Before our next election, please google ‘education in Finland in a nutshell’.
Straight away, you’ll encounter a commitment to equality. A vision. Education as a values-based ideology. In every decision they make, there’s an embedded agreement that every child deserves the same treatment. ‘A central objective is to provide all citizens with equal opportunity.’
Now, do the same research for Ireland.
You might come across a chart, a very confusing chart of the plethora of disconnected schools we have in this country.
You may wade through a matrix of ‘national outcomes,’ ‘policy frameworks’ and ‘policy commitments’. At no point will you read the word equality.
A friend of mine remarked recently that equality is nonsense, impossible to achieve, and a waste of time and energy. I understand where she’s coming from. Walk down any city street in Ireland and it screams at you.
The teenagers with raised voices, thick with anger, spitting, and making you feel intimidated. The perfectly coiffed solicitor with the leather bag, and matching high heel shoes. The elderly man in a wheelchair, the warmth of kindness drained from his face, ashen grey, and resigned.
We don’t appear to be very equal. And equality is difficult.
But the point being missed by my friend is that equality can be an aspiration. It’s not necessarily about achieving a perfect end. It’s about universal design, creating a world, a space, that aspires towards true diversity and inclusion.
It’s about striving to get there — or as close to there as possible. It’s about moving in the right direction at least.
When it comes to education, Ireland isn’t moving enough. It’s in the resignation stage, mired in the belief that equality isn’t worth fighting for. We’re stuck in the mud, in very different sections of mud at that.
Schools don’t even share resources or facilities with each other and visiting different schools in Ireland is like travelling to different continents.
Different patrons continually vie for prized school sites, buildings and renovations, and so they’re pitted against each other. There’s even rivalry and tension between Catholic schools of different orders!
But somewhere in these bog lands are echoes of past optimism, calls for change. Across the water Martin Luther King once told us of his ‘dream’. He knew racial equality might remain so — just a dream. But by describing this dream, of black and white kids holding hands ‘as sisters and brothers,’ he got people moving, moving in the right direction.
When we hear of racially motivated injustices, we experience those injustices against the backdrop of his dream. It is our litmus paper, our acid test. Without this man’s dream, the world would be less just; we’d be less determined, less hopeful.
We don’t dream in education enough.
Our constitution does us a disservice when it contends that ‘the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family’. We respond to the demands of families. We firefight.
We cater to the religious parent who wants us to silence sex education. We cater to the non-religious parent who doesn’t want that. We struggle to cater to the parents of children with special needs but we cater to the parent who puts the Irish language first or who wants their child to play sport at a top level.
We heavily fund Deis schools and vocational schools, relying on positive discrimination quotas to get some students to third level, even though they remain grossly disadvantaged and under-represented.
And then we have the private schools. The parents who have left the state system with its many inadequacies, but who still have their teachers’ wages paid by the state. Of course, these schools are not to be vilified; I’ve no issue with anyone who works there or sends their kids there.
It is more the fact of them that is wrong. The way they make people feel on both sides of the fence. How unhealthy that is for us all.
We must create one cohesive system of education with a foundation in equality. We must not sit back while the minister calls for ‘inclusion’ but answers this call by denying schools access to information on special needs. We must question the disparity in facilities.
Because our constitution also states a commitment to ‘the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children’. Yet ‘all children’ are not given equal access to education and opportunity in Ireland. This is a basic fact and we seem to be ok with it.
We need to not be ok with it. We need to start dreaming again. We need to move in the right direction again. By allowing the ‘family’ fundamental control over a child’s education, we deny Irish children any chance at nearing an equal experience in our school system.
What about the family that doesn’t value any form of education? The family that is absent or abusive. The family that fails to love, educate, and nurture the child.
The state needs to provide a basic, secular education for every child. The state needs to cater for a full range of learners in one cohesive system.
I plan to ask any canvasing politicians this week: ‘What is your vision for education in Ireland?’ If they point to a pie chart, I’ll ask them to put it away. I’ll ask them to dream.