Thursday, 11 March 2021
Young People and Access to Further and Higher Education: Motion [Private Members]
We have heard often, correctly, during the Covid crisis much concern about mental health impacts, especially on our young people during all the restrictions that have been imposed on them. Sometimes those expressing concerns for young people and their mental health do not generally have a record of concerning themselves about the plight of young people or the issue of mental health in our society. There is no doubt that Covid has impacted on young people in a dangerous and unpredictable way. I am struck by the often hysterical reaction to incidents involving breaches of the restrictions. As regrettable as they are, it is seldom that the same commentators or politicians find space or time to verbalise the same level of outrage in relation to meat plants, construction or other vested interests in business that have done more to take risks that could spread the Covid virus. I did not hear those same voices talk about the impact on young people's mental health when previous Governments slashed their jobseeker's allowance, because they could, because of their age and it has never been restored or when they cut back spending on many of the youth services that are desperately needed to intervene with young people at high risk. Our motion tries to address a range of issues. My colleagues have raised most of them, but I wish to make some general points.
One element which frequently goes under the radar is the position of many young people in apprenticeships. They have to undertake placements and on-site work to progress in their apprenticeships. Covid has thrown much of that into disarray across their grades and set sectors into turmoil. Their ability to get work and to progress, or even to get work to survive, and continue with their apprenticeships has been hugely impacted by Covid. It has shone a light on many weaknesses in our education, health and other services. In the apprentice schemes there are problems which are specific to Covid including delays and lack of training spaces, but the underlying issue here, as with many issues, is the actual financial and other supports that we offer students and apprentices. It would be possible to live with the delays and backlogs in terms of trying to combat a pandemic if young people were assured of getting the supports they need to survive not just in crisis but in general during their education and apprenticeships and that they would not face the same pressures with finance, housing and so on.
We accept a fiction in this country about our education system and, indeed, our society in general. That fiction says that we are a classless society and that education is the great leveller. I even heard the Taoiseach say this in a discussion earlier, the idea that with effort and application, any student can succeed. No doubt many do and many will despite the barriers but it remains a fiction nonetheless, a myth that seeks to hide the reality that this is a deeply class-divided society and system and a society in which the odds and the game are stacked against some young people from a very early age. That is partly why the leaving certificate is elevated to a position of some immense milestone that filters young people and so gravely determines their path in life. If we are truly concerned with young people's mental health then the first step would be to scrap the leaving certificate and to end the pressure it places on young people as some final say in what their future and their future education can be. We know that the playing field is never level and that the leaving certificate structure discriminates severely against many young people but that discrimination and disadvantage does not start with the leaving certificate exam itself but much earlier. The leaving certificate simply amplifies the problem. That is why the majority of Traveller children do not complete second level education and why children from migrant backgrounds leave school much earlier than their native Irish counterparts. At the same time, school leavers from affluent backgrounds are most likely to achieve high CAO points, giving them a much greater choice in college. Some 32% of students in the leaving certificate with 550 points or more are from the wealthiest families, compared to 3% from the most disadvantaged.
Professor Kathleen Lynch points out that "it is not the job of a democratic Government to ensure that the wealthiest can perpetuate their class privilege through inheriting excessive private wealth at the expense of precarious, low-waged workers on the one hand, and failing to intervene in educational policies that are blatantly class biased on the other."