Kathy Sheridan: Meet the new Dáil, same as the old Dáil
This is how the brave new project begins - with the customary bellows of faux-outrage and a whimper?
Independent TD’s Noel Grealish, Denis Naughten,Mattie McGrath,Michael Harty, Michael Collins. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Let’s get this straight. In 2012, about 1,500 children never made it from primary to secondary school.
This was among the few facts to emerge in the shoutfest around Denis Naughten’s proposal to link child benefit payment to school attendance. Who were those very young children? What happened to them? Where did they go? Should we not be worried about them? The reactive hollers of outrage ensured we may never know.
The “debate” was dead before it started. So this then, is the glad, confident morning of our newly reformed parliament. This is the Dáil in which all those poor, muted tribunes of the people finally get to shake off the shackles, tear off the repressive muzzles of autocracy and startle us with their resemblance to mature, reflective, articulate, well-informed adults.
Yet, this is how the brave new project begins – with the customary bellows of faux-outrage and a whimper? If reform is all about democracy, surely the test is whether we, the people, are any wiser about decisions proposed and rejected in our name.
So how much wiser are we about the reasons behind Naughten’s proposal? In what way has the bellicose opposition deepened our understanding of those deeply complex issues?
In some parallel universe, there is a Dáil where intelligent, open-minded adults have learned to listen, research, reflect and then contribute. In such a Dáil, Naughten’s proposal might have triggered a serious discussion. After all, some 1,500 young children appear to have vanished between primary and secondary school in 2012.
Instead, the whipped-up storm focused on the Minister’s motives. Was he just out to ensure that child benefit was not being paid to children who live abroad or never existed, as he claimed?
Or was his real motive to target the parents of truanting children, as stated last year, when he told the Dáil he had teachers “the length and breadth of this country telling me that there are parents who lack the motivation in ensuring that their child attends school.
“Now if their child benefit is under threat, that motivation has ensured that their child attends school and even if it only gives one child a chance, is it not worth doing it?”
The flip-flopping was no help in his own cause. Neither were his colleagues to put it charitably, but either way, surely his proposal was a useful route into a deeply important topic for some of those newly unmuzzled deputies.
Why in the name of joined-up thinking are there two data bases to track compulsory school attendance? Are we really funding benefit for children who don’t exist? If not, where are they? Are we not entitled to know?
Willie O’Dea, representing Limerick city, was among the most vocal opposition, vowing to oppose any linkage between benefit and school attendance because parents are “simply not in a position to keep monitoring their children, policing them, forcing them to go to school on a regular basis”.
True for some, no doubt – but for all?
In 2012, the year that 1,500 young children vanished from our school rolls, chief executive of Limerick city VEC Paul Patton noted that in more deprived parts of the city, 60 per cent of primary students were below the required literacy level. On the city’s northside alone, 276 children were identified as having literacy problems. How many were among the 1,500 who disappeared from the school rolls? Where are those teenagers now?
Some propose a linkage between child benefit and universal attendance at an evidence-based parenting programme. Some would link payments not just to regular school attendance but to ensuring a child turns up for immunisations or speech and language appointments.
Some suggest that instead of a sanction, bonus payments could be offered to reflect improved school attendance – and if that means rewarding lazy people for merely doing their duty by their children and obeying the law, then so be it.
This, deputies, is where all those fine research facilities come in. Enough of the shoutfests. For pity’s sake, get serious.