“Sure Our Lads Are Always Smaller”
In March 2002, I was nearing the end of my probationary year as a teacher, a job I found myself in more by accident than design. I stood on the sideline of Parnell Park, home of Dublin GAA, listening to a tuneless national anthem strain through the ground’s PA system. Beside me stood the manager of our team, Joe Vaughan, a proud Clare man who through sheer force of personality had single-handedly kept Gaelic games alive in a soccer-centric hamlet of North Dublin. Both teams had divided themselves into their repectives lines, ready for the throw-in after the anthem. It was then that I noticed how much taller and heavier the opposition players were than those on our team. It was a senior schools match so teams didn’t have the opportunity to draft players in from older teams and play them under false names. Normally, I made a point of finishing the anthem but I thought the disadvantage too serious an issue to wait. I leaned toward Joe.
– What’s the story with the size of the those fellas Joe?
– What do you mean?
– They’re fucking huge.
– Sure our lads are always smaller.
Discussion over. Joe dismissed my worry with such matter-of-fact-ness that I never raised the issue with him again. Sure our lads are always smaller. Subsequent years would prove Joe right. Our lads were almost always smaller. Our lads were almost always poorer. Our lads almost always underperformed academically. Our lads almost always had less life chances. That this was the case didn’t come as a surprise to me. What did surprise me, on that occasion and others since, was that nobody seemed outraged about this. If they did, they kept it to themselves, as if to hope for anything else was embarassingly naive.
Ireland’s education system
Ireland has a free education system. Well almost free, there are some (in)voluntary contributions to both primary and seconday schools but these are usually waived if a household’s income falls below the relevant threshold. This means that Irish students are better served than many in countries of comparative size and economic standing. If students work hard, education can have a transformative affect on their life opportunities. At least that’s the favoured narrative.
The reality is obviously far more complicated. We cannot expect education to overcome the problems created by poverty and all its ills. So what can we expect of an education system? I hope that education can make people’s lives, until they leave compulsory education, less unfair.
Let’s look at what happens when poverty isn’t an issue. Ireland has the highest levels of third level completion in the EU with 51% of 30-34 year olds having gained a degree or better. That’s an impressive statistic, but when you look at where these students come from structured inequalities appear.
The Tyranny Of Feeder Schools
While life chances are not all about reaching third level the type of jobs that working-class school leavers usually found employment in are shrinking rapidly. This shrinkage has led to increased emphasis on education as a means, maybe the only means, of gaining social mobility.
Schools with a high progression rate from leaving cert to degree level are referred to as feeder schools. Of the top 10 feeder schools in the country 8 of them are fee-paying and most are based in South Dublin although there is evidence that there is a shift toward rural, non fee-paying schools performing well.
What of the top 20 schools in north Dublin then? Predictable 3 of the top 5 are fee-paying. Only 1 of the schools listed, number 20, is based in a working class area. It goes without saying that neither of the schools in Parnell Park that day are on the list. These schools were on some other list, let’s call it the non-feeder schools list.
Even on this list our lads were at a huge disadvantage compared to the lads at the top of the non-feeder schools list, and sadly this disadvantage wasn’t just physical.
Tragic Back Stories
In December 2001, Joe persuaded me to help him train the team that would eventually make it to the schools final. Joe wasn’t the type of man you could easily refuse. I grew to have a special bond with these lads over the following months. After the formal part of the training sessions finished we would let the lads play a match among themselves. As was the way with our motley crew these ramshackle games were played on a soccer pitch.
During these games myself and Joe would talk work, tactics, and how the team were progressing individually and as a unit. It was during these chats that Joe would all too frequently tell me the tragic back-story of our corner forward (Da in jail for drugs), or our wing back (brother facing manslaughter charge), or our goalkeeper (16 year old girlfriend pregnant, rumour it’s not his). Not all our lads had these stories, most came from average, functional, families but all too often even these lads failed to near their potential over the coming years.
And that’s the tragedy. Our lads were among the most successful of their peers. They had made it to their leaving certificate year. Most were heavily involved in at least one sport. Many of them had girlfriends and part time jobs. Many of them displayed commitment, leadership skills, moral courage, and bravery, both on and off the pitch. Our lads from 2001/2002 had qualities that in another school, or more equitable education system and society, would have seen them flourish in what was then an aggressively expanding economy. They weren’t and they didn’t.
Victory and defeat
You know what happens next right? We won the match. It wasn’t quite against all the odds but it was against a few, not least of which was the fact that our lads were smaller than their lads in a game that rewards bulk as much as talent. It was a great day and in the dressing room afterwards I told them that they’d meet each other in years to come and look back fondly upon that day. Not all of them got the chance.
One of those lads has since been killed. Two more might reflect on the victory from their cells in Mountjoy jail where they’re serving life for murder. At least one other has been shot and I now believe is on the run. One of them has fallen for the ever present destroyer of the poor in Dublin, heroin. They’re the headlines. They’re the unhappy endings. The rest of our lads are probably doing well but I only see one frequently, he works in a shopping centre near where I live and improves my day every time I see him.
We can accept that society is inequal and feel powerless to create change but in the words of Stanislaw Jezy Lec “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” We have a responsibility to the more vulnerable members of our society, to those near-forgotten Love/Hate style hamlets, scattered around our country.
The solution is simple, but not easy. The best example of the power of education to change communities I’ve ever come across is the Harlem Children’s Zone. It’s simple and it works. There is hope people. I’ll go into that in more detail in another post. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harlem_Children’s_Zone
Other reading Access to third level education: challenges for equality of opportunity in post celtic tiger Ireland http://publish.ucc.ie/ijpp/2010/01/maxwelldorrity/04/en