What we saw as a result is the negative shadow of what the algorithms have computed in previous years. 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 before. In their own way, the results were more shocking; they gave us an inkling of what we had lost out on over the years.

Overall grades were higher than ever. The average H1 grade percentage for the previous three years, 5.6%, had increased to 9%. That’s a substantial ‘adjustment’. It’s heartbreaking to think how many missed university or college careers that 3.4% difference represents for students attending working-class schools.

Predictably, parents, teachers, and students from fee-charging schools are feeling aggrieved. In the immediate aftermath of the results being released, Carl O’Brien reported that there was ‘a surge’ of parents and teaching staff from those schools seeking legal advice because they felt their students had lost out under the 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. Students can’t sue for loss of privilege.

Nevertheless, the genuine surprise we hear is understandable; those students presumably didn’t know their grades were inflated by school profiling. It is at least arguable that they had a legitimate expectation that this year’s grades would represent the same level of achievement as last year’s.

On the other hand, let’s be honest, an H1 from Blackrock College is still, in practical terms, worth more than an H1 from Ballymun Comp, even given identical performances, and even after a chunk of that privilege disappears without school profiling.

Unbearable lightness

The top of the UK cornflake box looks something like the chart on the right. The privately educated represent about 7% 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 Foreign Office diplomats, solicitors, and leading print journalists. What are the odds of that?

Before we start feeling smug, however, even though private school attendance over here hovers at about the same 7%, 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 the 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.

In 2019, the year of the last ‘normal’ Leaving Cert exams, Carl O’Brien, Peter McGuire, and Éanna Ó Caollaí pointed out that ‘pupils emerging from private schools were ‘keeping a strong grip on the most sought-after third-level courses, despite millions being spent narrowing the class gap in education’. In that year, almost all students from fee-charging schools but only 15% of students from the poorest schools went on to higher education. Half of the schools that sent the highest proportion of their students to third level were fee-charging schools. Seventy-two per cent of the schools sending their students to the ‘high points’ courses were fee-charging schools.

In 2020, four courses offered by Trinity and two in UCD required over 600 points—the maximum possible unless a student also passes honours maths, which earns them a twenty-five-point bonus. No student from a school in a working-class area who does not have honours maths can possibly get into those courses even if they earn top grades because the Government will take a chunk of their points away. Even with the maths bonus, without knowing how big a chunk the Government has taken away each year, it’s not possible to say how many working-class students with perfect points and honours maths have been cheated out of their places on the top courses.

Adding insult to injury, those of us who can’t afford to send our children to fee-charging schools nevertheless pay the teachers who teach that privileged 7%. Unlike the UK, in our republic, our Government subsidises private schools from our taxes to the tune of about €90 million a year. State support for disadvantaged schools—the Deis scheme—is worth about €60 million a year (O’Brien, et al).

So that’s how it was done. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

The underside

The necessary extension of Boris’ cornflake analogy is that the crumbs at the bottom of the cornflake box, already disadvantaged, are further disadvantaged by all that shaking.

Even without ‘school profiling’, the Leaving Certificate, as Gary Gannon said, is a game that many students can’t win: ‘If you are a student from a low-income background, a student with a disability or a student from a migrant background, the odds are stacked against you.’ Those stacked odds are replicated each year by ‘standardising’ grades with reference to a school’s past performance. Outstanding or higher than average performances by students who attend disadvantaged schools are literally deleted from history because algorithms can’t distinguish between an outstanding grade and an inflated one. Who knew? Consequently, even after the disadvantages are removed, the odds hardly change.

The answer to my original question—why is the under-representation of working-class students in universities so persistent?—rose unbidden to the top last year like a rogue raisin in a box of cornflakes. Free secondary education, tuition grants, Access programmes, and all other reforms have had relatively little impact on the numbers of working-class students in the universities—because the purpose of school profiling is to see that they don’t.

Epilogue: How’s it all going so far?

Private-school graduates weren’t the only university applicants disappointed last year and potentially this year too. One of the unintended consequences of the shambles is that the ‘profiled’ results of students who completed their Leaving Certs in a previous year but intended applying to attend university this year or last, will be in competition for places with the ‘higher than ever’ unprofiled results. This is clearly unfair; nobody should lose a university place because of the fallout from a disastrous and misguided Government policy. But it would be equally unfair to limit places for this year’s graduates to make room for earlier graduates. There is no good answer short of going back and removing the profiling adjustments to compare like with like.

A return to the unprofiled grades of those students is possible but not likely because the Government feels that to make this information public would be unfair and therefore will not release it, even under Freedom of Information legislation. The use of the word ‘unfair’ is interesting in that context, given that the information being protected is school profiling, the very definition of unfairness.

Invisible generations of working-class students silently lost their third-level places in previous years because our Government saw to it that they would.

Interestingly, no law was broken by the practice of depriving working-class students of their college or university places purely because of their socio-economic background; discrimination on the grounds of class or eircode isn’t prohibited by the current Equal Status Act. That’s 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 stand-out example of exactly that, knowingly supported and perpetuated by Government policy. We’re looking forward to seeing it made illegal.

No matter what happens, when the dust settles, some students will find themselves facing the underside of the bus. But whoever ends up missing their chance of going to university this year will find, under that same bus, the invisible generations of working-class students who silently lost their third-level places in previous years because our Government saw to it that they would.

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Post-script: second grading

It needs to be said that school profiling isn’t the same as rationalising grades to ensure that every H1 has the same value as all other H1s and is broadly in line with H1s from previous years. But in this effort too, using algorithms can only reproduce a status quo in which schools at the bottom of the socio-economic scale have been historically disadvantaged. Those problems essentially go away when a real person makes the second assessment of anonymous exam grades, ensuring the value of the grade while allowing the outstanding to stand out—a simple, old-school solution.

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