Thursday, 11 March 2021
Young People and Access to Further and Higher Education: Motion [Private Members]
CSO figures demonstrate a correlation between levels of educational attainment and social and economic advantage. Higher Education Authority, HEA, figures show that there is a significantly lower level of attainment of higher level education in areas deemed disadvantaged versus those in affluent areas. The Minister does not need me to cite the figures. Regrettably, Limerick has more areas of deprivation than anywhere else in the State. If issues of marginalisation and deprivation are to be tackled successfully, we must ensure that students from disadvantaged communities are offered opportunities and supports to access higher education.
Available data suggest that too few students in schools catering for unemployment black spots progress to higher education. Looking at the progression rate from schools in my constituency, a pattern emerges. For instance, one all-girls secondary school in Limerick city sees almost everyone progress to higher education, but in a similarly sized school with a disproportionate number of students from disadvantaged areas, more than a third fail to progress. Support and encouragement must be offered throughout the school cycle, not just in the final years of second level education. All levels of schooling from preschool onwards should be treated as important stepping stones towards higher level.
Regarding progression, I wish to mention St. Mary's National School in Limerick. St. Mary's Park is listed as an unemployment black spot. It was described in a Pobal report as the most deprived area in the State. I have discussed some of the issues affected the area previously. Unemployment is rife and there is a myriad of social and economic issues to be tackled. One institution in the community that I am particularly proud of is the local primary school. Its students come from St. Mary's Park in the main. Worryingly, the brilliant work that the school does is now in jeopardy. Under the teacher allocation circular of 2020, the school has six classroom teachers and an administrative principal. Under the 2021-22 circular, however, the number of students enrolled suggests that the school will lose two teachers and its principal's administrative status. This school cares for and educates children from the area to the best of its ability. Many of them come from complex and disadvantaged backgrounds, yet their school is scheduled to lose teaching posts. This is not acceptable. One of the teaching posts to be lost is that of deputy principal. The current occupant of that position is from St. Mary's Park. Not only is she a teacher and deputy principal but, according to the principal, she has served as the bridge between the school and community. She knows many of the families and many of the complexities that the schoolchildren face. We talk about the need to deliver further access to higher education while injury is done to a school that educates and supports children from a catchment area where, unfortunately, few get the opportunity to progress to higher education. How can we improve access to higher education when we damage schools in catchment areas because of a calculation that fails to consider the children's specific needs?
The contrast in educational access is perhaps most striking in my city of Limerick. It has eight of the ten top unemployment black spots in the State on the one hand and, on the other, there is a fantastic university and other third level institutions, including an equally impressive institute of technology.
I reiterate the need for more apprenticeships. In 2018, my party launched a strategy on apprenticeships. Our target was to increase their number to 60,000 within five years. Unfortunately, the previous Government did not live up to its commitments. As such, I welcome the Government's commitment to increase apprenticeships by 10,000 per year. I hope that this Government will be more successful than the previous one in that regard.