Thursday, 11 March 2021
Young People and Access to Further and Higher Education: Motion [Private Members]
Anybody who spends time in my company will learn in a very short time that I was a teacher in, and principal of, a school in the north-east inner city of Dublin. It effectively changed my life and the way I view the world. I learned more from those children than I ever taught them. When I became a school principal I got a wonderful bit of advice from a great colleague of mine named Mark Candon. He told me that regardless of the decision a principal makes, he or she will have conflict with staff colleagues, potentially with the parent body, definitely with the Department of Education and possibly with the board of management and others, but if a child is at the centre of every decision that is made, nobody will ever question the principal's integrity and, therefore, make sure that a child or children are at the centre of every decision made. If one analyses the education system from beginning to the end, it is very difficult to come to the conclusion that we have constructed a system that has a child, children or students at the centre of decisions that are made. If one was to start with a blank sheet of paper, which is what I believe should be done, one would not construct an education system like the one we have now.
The second level system ends with the leaving certificate if the student gets that far. Many young people do not get that far. As a result of this pandemic, we have lost a generation of young people at risk. There is no legal requirement for these vulnerable young people to be in school after the age of 16 and, as a result of the pandemic and the lack of in-school learning, they have been lost to the system. The leaving certificate is outdated and no longer fit for purpose. It needs to be overhauled radically because it does not have young students, human beings, at its centre.
We have an education system that perpetuates inequality. It is rooted in inequality. If one asks Finnish politicians about the education system in Finland, they will say they had a discussion in their society about their education system and tried to find the theme or belief system that should underpin it. They came up with an answer. It is this radical idea called equality.
Everybody buys into that notion, including the far left, the far right, the centre-right, the centre-left and centrists. They all believe that equality should underpin the education system. In Ireland, we believe that choice should underpin the system.
The word "choice" sounds nice but it leads to competition between schools. In my constituency and others around the country, the notion of choice leads to open nights - when such things were possible - in September and October that encouraged parents to send their children to particular schools. That competition leads to a race for points, things like league tables and a stripped down and nasty discussion as to how one school is more successful than another. That, in turn, leads to a race among parents to try to get their kids into a certain secondary school because it has a certain reputation. In a given community, one then has a league table of secondary schools which inevitably means that a school at the bottom of the league table has a disproportionate number of young people from the Traveller community, migrants, young people with special educational needs and others who have been suspended, expelled or moved on from other schools. Many in society - I do not want to use the word "all" - are willing for that school to exist because there is a race for parents to get their young people into schools at the top of the ladder. It is not fair, does not work and is killing any sort of imagination or goodwill among students and teachers. Teachers are given the impression by parents and society that it is a waste of time to talk about stuff that is not on the curriculum. Parents feel they have to put their kids through the machine, so to speak. They can acknowledge that a school includes extracurricular activities but instead send their child to a grind school because they can afford it.
The leaving certificate makes young people good at doing a leaving certificate. It does not make young people good at anything else. We need to overhaul and radically change the leaving certificate. We, as a political collective, need to be brave and say that, in this day and age, the leaving certificate is no longer fit for purpose. The leaving certificate is pretty much exactly the same now as it was when I sat it in 1994. I think most people who have gone through a leaving certificate year are still slightly traumatised by what they had to do in order to get through it. That is if a student made it that far.
The Minister referred to the Cassells report. We always talk about the price tag attached to education in Ireland and most of the discussions that happen at the school gates or between parents and teachers or principals are about money. People have said to me that if they did not have to talk about money, they could actually talk about education. Staff in schools have told me that they are always asking about a fundraiser, talking about book money and voluntary contributions or being asked about those things. Parents just wish they could talk about education and the development of their children. When it comes to third level or further education, reference has been made to former Minister for Education, Donogh O'Malley, and his work in the 1960s but one only has to go back to the 1990s and another former Minister, Niamh Breathnach, to find the template of political will to abolish third level fees, the funding for which was found from a progressive taxation system. That is how these things should be done.
I believe there is goodwill across this House and I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion that has been laid down. There is a fantastic opportunity for us to grab the initiative here because never before in my political lifetime has education been at the top of the political agenda, as it is now. Never before was there a thirst within the Irish population, the education body, teachers, parents and students to radically overhaul what we do. We should not be married or welded to the leaving certificate because it is the only thing we know. Let us take the opportunity to radically overhaul and reform it. Let us make third level and further education absolutely free. At least then we could return to the basic principle of putting the child at the centre of every decision that we make.