What happened to free education?
Sir, – Diarmaid Ferriter is of course right to describe the “free education” reforms of half a century ago as one of the most significant developments in the history of the State (“What ever happened to our free education system?”, Opinion & Analysis, September 1st). At the time it represented a great leap forward. While much has been achieved since we are very far from realising the vision articulated by Donogh O’Malley.
An important feature of the “free education” reforms of 50 years ago was that the entire package, as proposed by O’Malley, was never implemented. His memorandum was considered at a cabinet meeting in late 1966. He, and the public servants working on the scheme with him, realised that making education “free” was insufficient to bring about equality of opportunity. So he included in his recommendations a proposal to introduce a grant scheme to help the poorest families ensure that their children could participate fully in post-primary education. The reform package was adopted but this item was deferred for further consideration and it was noted in the cabinet minutes that “the terms of an announcement in this regard [would] be settled between the Ministers for Finance [Charles Haughey] and Education”. Sadly for thousands of young people, this was one battle O’Malley lost.
Prof Ferriter favours spending an additional €120 million on supplying “free” books to all schoolchildren as an important next step. Unfortunately nothing in my experience as principal of a school serving a disadvantaged area suggests that this would have a significant impact. As O’Malley understood, making things free doesn’t bring about equity. We know from various research reports that the Government’s main vehicle for tackling educational disadvantage, DEIS (Delivering Educational Equality in Schools), is underfunded. Allocating an extra €120 million won’t make up the shortfall, but it would be a welcome sign of a commitment to social justice. – Yours, etc,