A “radical overhaul” of the education system is needed after Covid-19 “exposed the limitations of our one-size-fits-all education system”, the Children’s Rights Alliance (CRA) has said.
CRA chief executive Tanya Ward was addressing a Future of Education discussion with spokespeople from the main political parties, where the need to reform the Leaving Certificate, to divest patronage from schools, to provide universal childcare and education, and to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools, were among issues raised.
Ms Ward said it was concerning one in two children living in poverty or vulnerable to 'dropping out' were not in a DEIS school, and the Department of Education had yet to publish a strategy outlining possible alternative education options.
There were “huge learnings” from organisations, such as the Cork Life Centre, which was working with young people on alternative education programmes, she said.
She said recent child poverty studies found 30% of disadvantaged nine-years-olds had a very negative view of themselves and that this needed to change:
Young people from different backgrounds also raised questions about access to technology and books for students with a visual impairment and why gender-neutral toilets were not mandatory in newly built schools.
There was consensus among the TDs and senators in attendance that greater investment is required in education and also in a universal and public model of early childhood education and care, while also reforming how schools are managed.
There was also agreement on the need to monitor the use of restricted timetables, which was recently highlighted as an issue for students from the Traveller community and for some children with special needs.
Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said the education system was “very white middle class” and a more diverse mix of teaching staff was needed.
Fianna Fáil Senator Fiona O’Loughlin said the home school liaison programme should be extended to every school to address disadvantage, while early childcare services should be co-located on school sites.
Sinn Féin TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said every child should have access to a hot school meal and the programme was “totally inadequate” at present.
Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon said the voting age should be lowered from 18 to allow greater engagement with younger people and that divesting religious patronage from schools was “too slow” and without a roadmap or interim targets.
Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly said the voluntary approach to divesting religious patronage from schools had not worked but it was an issue that could be addressed by the Citizens Assembly.
Fine Gael senator Mary Seery-Kearney said there is a need for greater transparency around the corporate governance structures of school boards and how decisions are made.