14 Dec 2022

The Leaving Certificate Must Not Remain a Source of Indirect Discrimination Against Learners, Says AONTAS CEO Dearbháil Lawless

Adult learners standing together in front of the FET learning centre

The publication today (14th December 2022) of the Irish Times Feeder School 2022 list highlights indirect discrimination faced by working-class people and students living in poverty, according to AONTAS CEO Dearbháil Lawless.

Publishing the list, Irish Times education correspondents wrote that “the proportion of school leavers from poorer backgrounds who secured places in higher education dropped this year following a return to traditional Leaving Cert exams”, and that “findings back up research which shows that social-class background is a key factor influencing levels of progression to higher education.”

Dearbháil states: “This is not a reflection of the intellectual ability or motivation of working-class and disadvantaged people. It reflects a disparity of education supports at home and in-school for students across Ireland. The Feeder School list is a symbol of the competitive and unjust points system in Ireland, whereby school students feel pressured at a young age to compete for their education. They are expected to endure a formal school system that negatively impacts and further excludes people from poor and working-class backgrounds.”

“During the pandemic there was flexibility with the Leaving Certificate and a new focus on the needs of students, including supports for people with additional learning needs such as intellectual disabilities and IT equipment for people without access to resources at home. Instead of seeing flexibility as a short-term solution to the pandemic only, this should be embraced as a long-term goal of educational institutions. Just because something is normalised doesn’t make it fit for purpose or fair. It seems that the Leaving Certificate as a means for entering third-level education continues to favour those with privilege.”

These and other issues were highlighted in our written submission to the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, regarding the Committee’s examination of Leaving Certificate Reform in October 2021.

The publication of the Feeder Schools list also underlines that pupil progression to Higher Education continues to be seen as the measure of a school’s "success". Information on students’ continuation along other education paths, such as Further Education and Training, Community Education or Apprenticeships, is not collected.

There are signs that this attitude may change, including the recent launch of the new Unified Tertiary Education model by Minister Simon Harris TD and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on 6th December.

Welcoming this development, Dearbháil states: “Collaboration and integration between Further Education and Training and Higher Education will result in more working-class people in third-level education and a recognition of the value and importance of FET and community education for people from all walks of life. I hope that people will see the value of adult learning more broadly. Everyone must have the right and opportunity to both access continuing education opportunities, and be given a fair and real chance to find their love of learning and do so in their chosen area of interest. Education is the greatest tool for creating positive social change and it can provide individuals and families with knowledge and experience that gives them choice, and better life opportunities.”

AONTAS is the National Adult Learning Organisation. Our vision is for all adults to achieve their educational aspirations through an equitable lifelong learning system.