Education and the new Catholic middle class guilt complex…

Unusually for the silly season there is some good journalism around, and decent news stories. There’s a fair amount of trouble brewing in the Catholic school system after suggestions by the Bishops that entrance exams should be phased out. According to the Irish News Fr Ignatius McQuillan said the moral authority of the bishops would not stop parents switching to non-Catholic grammars. Then Fionnuala O’Connor gets to the nub of a problem that has thus far refused to speak its name within Catholic society:

Despite internal republican disagreement and the age-old split between republicanism and SDLP-type nationalism and although sniffy about the lack of debate in unionism, many Catholics do not rush to explore developments in their own structures.

Yet most know well that class divisions in Catholic society are wider – though also swiftly enough overcome – than they were pre-Troubles. The contrasts in the lives of struggling low-earners and the benefit-dependent, the fairly affluent and the rich are rarely examined in depth in ordinary conversations among many Catholics because many are touchy on the subject.

It is far more tempting to dwell on the estrangement between loyalists and unionism and how a Protestant underclass has been neglected by their politicians. All true but matters nearer home are not so easily addressed.

Agonising over entrance tests and selection bring the question of class bang into the centre of the picture. It remains veiled.

It is also worth taking in Matthew Taylor’s considered thoughts on social mobility in England (where it has nose-dived under a comprehensive system). He reckons that the root cause of inequality has less to do with the system or the past performance of any school, but its rising reputation and the determination of the middle classes to colonise and monopolise whatever opportunities they think it will unleash for their offspring:

The dynamic of a school becoming sought after is more to do with property than performance. A school may start off with an advantage such as being in a largely middle class area or having a good head. As soon as the school gets a good name, middle class people start moving into the area (the ESRC research shows there is a much stronger correlation between past school performance and property prices than with future school performance). As a consequence the intake to the school becomes more privileged, driving up further its raw league table results (which is what parents tend to look at) and so it goes on.

And he concludes:

…the barrier to social mobility in the UK is less about the lack of desire of the poor to move up and more about the utter tenacity of the upper middle classes in making sure their offspring never move down. And as the hostility people show to any tax on inheritance underlines, the vast majority of the well off are determined to make sure they pass on privilege down the generations.

Amongst middle class parents (Catholic or Protestant) with even pre-school age kids, the single-minded focus on how their kids do and what school they will go to can be almost frightening in its intensity… This is not new exactly. But Northern Irish Catholics, for whom education had largely been a cross class experience in previous generations, now find themselves conflicted between new class preoccupations and older, now less certain, cultural and religious identities…

Those looking for reforms which genuinely create opportunities for those dwelling beyond the new middle class redoubts may need to think much more broadly about the problem than flicking a switch towards the comprehensive systems of Scotland, Wales or England…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty