26 January 2006 Edition

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Fighting inequality in education


Education campaign - Inclusion promoted at Derry conference

"Over the years I have developed a healthy disrespect for an education system that promoted class and social division and had no relevance whatsoever to the social conditions which existed in working-class communities," Sinn Féin's Mary Nelis told an important conference on education last weekend.

Nelis, a former MLA, was speaking in Derry's Gas Yard Centre at a conference organised by Sinn Féin's Education spokesperson in the Six Counties, Michael Ferguson. Party activists, teachers and others involved in delivering education in the North, met to review a six-month campaign opposing cuts in services, and to plan the way forward.

"I grew up in a community where the generation before had rarely attended school, for all sorts of reasons, but mainly because of poverty," Nelis said. "Many could not read and write yet they could do all sorts of things. They knew how to make furniture, mend shoes, make watches, sew, knit, bake and run their own businesses. They were self-sufficient and generations survived on their labour and initiative, but their skills were never recognised as knowledge or education. Education was mainly defined as the ability to read and write and it became a powerful weapon in the hands of the privileged classes. In 1915 Pádraig Mac Piarais described the English education system in Ireland as 'the murder machine'. Ninety years on, can we honestly say that the system is different?"

Nelis said the Six-County Assembly Committee on Higher and Further Education established that over 24% of young people in the Six Counties leave school illiterate. "This is not due to failure by young people but a failure of the system," Nelis said.

Hosted by Derry Sinn Féin Mayor Lynn Fleming, the working conference began with a progress report by West Belfast MLA Michael Ferguson, who described the party's ongoing education campaign as comprehensive and inclusive, involving a wide selection of different people and professionals from all backgrounds and communities. "It's been a campaign of engagement as well as education," Ferguson said.

Delivering his report, he outlined protests, days of action as well as petitions to Downing Street involving all sectors within the education system, Protestant, Catholic, primary and secondary, teachers and trades unions, pupils and parents.

Special needs

Primary school headmaster and trade union activist Gerry Murphy outlined a range of problems facing early years education, from universal childcare to school meals, to numeracy, literacy and educational special needs.

"While the introduction of the Special Needs Education Order last year entitled special needs children to have their needs met within the mainstream setting, many of the services that make that possible have been and continue to be cut," he said. "While the varied needs of each individual special needs child, including transport to school and class room assistance, must be met, both of those services have been slashed due to the British Government's funding cuts."

The conference was told how previous British Education Minister Barry Gardener admitted that an extra 2,000 children in the north had been put through the statementing process identifying their special needs, but the government has failed to allocate a penny extra to allow schools to meet that statutory obligation.

In West Belfast alone, 40 classroom assistants have been lost within the last four months. Twelve pupils suffering from ADHD attending Lisburn's St Patrick's High School had their support cut when school transport was no longer provided.

As Minister for Education, Martin McGuinness, through the North South Ministerial Council, initiated a programme of work to deliver All-Ireland Schools of excellence for autism. Sinn Féin has been lobbying on both sides of the border for the two governments to deliver. Last week, in line with her Irish counterpart, British Minister Angela Smith confirmed the first service is to be delivered this autumn.

Rosa McLaughlin from the Irish Medium sector then addressed post primary issues. The widening of entitlement would see pupils at the age of 14 entitled to 24 subjects, a third of which would be vocational. "This is not just about greater choice to meet individual development but also enhancing the value of vocational trades as well as academic skills," she said.

Damian Kavanagh addressed issues concerning further and higher education. "Sinn Féin warned that the student fees system introduced this year would result in the reduction of the number of young people from lower and middle sectors of society attending university," he said. "It would also have a detrimental impact on postgraduate learning and opportunities for mature students. The University of Ulster has already announced a 200 shortfall in those applying for postgraduate courses. This will impact adversely on the provision of future teaching staff."

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