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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 Michael McNamara: Information on Michael McNamara Zoom on Michael McNamara] I am not entirely convinced that the way to do that is just through putting access to these trades or skills on a CAO course. A much greater change in mindset is required from the Department. While I commend the intention behind putting apprenticeships in the CAO system, it may be counterproductive and even if it is not, it simply is not enough. We need to stress to people that third level and the academic third level system is not for everybody and should not be for everybody. That is not to say that it should be for people from a certain background and not for others. There are people from all sorts of backgrounds who are not particularly interested in studying algebra at third level and should not have to.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl We will now hear from the Minister of State.

Deputy Michael McNamara: Information on Michael McNamara Zoom on Michael McNamara "Hands" was the name of the programme.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Very good.

Minister of State at the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (Deputy Niall Collins): Information on Niall Collins Zoom on Niall Collins I thank the Deputies for their contributions to this debate. I know that access to education is an issue close to the heart of many Members. As the Minister, Deputy Harris, outlined, since the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science was formed last August we have been working to build a strong, flexible and inclusive further and higher education sector for Ireland. Our statement of strategy sets out both our vision of what the further and higher education sector should be and the actions we need to take to achieve this. Over recent years there has been a significant programme of re-investment in higher education and we will continue to build on this. We are committed to engaging in the funding reform process in order to ensure that the further and higher education system is fully and sustainably resourced to deliver the highest quality education possible.

We have ambitious plans to reform the national skills agenda, broaden access to education and ensure that the further and higher systems are integrated so that students and learners can progress along educational pathways that best allow them to develop their skills and reach their full potential. We must ensure that students are aware of all the options available to them as they leave school, so that they can make an informed decision on the pathways best suited for them.

We are taking an inclusive approach to ensure that everyone is provided with the supports they need to participate fully in education. Policies such as our ten-year strategy to improve literacy, numeracy and digital skills are indicative of our commitment to ensuring that education is an option for everyone. Fostering inclusion is one of the core pillars around which the further education and training strategy is built and the national plan for equity of access to higher education sets out a vision of a student body that represents the diversity and social mix of Ireland’s population.

This has been a very difficult year for students and the Government has taken action to mitigate the difficulties they are facing. We have doubled the funding available in the student assistance fund, provided €15 million to support access to laptops and other devices and to bridge the digital divide and €50 million was provided to offer financial assistance to higher education students through a €250 grant or fee rebate.

I fully appreciate the sentiment behind the motion and I assure Deputies that access to education for all will remain a core tenet of my Department. The Minister and I will continue to work to create a tertiary education system that can act as an engine of progress and innovation in this country and that provides an opportunity for all to realise their full potential.

Deputy Bríd Smith: Information on Bríd Smith Zoom on Bríd Smith 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."

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