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Young People and Access to Further and Higher Education: Motion [Private Members] (Continued)

Thursday, 11 March 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1005 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh: Information on Rose Conway-Walsh Zoom on Rose Conway-Walsh] That is wrong on many levels. The Minister can show that he is genuine about addressing this problem by supporting the USI's legislation, which I introduced in the Dáil and which 58 Deputies have already signed. That needs to be done quickly. When students return to education in September and October, we must ensure that they are not exploited as renters. Just because they are students does not mean they can be fleeced. If this were not a pandemic year and restrictions not in place, students would be outside the gates of Leinster House. I thank them for not doing so. I thank student unions across the country for their Trojan work over the past year in trying to protect and defend students' rights.

A picture is being painted of everything being okay, but the Minister knows it is far from okay. Some 90% of students have told us that they are suffering from stress, loneliness and isolation and that they feel disconnected. Our production of human capital has been mentioned in this debate, but we must consider education and address issues holistically. We have an opportunity. Deputy Harris has the privilege of being the first Minister of a Department of higher education. He will be judged in that light. I hope that he will be judged kindly and on the basis of what he makes happen for students and their families, not for the reports he commissions, and addressing inequalities. If we continue with an education system that feeds inequality, everyone will pay the price. That is why we must have an education system that is treated as a public good, is invested in and ensures equality and integrity and to which we expand access through Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, whose thresholds are too restrictive.

Since I did not get an opportunity to do so yesterday, I will focus on apprenticeships. The Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, is present. I welcome the Government's apprenticeship strategy and the addition of apprenticeships to the Cental Applications Office, CAO, system so that everything is handled through a single portal. However, there are immediate problems with apprenticeships that we must address. Apprentices have been left in limbo by the Government. Currently, 6,928 apprentices are waiting to access their off-the-job training. That is more than one third of all apprentices. Their practicals and exams have been put to one side continually, with no end in sight. We must engage with apprentices and show them their training pathways. Most apprenticeships last four years. They cannot be allowed to last six years with people not obtaining the qualifications or earning the incomes they need. This matter needs to be taken in hand. The Government has missed even its modest targets. Regardless of the strategy for the future, we need to deal with the here and now. SOLAS needs to engage with apprentices and employers so as to ensure that the issues are addressed.

The situation of student teachers in terms of Gaeltacht courses and grant aid not being extended to those whom we have pushed into getting qualifications from private colleges must also be addressed. The grant needs to be extended.

I could speak about many more education matters, but I have run out of time. I will hand over to my colleague, but I think the Minister gets my drift.

Deputy Maurice Quinlivan: Information on Maurice Quinlivan Zoom on Maurice Quinlivan 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.

Deputy Patricia Ryan: Information on Patricia  Ryan Zoom on Patricia  Ryan I thank People Before Profit for tabling this motion. Unfortunately, the Government has proposed a cynical amendment. It has a habit of doing so in respect of proposals it knows are the right things to do but that do not fit with its conservative, right-wing agenda.

Covid-19 and public restrictions have imposed significant hardships on our students. Their educational experience has been far from ideal and there has been a negative impact on their mental health and general well-being. We must listen to our students. For years, we have heard from them that too much pressure is being placed on them. There is too much emphasis on one exam to decide their paths in life. I am reminded of the song "Little Boxes" by Malvina Reynolds, with students being put in boxes and all coming out the same. We must radically rethink our approach to the leaving certificate. We require an education system that is adaptable and seeks the best for every student regardless of his or her academic ability. We also need to balance between equipping our students with life skills and with academic skills.

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