GE16: Parents Real Election Concerns About Our Education System
In the run-up to the General Election, what do parents want from the canvassers who call to their doors? What are the topics that will prompt them to tick that box beside a particular candidate?
I asked the question on social media and among colleagues and friends: what changes do you want to see for your children? Specifically, what changes are you looking for in education?
While it has its faults, education in Ireland tends to score highly relative to other countries. According to OECD figures from 2012, 100 per cent of 5-14 year-olds in Ireland were enrolled in education. Of those, 93 per cent were expected to obtain an upper secondary diploma in their lifetimes, while 46 per cent were expected to graduate from university – these rates are far higher than the OECD average.
Yet we know class sizes are too high in many schools and there have long been huge question marks over our state exam system. There is also a shortage of places, particularly for children with special needs, or who are not baptised.
So what are the changes most parents want to see in education?
Karen, a Dublin mum-of-one says she wants to see more investment in primary education. “My husband is a teacher and I want to know why he's still teaching a class of 30 children, when he's been promised for the last ten years a ratio of 22:1, and I want to know why the SNAs in his school were slashed from 16 to six, when the need is still there.”
Mum-of-two Margaret agrees that class sizes are a problem. “As a parent of two small children, education and childcare are top of my agenda,” she says. “Simply put, class sizes are too big.”
Educational equality for kids with learning disabilities and special needs is something that concerns mum-of-two, Aoife: “Parents shouldn't have to fight constantly for their kids’ needs. There should be compulsory modules for teachers doing their teaching degree to learn and understand how these kids learn differently and be supported in the classroom environment. They should not be optional modules a teacher can choose to do post graduation.”
Sarah* who has two children with special needs gives us a glimpse of that world: “Imagine if your child could not get a place in a school that meets their needs because there are none available. If you had to give up your job because your child had so many appointments, if your child was losing skills as you watched helplessly, stuck on a waiting list for therapy. This is what life can be like when you have a child with special needs. Fundamental changes are needed. Every child should be valued for who they are and not for what they can contribute to the economy when they grow up. Nobody should be labelled a burden on society or a drain on the taxes of so-called ‘hardworking families’. After all, disability and special needs can happen to any family, at any time.”
For parents whose children are being raised without religion, education is a key election concern. In Dublin, where many schools are oversubscribed, children who have been baptised are more likely to get a place in the Catholic schools than those who aren’t. With 90 per cent of schools under the patronage of the church, this makes finding a school place difficult, as Anne-Marie, a Dublin-based parent discovered:
“I'm frustrated that my taxes are paying for a school system that my children don't have equal access to. I'm worried that my children won't get a place, not only in their local school but in any school for the school year starting 2017, despite them being signed up from birth. This is down to the fact my children haven’t been baptised, therefore, they are at the bottom of the enrollment lists for a vast majority of schools,” explains Anne-Marie, who has two children. “I'm worried that I'm ultimately going to be backed into a corner and will have to go against my beliefs and baptise my kids for the sake of a school place.”
This is precisely what Dublin mum-of-three Natasha did:
“I never intended to baptise, but I looked into the local oversubscribed school enrollment policy and religion was first criteria. I couldn't believe they could blatantly discriminate against a child based on religion (or lack of). I contacted the Minister for Education and the letter back explained how equality laws have an exception for schools,” says Natasha. “Against my beliefs and under pressure to get a place, I baptised my children at age four. I feel if the game is rigged then I had no choice but to play.”
Outside of Dublin, schools are less likely to be oversubscribed, so children who have not been baptised are more likely to get a place, but many parents are concerned about ‘opting out’ of religion class, as it can leave small children feeling isolated.
Mum-of-one Joanna is a teacher in a Catholic primary school. She is non-religious: “At present, we don't have to deal with the issue of over-subscription, although ‘Catholics first’ is an integral part of the enrolment policy. When I think about our little boy going to a school with religious instruction, my heart breaks. Seeing what 'inclusive' means in a Catholic school from the inside, I know what lies ahead. While the majority of teachers try to be inclusive, the very nature of a Catholic school doesn’t allow for this. Opting out isn't a fair option. When religious instruction is taking place or mass is being attended, non-religious children are given reading materials or busy-work, and they’re missing out on quality teaching time.”
Steph has a four-year-old daughter who goes to her local school, which happens to be Catholic. “I find it utterly frustrating; the waste of resources on furthering the interests of a religious organisation, the impossibility of effectively opting out when religion permeates the entire school day and the religious teachings that completely contradict scientific fact.”
Mum-of-two Naomi has a similar problem: “The closest Educate Together is almost 35km away, so we have no viable access to non-religious education. As the schools here are not oversubscribed, according to the minister we won't be getting access any time soon. This is the case in most rural areas.”
Sarah, mum to a three-year-old boy, sums up her election concerns: “We need a political party to finally take this inequality seriously. If even one child is being discriminated against, it’s one too many. I want a future for my child where he can go to school with his cousins and neighbours and be treated equally when he is in school.”
The various political parties acknowledge that there’s a problem with access to school places though their approaches on how to resolve it vary. If this is something that matters to you, ask canvassers who call to your door and have your say on February 26th.
Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working or looking after her three kids, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.