Honest thoughts on educational inequality in Ireland

In discussing the sources of variation in academic achievement across students, there is a yawning chasm between the contemporary research literature (particularly in the emerging field of geno-economics) and the mainstream media. The mainstream media sticks religiously to the traditional blank slate theory, claiming that variation in student achievement is caused entirely by differing home and school environments. Tuesday’s Education Supplement of the Irish Times is a classic example. The main headline of the supplement is “Privately-educated elite have greater access to education” and the first paragraph reads as follows:

“Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are denied the same opportunities as their wealthier peers, while parents with money can afford a better education for their children despite Ireland’s so-called free education system, an analysis of the 2017 Irish Times feeder school list shows.”

The article repeatedly relies on the assumption that children of wealthier parents in Ireland perform better in school for only one reason, their parents purchase better educational outcomes through fee-paying schools, tutors, and grind courses. The current scientific literature has an entirely different flavour. A recent paper by Plomin, et al., entitled “The high heritability of educational achievement reflects many genetically influenced traits, not just intelligence,” is typical. Synopsizing their findings, they state:

“Differences among children in educational achievement are highly heritable from the early school years until the end of compulsory education at age 16, when UK students are assessed nationwide with standard achievement tests [General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE)]. Genetic research has shown that intelligence makes a major contribution to the heritability of educational achievement. However, we
show that other broad domains of behavior such as personality and psychopathology also account for genetic influence on GCSE scores beyond that predicted by intelligence. Together with intelligence, these domains account for 75% of the heritability of GCSE scores. These results underline the importance of genetics in educational achievement and its correlates.”

To be fair to the Irish Times, an inside piece by Brian Mooney in the Supplement brings a gentle hint of realism into the blank-slate-inspired tirade of the Supplement’s lead article. Mooney hints that there might possibly be other factors explaining why households with two graduate parents grab the university places rightfully going to other households.

“For schools where both parents of many students were graduates, and where they have been supported throughout their education, getting a college place is no great reflection on the success of their school. Alternatively, we are keenly aware that for schools in disadvantaged communities, securing third-level progression for even a small proportion of students is a reflection of highly motivated teachers, and is a fantastic achievement.”

Brian Mooney does not state it explicitly, but scientists have shown definitively that the most powerful “support” that two-graduate-parent households gift to their children is their two tightly packed strands of DNA, which split and recombine, creating a new human infant in the most complex and beautiful physical process in the known universe. This new human infant is not a blank slate; he/she inherits a block-random collection of genomic traits from the maternal and paternal genomes. That genetic process, not fee-paying schools or tutor expenses, is a major source of inequality in educational outcomes in Ireland.

NB: In response to thoughtful comments from colleagues, I changed “the main source” to “a major source” in the last sentence above. That is perhaps more accurate, although it does mess with the rhythm of the final sentence. This edit was made after comments below.

23 thoughts on “Honest thoughts on educational inequality in Ireland”

  1. Greg, you are spot-on when you criticise the approach of the Irish Times to educational inequality (and let’s be fair other media too can be pretty terrible). It’s a sad testament to the inability of serious research to penetrate through the fog of emotional waffle.

    A couple of weeks ago the Economist had a special feature on marriage. Overall it was a rather good piece of educational sociology, and reinforced many of the points you make. See (paywall permitting): https://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21731497-marriage-it-turns-out-still-best-place-children-why-would-be-parents-should

    As well as emphasising the role of assortative mating, the Economist looked at how marriage patterns vary between social groups. For professionals, marriage rates are higher, marriages appear to be more stable, and births outside marriage (especially to lone parents) much less prevalent. These observations are made about the UK and the USA, but I get a strong impression that very similar patterns are found in Ireland.

    Of course all this is very much at odds with the right-on ethos of the Irish media. Part of the problem in discussing this issue is that one is accused of moral judgementalism. So we ignore research that we don’t like, a sort of Brexiteerism.

  2. May I suggest:

    Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (2002), “The
    Inheritance of Inequality.” Journal of Economic Perspectives,
    16(3): 3–30.

    It would be profoundly distressing to discover that, to borrow and invert a phrase used by second-wave feminists, biology is in fact destiny.

    Let us be thankful, contra Professor Connor, that it is not.

  3. “That genetic process, not fee-paying schools or tutor expenses, is the main source of inequality in educational outcomes in Ireland.”

    Does the author here think that those working for education equality expect equality in test scores across all students? The concerns of writers such as those in the cited Times articles are clearly about differences in outcomes between students with similar potential who are being educated in different environments. To me it seems the better environments are closed off for many for exclusively financial reasons – unless I have missed the genetic screening that goes on in our fee-paying schools to ensure a consistent genetic potential across their student body.

    Next time I would rather that those making this argument just state their conclusion: they believe that our socio-economic structure is meritocratic and that genetic superiority rests with the confines of the wealthy. I look forward to our country’s education researchers investing in phrenology calipers.

  4. The two mechanism are not mutually exclusive. It can be BOTH true that wealthier parents have (on average) smarter children and true that children in poorer areas get less excellent educations.

    However, it could easily be argued that there is a valid role for a state in assuring that access to high quality education is there for children no matter where they’re from or who their parents are. And, on that role, while Ireland isn’t bad on an international scale, it’s certainly falling short of what could be achieved given the compactness of our cities.

    There is a very strong perception in Ireland that the elite is self-perpetuating. It’s hard to argue that the perception is wrong. And it’s hard to argue that continuation of that perception isn’t likely to cause social, economic and political disruption at some point.

  5. Hi, I just read the Irish Times article, but neither the quote you extracted nor the article (on my reading) seems to make the argument that differential environments is the “only cause” of differential educational achievements. Have I misread the article? (If so, apologies.)

    There is undoubtedly individual variation in intelligence, but I did not appreciate how much of this variation is passed on through genes. My working assumption is that there is “mean reversion” and so the “gene channel” for transmitting Intelligence depreciates within (say) two generations. But I defer to science on this question.

    The existence of a “gene transmission channel” need not undermine policy concerns about the effects of environment on educational achievement. Suppose Irish policy makers care about giving each child an equal opportunity to achieve the same education level, and would like to take into account the fact of gene-based variation in intelligence and other traits, what might be the optimal policy response?

    1. In “Inequality Re-examined”, Amartya Sen argues for equality in the “capability space” – e.g., every Irish child ought to have equal capability to live lives and achieve goals that they each have reason to value. To achieve equal capability, policy-makers ought to take into account individual variation, including with respect to physical (or mental) disadvantage.

      Presumably we would also want to take into account individual variation with respect to genes.

    2. Yes I agree with most of your points. Note that there is considerable evidence that the mean reversion effect which you describe is diluted by assortative mating. You are absolutely correct in your statement that the gene transmission channel need not underline policy concerns — in fact acknowledging that channel openly could clarify policy choices and provide the foundation for more effective policy. In your first statement I disagree with your reading of the quote from the article (the first sentence of the article). If the existence of a gap SHOWS that the cause is financial advantages, then it follows logically that there cannot be an alternative explanation for the gap. If I state “there is a dollar missing from my wallet and that SHOWS that John stole it from me” then I have implicitly stated (as an assumption) that there is no alternative explanation.

  6. Seems a study on adopted kids would be useful here.
    I think also confusion in equality of outcomes, Vs opportunity, may be rude here.

    1. Yes there is an enormous body of work and one of the main strands involves twin studies and adopted twin studies — Plomin et al. talk about that literature. A more recent strand involves genetic relatedness maximum likelihood (GREML) where a large panel of individuals with detailed genomic data and observation on the variable of interest (e.g., educational attainment) are related in terms of how correlation between the individual genomes matches the pattern in the variable of interest. There is also GWAS regression where individual genetic variants along the DNA strand are linearly related to the variable of interest, and phenotypic scores (essentially factor-mimicking collections of genetic variants) are estimated. But the twin studies are particularly important and powerful empirically.

  7. I am on the Board of Management of a DEIS primary school under Catholic patronage. As you may know, DEIS schools get additional funding because of their catchment area meaning their students generally come from lower socio-economic groups. There will be a number of student from middle class backgrounds also. The school is in a regional town and at one count in recent years we had 14 nationalities in the school. No child has ever been refused a place. Interestingly most middle-class Catholic parents will by-pass our school as their children might ‘mix with the wrong sort’ i.e. the equivalent of children from tough inner-city areas with social deprivation. I could write a book on what parents will actually do when presented with choice of schools. This bromide that little Amir and little Eimear living side-by-side should go to the same school is fine in theory but, in my direct experience, little Eimear’s parents will do round trips of over 20km morning and evening to ensure she goes to a ‘country’ school where there will be no mix of immigrants, members of the travelling community or children from working class backgrounds. Of course it won’t be stated in those terms.

    Anyway, after the above, what I want to say is that our school gets additional teaching and learning resources, provides free-lunches for the children and has very committed teachers (only a motivated teacher would apply to work in a DEIS school) so the children are given every opportunity. There is a rewards system in place and school discipline is tightly maintained. Where it often falls down though is when the child is at home. He or she may arrive for school with no breakfast (or, worse, a croissant, muffin or sausage roll bought that morning in the local Spar or Centra) and so the school provides a ‘Breakfast Club’. In the evening if there is no encouragement to do homework or there is no value put on education then all the work done in the school is vitiated. In my view, this ‘home background’ is as important as wealth or genes. The child from a less well off background but with a supportive home environment will get every educational opportunity in our school.

    As an aside, although this is a school under Catholic patronage I have concerns about the amount of school time spent on preparing children for Holy Communion and Confirmation. I also think the Irish curriculum should be reformed with less-emphasis on Irish language learning but more emphasis on ‘Irish Studies’ which could be some language learning (compulsory) but also some Irish history, literature, music, dance, archaeology, etc. That is, every Irish student should be able to have a basic conversation in Irish and read to a basic level but studies in these other aspects of Ireland would also be included. There should still be the option for student who want to study the language full-time. I believe this would actually be better for the language in the long term. We cannot deny the fact though that religious education and compulsory Irish in schools isn’t doing the children any harm in terms of their reading ability given the latest international studies. In fact, we may have to consider that it could be benefiting them.

    1. That is a very thoughtful contribution to the discussion. I have the same impression (but only casually in my case not backed by firm statistical evidence) that DEIS schools are actually in many cases “better” schools in terms of the full-on dedication of the teaching and admin staff. This is just my impression from knowing a small number of DEIS teachers. There are lots of dedicated teachers in non-DEIS schools as well, but also some duds as in any field. Claiming that DEIS students are being cheated since they go to “inferior” schools is quite unfair to the dedicated staff at most DEIS schools. So it is worthwhile making that point clearly.

      Although DEIS schools get more resources, I am not sure that middle-class students would benefit from being in a DEIS school even with their dedicated staffs, due to peer effects. Unless middle-class parents want to sacrifice some added-value of peer effects for their children, in the name of the greater social good, I am not sure how one could convince them not to pay the time and petrol costs of driving little Johnny to a school in the other direction. That is a tough problem to solve. From a personal perspective as a parent back in the day I would not have sent my children to a DEIS school — perhaps my dedication to the social good is not strong enough. But I will admit honestly that as a middle-class parent (now older and it is not relevant) I would not have sent my children to a DEIS school when they were younger. Worry about bullying and other bad peer influences, despite the dedication of the teaching and admin staffs.

      1. Being honest, I have had the same concerns about bad peer influence. Bullying is not tolerated and immediately addressed in the School. Each week students are allowed write anonymously about anything bothering them in the school and they can include any incident in that. In fact, because discipline is strictly enforced, many of the children have had problems when they go to secondary school where discipline is not as strict.

        So I was never worried about bullying but birthday parties was another matter. There’s no point in denying it – I am middle class. One of my children simply didn’t have friends in his class for some of his years as his classmates were, let’s put it, from different backgrounds. Educationally, he was doing very well but socially he found school tough. Moving school wasn’t an option but he is thriving in secondary school where it is largely a middle-class intake. As parents we have had to comfort ourselves with the thought that the school had toughened him up and exposed him to a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds. Now if one of our other children could just lose that accent they picked up then I’d be happy!

      2. On your point re parental choice resulting in driving kids away from socio-economically mixed schools, if the segregation is strong enough and the problem big enough, then the USA already has the solution. Bussing. But Ireland might be just as resistant to that as the Southern USA, for our own reasons.

        Meantime, the “work ethic” issue is surely real but isn’t always as one-dimensional as you might think. One school I know nearby (non fee paying, mostly middle class) has a high proportion of immigrant students. Apart from the “usual” eastern Europeans there are quite a few south, south-east and east Asian kids. Which we would see as an advantage in terms of building an ambitious culture. But which some neighbours see as worth driving to avoid.

  8. Fantastic piece, Gregory.

    I went to two different secondary schools in Ireland. One a selective (but non-fee paying) voluntary, single-sex school. One a mixed community school.

    In both schools the same curriculum was pursued. The teachers had been trained and paid the same. They had the same attitude to their students. There was really zero difference in the quality of instruction and how seriously they wanted us to succeed.

    Obviously third-level progression was a lot better in the selective school than in the community school. But as you point out they are working with very different material.

  9. On a rough scan of the paper suggested on a study of youngsters across the water ….

    … “a major source” is more apt in this case, and probably most others, with 45% variance explained and circa 60% related to the authors’ interpretation of “g” so, based on this evidence [notwithstanding the contested nature of self efficacy, Big 5, etc] just over a quarter relates to “g” ….. and nature does matter.

    Meanwhile, as noted on an earlier thread social class remains the prime determinant of educational outcomes in Ireland.

  10. What drives me nuts is that the vast vast VAST majority of Irish Times columnists (especially) and journalists are themselves privately educated and their kids are currently attending the very institutions they have such a problem with.

    Publicly educated taxpayer

  11. The “blank state theory” doesn’t seem credible but I wonder apart from the IT feature, is this a strawman argument as outcomes depend on policy in deprived areas and Finland is unlikely to launch fee-paying schools anytime soon?

    Gender, race and immigration, have historically provided dangerous stereotypes and in the early 1970s, London-based Professor Hans Jürgen Eysenck, who had fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, in Race, Intelligence and Education (in the US: The IQ Argument), linked genetics with IQ differences and identified the Irish, blacks and Poles, as having lower intelligence than other racial groups.

    For its high IQ readership, the London tabloid, The Daily Mirror, headlined a story on Eysenck’s work: ‘Irish not as brainy as Brits says Prof’ .

    The Social Mobility Commission in the UK under the chairmanship of Alan Milburn, a former Labour cabinet minister, has been reporting for 9 years.

    The 2017 report says: http://bit.ly/2icTE3w

    London is way ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to the education of disadvantaged children, despite the fact that it has the highest levels of childhood deprivation in England.

    Almost three-quarters of the best local authority areas in the top 10 per cent are in London, which performs well in both primary and secondary education. Twelve of the best places are in inner London where 26 per cent of secondary pupils are on free school meals, compared with the national rate of 13 per cent.

    London schools have benefited from visionary leadership, greater resourcing, a stock of quality teachers, professional development, a diverse school population, strong school partnerships and better access to cultural opportunities. The capital has also been helped by many government initiatives such as the National Strategies, the London Challenge, Teach First and the academies programme.

    These were London focused or started in London, enabling new education policies to be implemented over a longer period.1
    Inner London is in a category of its own for primary schools with substantially higher attainment at key stage 2 among disadvantaged children. London schools are known to have developed strong system leadership and positive school cultures that have been crucial in lifting attainment.

    This helps to explain London’s exceptionally high performance in some of the most deprived boroughs in England.

    The report says: “our country’s professions – despite considerable effort to widen the pool of talent from which they recruit – remain remarkably unrepresentative of the public they serve: only 6 per cent of doctors, 12 per cent of chief executives and 12 per cent of journalists today are from working-class origins.”

    1. The FF/FG executive of the modern Irish state is but a committee for protecting the affairs of its propertied bourgeoisie and its childer!

      The Irish education system is structured accordingly under the illusion of ideological public choice and rational choice theories, punted as “meritocratic”, stemming from the libertarian and neoliberal Cold War climate in the US and the dominance of radical methodological individualism, shorn of any hint of allegedly Marxist collectivism, in its research.

      Class, agency, structure and the power of elites provide the conceptual tools to address the process and nature of educational outcomes in Ireland.

      Class is the prime predictor of educational outcomes in Ireland: period.

  12. Intelligent people tend to marry intelligent people and have intelligent children. A generation ago you had people being the first to go to university from their family, reflecting a change in opportunity. My father’s family were dirt poor after my grandfather died when they were young, they had no possibility of attending higher education, although both interested and able. People of my generation had that opportunity and their children are expected to attend university. Where you now have families where there are no graduates it does not only reflect opportunity, which has existed since the 70s, but lack of interest or ability. Whatever way you look at it, their children are likely to share this lack of interest or ability, all the state can do is ensure that any who have the interest and ability are well served by the education system.

  13. If the Doors of Opportunity are fashioned by the same folk who design and fashion the locks, and who also control the manufacture and supply of the keys – what do you expect will occur?

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