Speech on the future of education – July 16th 2020

We meet today in a uniquely challenging time. The events in recent times have posed incredible struggles for us all. The youth of Ireland, while less affected by the virus itself, are now arguably facing some of the most significant effects of the fallout. Disruption to the education system has challenged young people in every county of the island, however, we have all learned from the strength in unity and what can be achieved when our communities come together to overcome difficulty. This demonstrates the potential to correct imperfections within our educational system and better serve the youth of Ireland into the future.

I believe that the Department should act as a matter of urgency, to ensure clarity is provided to parents as soon as possible regarding the safe reopening of schools. We are all aware that the current situation as it relates to the virus can change, and change dramatically, in a relatively short period of time, any such change would of course impact how we reopen our society. However, I believe the Department should set out their intended pathway to reopening schools without delay, this will give parents the maximum amount of time to plan and prepare their children for resumption of schooling.

A strong education system is of paramount importance to any functioning and progressive State. A child’s development in the first thirteen years of life will form life-long habits and characteristics that will have a profound effect on the child’s development. We owe the children of Ireland a coherent a practicable plan to deliver the quality education they deserve.

Any such plan proposed by the Minister, should seek to address all concerns parents and professionals currently have, this will require specific guidelines regarding staggering of school drop-off times or locations, an analysis of existing school infrastructure with particular attention paid to bathroom and hand washing facilities, even sleeve length of uniforms for younger children should be considered as hand washing and becomes more regular. As we learn more about this virus it is becoming clear that when interacting with others, sufficient air ventilation can prove the difference between preventing or facilitating a spread of the virus, supporting schools obtain the necessary equipment to enhance air ventilation within classrooms should play an important role in the reopening of schools.

Providing a clear and effective plan, in a timely manner, will achieve the fundamental goal of giving confidence to parents and teachers. Confidence that when a parent leaves their child at school, they know that, that child will be taken care of, will be safe and will be healthy when they return home. Confidence that teachers will be able to carry out their duties in a safe and responsible way and support the children in their care to the best of their ability, without fear of transmitting the virus to their own families, when they return home in the evening.

The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed Irish society over the past number of months. Few would of thought possible, the profound changes we have witnessed in such a short period of time. However, this crisis has shown the strength of the Irish people and the ability for our people and our communities to pull together and overcome significant challenges, hardship and heartbreak. This provides us with the opportunity to reimagine our approach to future crises and challenges, when we act with clarity and confidence. This extends to every Department and every policy; Education is no exception.

It is my hope that we embark on a serious attempt to improve a number of areas within the Irish education system in the lifetime of this Dail, including reinvigorating our approach to special education, support for gifted children and talented youth, expanding the accessibility of summer provision and improvements to aspects of higher education in Ireland.

Delivering high quality special needs education and supporting the children and families that rely on those services should be made a priority by the Minister and the Department. Affording all children the equal opportunity to obtain the support and education they need to excel in later life is a moral responsibility on the State. I hope that the Minister will pursue this goal, engaging with families, schools and experts on how to achieve this, I would also hope that the voice of the children themselves will also be listened to during such a process. We can achieve greater strengthening of special classes in mainstream schools and support the vital work carried out by Special Needs Assistants. There has been significant progress in this field since 2011 and I sincerely hope that this the current trend of investment and support is continued into the future, this is an investment that delivers an invaluable return, not just to the students and their families, but to the whole of society.

Programmes that give gifted children the opportunity to reach their potential, based not on age but rather talent and passion, should be encouraged and developed by the Department, for too many years students in Ireland have been met with a rigid and bureaucratic system that has led to unintended consequences and an opportunity cost for students. Creating a flexible and adaptive system that serves the student can kickstart major changes to the development of a child through their educational career.

Likewise, I am pleased that the July Provision has been expanded to include students with Downs Syndrome, who had previously been omitted from the programme. The programme is relied upon by approximately ten thousand students every year, however, the aspects of this programme can be of benefit to even more students. Expanding the accessibility of the programme to a greater number of students with different abilities can be achieved should this goal be adopted by the Minister. Any such review of the programme should consider the extensive paper-work burden placed upon parents applying for the programme and the implementation of a streamlined, user-friendly approach to accessing this hugely important programme. Moreover, the Minister may consider reviewing the process of schools that opt-out of the programme despite having children enrolled who would qualify and benefit from participating in it, as well as examining the creation of a more integrated system of registration for both parents and tutors. Many parents across this island rely on this programme to help their children readjust to the routine of the school term and the increased level of interaction with others, the barriers to accessing this process should be reduced as much as possible.

Many changes in Irish society have their routes in the opening up, accessibility and progression of our educational system. This has led to economic, social and cultural benefits for our people. Enhancing this approach to our education system should be an important part of future Department policies, I am therefore pleased that the Programme for Government has committed to a review of the National Action Plan on Bullying, this will specifically aim to include guidelines for tackling gender identity bullying. Recent surveys and studies of bullying in schools, highlight that LGBTI+ students are disproportionately affected by bullying in Irish schools. An overwhelming number of LGBTI+ students report anxiety, stress and other issues resulting from school-based bullying. Reviews of the National Action Plan on Bullying, while welcome, should be part of a wider review of LGBTI+ issues and how they are approached in our schools, with the express aim of creating a safer and more welcoming environment for young people struggling with their orientation.

At every stage of development from a child to adult, there are important issues to address within our systems. A coherent root and branch strategy that links primary, secondary and third level education can help us create a wholistic and effective education system. Changes to our third level system are profoundly important to the future of our economy and society, helping drive a new era of economic and societal success in Ireland. However, this does not mean that all leaving cert students should be required to attend a university; greater investment in apprenticeships can provide viable alternatives for many students across Ireland. For many years, apprenticeships have been viewed with a degree of contempt in Ireland, however in many leading European and Scandinavian countries they are an attractive and sought after, post-secondary school pursuit. Apprenticeships provide vocational learning and experience balanced between in class lessons and hands on practical experience. This gives apprentices a competitive edge when entering the job market, moreover, countries with a high take up of apprenticeships, such as Germany, boast significantly lower rates of youth unemployment, comparative to other EU partners. I believe a pilot scheme or review of how apprenticeships can be improved and promoted in Ireland can have an overall positive impact on society, indeed, it would result in an easing of demand on student accommodation which has been a looming problem for students of Irish universities.

Action is required to ease the burden and financial cost imposed on students for accommodation while studying in Ireland. As I have mentioned numerous times, creating an inclusion-based education system should be a priority for us all. It should not be the case that students must forfeit their hard-earned position in a university course due to not being able to afford student accommodation. This issue has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, many students rely on summer jobs in pubs, restaurants and hotels to fund their university accommodation and expenses, and even part time jobs during the academic term. This ability for a student to independently support themselves has been deprived to them due to the impact of the pandemic on the wider economy. Many of these students cannot be funded by their families and today find themselves worried and facing difficult decisions of whether or not the can continue to afford a college education. This is not a decision a young adult should have to make after working hard to get to where they are. I believe there are options available to the Department and to universities regarding how to improve the financial imposition of student accommodation, self-funding ways in which student accommodation is rented out to tourists during the non-term periods of the year have worked in other European countries to reduce the cost charged to returning students. Such approaches can be easily implemented and provide immediate results when international travel returns.

Investing in research and development in our universities can help Ireland emerge on the forefront of new technologies, new medicines and new economic growth in all areas of the green and digital economy. Despite being a small nation, we have consistently risen above all expectations to become leaders in new fields. This is primarily down to the ingenuity, talent and passion of our young people and there is certainly no shortage of these traits in Ireland today. Investing in innovation hubs in universities can spark a new wave of success for our nation.

As we have discussed, the nature of education in Ireland is one that we all care deeply about. We all, regardless of party or background want to see the development of a world-class education system in Ireland. We should therefore set ourselves the goal of creating an education system for all, that celebrates diversity and difference. An education system that affords all children a fair chance to succeed to their greatest potential regardless of their background, ability or circumstance. There is no risk to investing in our children and the future generations that will follow them, improvements to education system benefits everyone, old and young.