March 14, 2004

Schools closing down as rich parents `trade up'

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Redheads have a secret code.
Bet you didn’t know that.We acknowledge each other privately, stand up for each other at job interviews, share each other’s insecurities, remember the same playground taunts and generally know what it is like to be the silent oppressed minority of the country.

My brothers and sisters have endured the widest range of low-level psychological abuse imaginable. This begins with the hurtful but innocuous name-calling ranging from foxy, redser to the recently imported English derivative ging-er (pronounced with a hard `g’). And there was always carrot-head and Duracell.

As a result of this persistent slagging, we redheads have a deep, durable, unspoken, and almost Masonic, bond. Because it doesn’t stop in adolescence, the bond firms with age. For example, last week playing in the `belt and braces over-35s’ football league in Tallaght, yours truly was referred to politely as “that redhead f…k off the telly”. And that was by the ref for God’s sake!

The redser neurosis gets more pronounced as we move into our teenage years when we have to endure unspeakable Plain Janes and their “Yuck, he’s got red hair”. Or the “I can’t believe you snogged a redhead”. Or the whispered, “I wouldn’t touch a carrot-head with a barge-pole” (well frankly, you’d now be so lucky, Mary).

We tend, like Jewish comedians who build up great resilience in the face of childhood derision, to develop other attributes.We can talk, tell jokes, entertain and laugh, particularly at ourselves. Apparently we have fiery tempers,well who could blame us?

But imagine what it’s like to have this opprobrium reinforced officially? This happened to me on arguably the worst night in a teenage redhead’s calendar. The night the inter (now junior) cert finishes is always a disaster for redheads because of the dreaded school disco and its slow-set.

That particular morning, as I caught the bus to school for my Latin exam, all I could think about was the night’s slow set at Presentation Brothers in Glasthule. “Pres” as it was known locally, was a rite of passage for generations.

But that morning, Latin grammar was not even on my radar screen. My head was dominated by the fear: the fear of being exposed after all 11 sweaty, fumbling minutes of Stairway to Heaven, when the lights came on and she could see my fiery top in the full glare of the fluorescent lights.

Only when the Mean-teistimearacht paper was placed in front of me did I finally focus on Ovid,Catulus,Caesar and all the lads. But what do you think was the first question? It read: “In Roman theatre, how did the crowd recognise a slave?” By their red hair of course! This is true. In early Roman theatre, slaves wore red wigs to make them immediately recognisable as untermensch to the sallow Mediterranean audience. I knew things didn’t bode well for the night ahead.

Many years later, most of us redsers have recovered. In general, we are late developers only coming into our own when our erstwhile tormentors are beginning to grow bald and fat in that nondescript, generic mousy-haired way. However, while the redsers may be blooming, “Pres” Glasthule is not.

Presentation Brothers Glasthule, like many other non fee-paying schools in Dublin, is fighting for survival. Pres, along with Marian College Sandymount, Synge Street and a host of other schools is finding it difficult to fill places.

Parents are choosing to send their young boys to pr ivate fee-paying schools, eschewing the traditional non fee-paying schools that once formed the backbone of Dublin’s secondary education system.

This appears to be bizarre and counterintuitive, yet it has been going on for some time. For example, the local CBS in Dun Laoghaire closed down and there is now only one school in the hometown of Ireland’s sixth largest constituency.

This is not limited to south Dublin. During the week, another long-standing non fee-paying institution, Belcamp College was sold off. Belcamp has been struggling to maintain student numbers for some years and finally threw in the towel.

Figures from the Department of Education showed that hundreds of places were unfilled in free-education schools in the Dublin area.There are 13,000 unfilled places in northside schools alone.

Why is this happening and what are the long-term implications of the hollowing out of Dublin’s education system? Well the easiest answer is that the country has become amazingly snobby over the past few years and schools that were good enough for Dad are no longer good enough for little Fiach. But why now?

Maybe because the new Irish Dream, like the American Dream, is now one defined by the winner takes all, where “trading up” and “having it all” are the underlying characteristics and an increasing gap between rich and poor is the outcome.

Precisely because the top 5 per cent have made out like bandits in the past ten years, every middle class parent is aware that the difference between the price of material success and failure is growing by the year. Therefore, every strategic decision they take on behalf of their children is considerably more loaded than it used to be. Nowhere is this more evident than in schooling, because returns to education are rising exponentially.

On the other hand, we are becoming increasingly child-centric. We are displaying what I call “bouncy castle syndrome”. As family size falls, the preciousness of children rises. A friend pointed out last weekend that she had ferried her kids to at least five parties in two weeks, while she herself hadn’t been invited anywhere in years.

Parents display their own “good parenting” badge (so important these days) via the lavishness of their five-year-old’s birthday party. The “no school is good enough for young Fionn” is just an extension of the “no bouncy castle is big enough for his birthday party” syndrome.

In such a world, education and the prestige of the secondary school becomes crucial. But make no mistake about it, this is not driven by some shallow Hello! magazine insecurity. It is driven by real economic facts.

There now exists an educational totem pole and your chances of going to university increase exponentially the higher up the pole you are. At the top of the pole are certain fee-paying schools that send a disproportionate number of students to university. The CAO data bears this out. So it is logical to push your child in that direction because, in this world of hyper-competition, a university degree matters more now than it did in the past to your final salary.

But what are the implications financially? Clearly, such overwhelming demand will push up the fees in these schools.This has two implications. First, parents will have to come up with more cash. As a result, there are now many tax-efficient, equity-linked products that are being sold by the banks today to pay for education tomorrow.

So parents are going to huge financial lengths to stay on the education ladder. Also, ironically, free university fees brought in by the left, have simply put more money in the pockets of middle class parents, which is now spent earlier on secondary level fees.

The second financial implication of more money into the coffers of the feepaying schools is that they can then afford to pay teachers better, give them better conditions, fewer hours, be more flexible and in the process get the best teachers. This will reinforce the original divide between the free and the fee-paying schools.

This is likely to lead eventually to league tables and the like but also, on a more general level, the increasing privatisation of secondary education will further divide our society at an earlier age between the public and the private realm.

The more the society is characterised by a “winner takes all” approach where the gap between first and second widens annually in all jobs, the greater the incentive for “normal” parents to make “strategic” decisions for their little ones earlier. In time, this will extend to primary schools, make no mistake about it.

But one thing will remain constant – the status of the redhead. The next time you see an isolated, solitary redser playing on his or her own in the private, feepaying schoolyard or not being picked in the popularity stakes, tell your blonde, brunette or raven headed kids to watch out.

It’s a long race. We have elephantine memories and tormented redhead school kids, contrary to com mon mythology, don’t just get mad, we get even.  


  1. Alan Conroy

    I think the growth in fee paying schools is a good thing.
    The institute of education has the ability to hire the best
    teachers who are judged on their ability ensure their
    pupils (clients, perhaps?) get the best results.
    I went to St Davids CBS in Artane where I studied under
    teachers who were less than interested in our results, they
    got paid the same if I got 6 A’s or 6 F’s. When I did my
    leaving (1992) only a handful of us went on to third level,
    which was a shocking enditment of the school, in fact if I
    followed their advice and took the pass papers as the
    recommended then I wouldnt have got to college.

    Schools are no different to any other business, if fact
    education is a rapidlly growing market, the poor performing
    schools go out of business the successful one’s grow. The
    private sector is much better at delivering results than
    the public sector, education is no different i feel

    If I do ever have childern they will most likely attend a
    private school and certainly never darken the door of St
    Davids CBS.

  2. John Hayes

    This problem is a real one and will do damage to Irish
    society over the coming years. There are many factors that
    are currently reshaping our homogeneous society into a
    multi faceted one. Most of them, I think, positive.
    This one is not.
    The thing is can you blame parents for wanting the best for
    their kids?
    The issue here has more to do with the perception (or fact)
    that the state education system is run more for the benefit
    of the staff than the children, whereas in a private school
    the parent is the customer and so, like in business, comes
    first. So it has more to do with empowerment than
    snobbery.

  3. Tim

    I think all points made are quite sound however I wonder if
    the creation of an increasing amount of fee paying schools
    will lead to a more aristocratic society? The best teachers
    working for the most expensive schools? Could parents from
    working class backgrounds afford to send their kids to
    these schools or would ‘free’ schools become even more
    substandard, hence the lessening of the students chances of
    getting to university and possibly improving their standard
    of living?
    Should working class parents take a leaf from the Roman
    plays you metioned, David, and dye their kids’ hair red at
    birth?

  4. Paul Rux, Ph.D.

    Sirs, this is an amazing story! I work here in the USA to
    start private schools! Slowly, parents here are realizing
    that the state schools are inimical to success, self-
    discipline, and healthy norms. For example, in Madison,
    Wisconsin, USA, where I live, we have teachers who are
    openly “cross-dressers,” and the state school officials
    sanction such openly deviant behavior to the point that
    they discipline children who, I am not making this up, ask
    the person if he or she is a she or a he! Madison by the
    way is a “Big 10″ University town, proud of its
    educational values, which now are sliding into the
    toilet. For the first time in its history, a private
    school along the lines of those mentioned in David’s
    excellent article has opened. I am poised to work with a
    nearby Episcopal (Church of Ireland) seminary to open
    a “School Center” to help parishes to cash in on this
    coming trend. It may interest you to know that I did a
    M.A. in Educational Theory at the University of Toronto.
    My M.A. thesis was “Thomas D’Arcy McGee and the Idea of
    National Education.” McGee was a Young Irelander who
    ended up in Canada, where he proposed creating a national
    school system in Canada that was based on Ireland’s early
    national school system! Yes, Ireland is a the land
    of “Saints and Scholars,” and God willing may it remain a
    center of educational excellence. Above all, do not adopt
    the whacko educational ideas and fads of this country
    there, or you will destroy the intellectual capital and
    knowledge base that you need to remain econmically viable
    and competitive. We need more private schools — here in
    the USA. I would love in time to have a chance to study
    in more detail first hand what David McWilliams, himself a
    first-rate knowledge resource for Ireland, has described
    in this article. In short, money talks, as my mother
    taught me. Forget the drivel about child-centered
    education and all of the other nonsense pushed in our
    colleges of education over here. In the end, the
    marketplace makes the decision. The smart money is on
    private schools. Thanks, Paul Rux, Ph.D. (Educational
    Administration, University of Wisconsin – Madison), M.A.,
    Educational Theory (University of Toronto), B.A., History
    (British / Irish /European), University of Wisconsin –
    Madison. Special Student in the Honours School of History
    and Political Science, Trinity College, Dublin, 1964-65.

  5. harris njafon njona

    i want u and ur team to look for me a family that can send
    me to the universitie

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