Lessons in equality

Special Report While some progress has been made in the rebalancing of rights in education, many reforms are still needed


In our education system children’s rights are tested, afforded and denied more frequently than in any other setting. Whether it is ethnicity, religion, ability, gender, sexual orientation or social class – all the yardsticks of equality come into play daily in our schools.

The Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn recognises that a rebalancing of rights is required in a number of areas in Irish schooling and says while progress has been made, many reforms are still needed.

“One of the issues that I’m concerned about is the area of children with additional needs, and their ability to access the schools they want to go to. The National Council for Special Education confirms that some parents are experiencing ‘soft barriers’ to entry, as some traditional voluntary schools are unwilling to enrol these children.”

The Minister is about to bring in legislation on enrolment policies that will make it much more difficult for schools to be selective about the profile of the student body. This will have rights implications not just for students with additional needs, but also for those students who come from Traveller or migrant communities.

“When it comes to the children of migrant parents, for example, 20 per cent is about right if you want to achieve integration. However, what we’re seeing is a clustering of migrant children in certain schools making integration more difficult. The former Danish prime minister (now president of the Party of European Socialists) Poul Oluf Nyrup Rasmussen said that the mistake they made in Denmark was to accept migrant workers into their economy without accepting migrant families into their society.”

A lottery system for schools will come into force before the end of the year, although for schools with established waiting lists it may take a couple of years to change the system.

Another barrier to full equality in the system has been the shape of school patronage in Ireland, an issue Quinn has met head on. However, progress is very slow, and while there are some schools in the process of being divested, they represent a tiny minority of the 93 per cent of primary schools still under Catholic patronage.

“What many people don’t realise is that we have been cited by the United Nations Human Rights Committee as being breach of a number of human rights codes in this area. While Catholic schools will argue that they are accommodating and inclusive, faith formation [as opposed to religious education] is still provided. This is a problem for those who don’t want to participate. We have to change the existing landscape. The present system prevents children from asserting their human rights.”

Dympna Devine, director of the MSc/ PhD in Children and Youth Studies at UCD, believes the emphasis needs to be placed on the collective, rather than individual rights of children.

While on a Fulbright scholarship in New York, Devine is examining the experience of migrant children in the school system and comparing it with the experience of children here. She says that the danger of putting individual rights and choices at the heart of policy is that those rights will tend to be accessed only by the best resourced and best informed. “In the US there is a consumer-led approach, with league tables and comparisons creating a market place in which people have the right to shop and choose. The intention is to respect rights, but in practice choice and individual rights can consolidate inequality.”

Devine says that when we think of children’s rights in education we need to think about the holistic experience of the child as a starting point. “It’s not enough to focus on issues like numeracy and literacy, or parental choice. These issues arise most frequently where there is social disadvantage. We need to consolidate all the services and professionals that come into contact with children to ensure that the child has a quality educational experience.”

Right direction
The recent establishment of the Child and Family Support Agency, which brings together the HSE Children and Family Services, Family Support Agency and the National Educational Welfare Board, is a step in the right direction, but Devine feels that much more can be done to improve the experience of all children accessing schooling in this country. She says: “If you look at the current exam system, the rote learning and the pressure that children come under, that has to be considered in the context of children’s rights as well.”

The Minister also believes that curriculum and exam reform is a rights issue. “If you take the issue of Travellers’ rights in education, for example, the current system we have is not relevant at all to Traveller men and boys in particular. For all children, after St Patrick’s Day they stop learning and start practising for exams.”

There’s a lot to address, but the fact the conversation is taking place is progress, says Devine. “Up until the referendum on children’s rights there was a lot of focus on the right to protection from abuse. Now we are moving on to discussions around the empowerment of children. The next big reform that is needed is to build the infrastructure that allows the voice of children to be heard in relation to their education. We are always assessing them, when do they get the chance to assess us?”