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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 Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: Information on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin Zoom on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin] 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.

Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick: Information on Peter Fitzpatrick Zoom on Peter Fitzpatrick I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Private Members' motion and I thank the Deputies who have brought it before the House. It raises some good points that the Government needs to address in a constructive manner. In the main, I fully support the motion although there are aspects of it that are aspirational and would not be workable.

I come from the Dundalk region of County Louth and the Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT, is on my doorstep. DkIT is, without doubt, one of the most recognisable landmarks in the region and is home to more than 5,000 full-time students. I see at first hand the enormous benefits that the college has brought to the north-east region. Not only does it support 5,000 full-time students, but it has worked with local industry on joint projects to benefit not only industry, but the region itself.

I will speak about some of the points raised in today's motion. The financial hardship that many families face as a result of children going to third level education is simply unacceptable. I note from the motion that Ireland has the highest registration fees in Europe, with amounts ranging from €3,000 to €7,000. It should be noted that those fees are per student per year. Let us take an example of a family with three children attending third level, each of whom completes a four-year term. The cost to the family is €36,000 in registration fees alone, without taking into account the cost of books, travelling and accommodation expenses and so on. When we talk about free education, it is clear that it is not free but a heavy burden on many families. My firm belief is that every person should be given the opportunity to better themselves through education and that financial hardship should not be an obstacle to a third level education. The sad reality, unfortunately, is that financial hardship is a barrier to third level education and needs to be removed.

I agree that we need to take the approach that was taken in the late 1960s when access to secondary school education was extended to all. Now is the time that the same approach should be taken to third level educational opportunities. The present Covid-19 pandemic has caused great difficulty for students, among others. I have always worked very closely with this generation and taken a keen interest in the mental health of young generations. What I have seen during this pandemic has, quite frankly, frightened me. I have seen the mental health of students deteriorate during this period. They have lost out on a full year of social interaction with their peers and the impact that will have on their future development must never be underestimated. The Government must provide whatever hope and support is needed to support students during this most difficult period. I have spoken to many students and heard the same stories over and over again.

I am also being contacted by the parents of students who are extremely worried about the mental health of their children. It is not natural for students of this age group not to be socially active. I fear for the long-term consequences and, in that regard, I totally agree with the call in the motion for free access for all students and apprentices to counselling and personal education services at the point and time of need.

I agree with the motion that for students affected by the Covid pandemic and whose classes were held online, a substantial amount of their fees need to be refunded. I acknowledge that the Government has repaid €250 to students but, in all fairness, that is not nearly enough. I call on the Government to look at this matter again and put a more realistic figure on it. I suggest that a rebate of at least 50% of the fees paid should be refunded to third level students for any years of their courses that have been affected by the pandemic.

The motion before the House seeks to abolish the leaving certificate examination. While I do not agree, I am of the opinion that the leaving certificate is an unnecessary stress for young students and not always a good guide to a student's real ability. I believe that the leaving certificate needs a major overhaul to bring it up to date. The leaving certificate has become a rat race for access to third level education. That is wrong and places too much unnecessary stress on young students. One of the reasons for the rat race is that demand is outstripping supply. There are 80,000 students chasing approximately 52,000 third level places and that is unacceptable. If there are 80,000 students seeking to advance to third level education, then there should be 80,000 places made available for them. Successive Governments have failed in that regard.

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