HomeResearchMoral character, legitimacy and social justice in Irish elite schools

Moral character, legitimacy and social justice in Irish elite schools


‘Thousands waiting at our gates’: moral character, legitimacy and social justice in Irish elite schools


Courtois, A. (2015), British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36:1, 53-70.

What’s it about?

There are private schools in most countries, but they generally differ in character from those in Britain.

This paper looks at Ireland, where the private school sector is of similar size, educating 7 per cent of Irish school children.

The schools are mainly very affluent, but fees are lower than in Britain owing to state subsidies. The majority are single-sex, with more boys than girls schools; two-thirds are Catholic.

Places are in demand. This paper examines how the schools retain ‘social closure’, and how they legitimise their role in society.


In-depth interviews were conducted with staff and past-pupils of 21 private schools. In addition, the author observed school events, with past pupils as gatekeepers.

Key findings

  • The schools maintain social exclusivity by prioritising and encouraging, with legislative backing, their own ‘communities’, privileging siblings and children of past pupils. Other applicants are screened for their social skills.
  • While schools are not permitted to use academic selection, the social criteria are used to justify exclusion of academically weak children from many elite schools.
  • The private schools offer a broad education: “Children benefit from a ‘total education’, whereby the school takes responsibility for the intellectual, physical, social, spiritual and moral education of boys, seeking an ‘all-roundedness’ reflecting the many facets of social excellence.
  • The schools emphasise the notion of ‘service to the nation’ to legitimise and justify their position in Irish society and their receipt of state subsidy.

What are the limitations of this research?

This is a qualitative study: it would be useful to quantify the benefits from attending a private school in Ireland.

There could also usefully be more research on the prevalence of privately educated alumni in positions of influence in Ireland’s social, economic and political life.

Explained by: Francis Green, Professor of Work and Education Economics at UCL Institute of Education.


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