Thursday, 19 May 2022
Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2020 Report: Motion
I thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin for his work on this. He has dealt with what I am going to discuss, and a lot more eloquently than I will. What we are talking about is straightforward. It is education as the great leveller, to use Deputy Ó Ríordáin's words. We are talking about ensuring that there is an equal playing field in respect of access. I welcome the fact that there has been an element of analysis and it looks like there is going to be a further element of analysis. As for every piece of legislation, due diligence should be done. However, I think we have to get some sort of timeline and look at the possibility of actually introducing these provisions.
They are not going to impact on every school. We get that even from the numbers the Minister has provided. We know that. It is not about every school. It is the fact that there are schools that are able to use this restriction or obstacle, this 25%, for those with family connections. On some level that sounds all right but in some cases it stops people who do not have a previous connection to an area from going to a school that they live incredibly close to.
Beyond that, there can be a difficulty if someone's parents have not gone to a school. Siblings might not be able to go to the same school if they do not have the connections.
There are many issues here. If we are talking about education as a means of giving people the ability to break the poverty cycle, we have to realise that the main issue is much broader. We know it is not just about access to schools and dealing with fees and third level costs; we know a serious amount of intervention needs to occur at a very early stage in a child's life. There must be a particular emphasis on pre-primary and primary schooling. However, that is for another day. I am blue in the face talking about early interventions that are needed, particularly for communities and families, to make a real difference.
What we have is inequity in that certain people are given an advantage. It also means certain schools have the ability to game the system to ensure they get who they want. No school is going to say it will refuse someone on the basis of their being a Traveller or on the basis of academic ability or a disability, but a school has the ability to ensure the continuity of the old school-tie network or whatever term people want to use. We need to cast that into the bin alongside all the other inequities we lived with throughout the history of the State and before that. It is very straightforward; there is something that could be and in some cases is an impediment to some pupils in gaining access to education. It could entail a school in close proximity. Long before we get into the issues in the public domain, we know insufficient modelling has been done on the needs that arise owing to autism and other disabilities. A wider piece of work has not been done and unfortunately families are now dealing with absolutely dreadful circumstances in which they are not quite sure what secondary school their children will be able to attend. We all know the information existed and that kids in primary school with certain requirements will have those requirements in secondary school. It is not beyond us to put a system in play that can deal with that, no more than we need to up our game regarding workforce planning to ensure we provide all the necessary disability services and have enough occupational therapists and speech and language therapists where they are needed.
Across the board, we need significantly better modelling and planning. That is accepting there will be difficulties. We cannot just click our fingers and have perfection; however, at a minimum, we can introduce equality or equity – call it what you will – regarding the ability of people to gain access to secondary schools. We are aware that connections have been advantageous in gaining access to certain schools, both fee-paying and non-fee-paying. On one level, our report reinforces the fact that certain people, and probably many in here, have had advantages that many on the periphery have not had.
What is proposed is a very simple solution to introduce an element of equity to remove obstacles that can be put in people's way. We need to find some sort of timely means of introducing it. It is a very fair ask by Deputy Ó Ríordáin. The Minister must show it is possible and put in place a timeline; we cannot just have endless analysis. That is not to take away from the fact that some analysis is needed. Beyond that, we need to fit our work into the wider body of work that needs to be done regarding interventions for communities and families. In particular, we must invest in disadvantaged areas and communities on the periphery of society. We can play our part in ensuring that we do not reinforce, over a lifetime, the disadvantages that give people far less choice. We all know there are many bad choices that can be made and that one is more likely to make one if one has a certain postcode. We have to break the cycle. We can do so only by ensuring that we reintroduce equity, even through small moves such as the legislation we are reviewing. Beyond that, we must put in resources. If we do not, we will pay for everything and they will be an abject failure societally and economically and in the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, it will represent the continuation of many failures.
The Minister has an opportunity to move this on. It is the right thing to do. The right thing is something we could do with doing in this place at least occasionally. In addition to doing it, a wider body of work needs to be done.