7 March 2002 Edition
"Educate that you may be free"
Sinn Féin's proposals for an Irish Education System in the 21st century
Sinn Féin Education minister Martin McGuinness was the guest of honour at a Sinn Féin members' conference in Dublin on Saturday to launch a consultation document, the first ever comprehensive Sinn Féin policy on education, titled 'Educate that you may be free'.
The conference was the latest stage in a process that started several months ago by a group of 20 or so educationalists from the party. The policy, rooted in an all-Ireland context, was the subject of an unprecendented consultation, with over 80 practitioners in all sectors of education.
The Dublin conference gathered together Sinn Féin members and supporters from all sectors of education, from early childhood to third level, primary level, second level, special needs, Irish medium, adult and community education, and youth service. This was for many of them the first opportunity - and hopefully the first of many - to reflect on their work with party colleagues within a republican and socialist perspective.
"As a result of the conference, the draft policy will be further amended, circulated widely within and outside of Sinn Féin, and will hopefully be endorsed at our next Ard Fheis," said Joelle Gartner, who is coordinating the project. "More importantly again, as a result of this conference, an increasing number of republicans working in the field of education will come forward to express their views and further shape our policies. We should be preparing ourselves as a party for the day in the not too distant future when we hold as influential a post in education in the 26 as in the Six Counties, and why not, the first all-Ireland minister of Education!"
Martin McGuinness said the policy document was a very exciting development, indicating the importance Sinn Féin places on education as an instrument for equality and a tool for building an Irish democracy. "I look forward to engaging the views of our activists and of the broader community on this important policy," he said.
"'Educate that you may be free' is a powerful statement and reminds us of the link between national liberation, social liberation and personal freedom. The author of this statement is of course Thomas Davis, an Irishman, a Protestant and a standard bearer for Irish people who struggled for an inclusive Irish identity irrespective of individual religion, class or creed.
"Today this definition must include those who feel that they are British, as it must include the 'New Irish', those people who for whatever reason have made Ireland their home.
"Education has a major part to play in building that welcoming home."
"This policy document should serve as a tool for action for all Sinn Féin activists involved in education. It should advise and guide the work of Sinn Fein elected representatives, of our spokespersons, of republicans involved in the youth service, the trade union movement, the student movement or the community sector, or those involved elsewhere in the great project of education - and of course those members of Sinn Féin who are Ministers of Education!"
McGuinnes paid tribute to the work of teachers in educating children but also for their "much wider contribution to the growth, development and education of our children and young people".
"I believe this document illustrates the central place of education in our political project, and the central place of equality in education," he concluded. "And I rejoice in the fact that education is becoming an important area of political work for Sinn Féin. In the Six Counties, the reviews I have put in place - especially the review of post primary provision - go to the heart of the education system and will deliver comprehensive change in that direction."
Martin McGuinness is pictured at the conference with Frances McCole, Sinn Féin candidate in Dublin North Central
(The following is an edited summary outlining the ideological basis and broad thrust of Sinn Féin's comprehensive document)
The importance of Education
Education is central to Sinn Féin's political project. While Ireland's education system have in the past borne some of the responsibility for reproducing inequality, Sinn Féin believes an Irish education system can be an essential instrument for the building of an Ireland of equals.
Sinn Féin will support and work for an education system which:
liberates and facilitates the potential of all
addresses and redresses educational and generational disadvantage
deploys resources in order to promote access to education by disadvantaged and marginalized groups
effects meaningful partnership in a democratic education service
puts learners and teachers at the heart of neighbourhood networks of learning
creates and translates into action - national priorities, national perspectives and national provision
promotes school achievement through quality of delivery and resources rather than performance measurement
intervenes at the earliest possible stages to include those people and groups hitherto excluded, disempowered or alienated
Schools as Learning Organisations in a Learning Neighbourhood
Sinn Féin will support and work for, the development of an ethos of 'learning organisation' within the education system, together with the building of Learning Neighbourhoods - meaningful partnerships between local education providers and the community they work with.
Sinn Féin will support and work for an all-Ireland approach to identifying, targeting and redressing disadvantage in education. In particular Sinn Féin will advocate increased funding for education in areas of greater disadvantage, and focused intervention at the earliest possible stage.
The Irish language
Sinn Féin will support and work for increased availability and better resourcing of Irish-medium education and for a strengthened recognition of the essential place of the Irish language in an Irish education system.
Towards an education system for all of Ireland
Sinn Féin will support and work for an all-Ireland education system as the key to a people which is self-confident, secure in its identity and open to the world, in a society based on equality and social justice. To that end, Sinn Féin will campaign for the All-Ireland implementation of the Right to Education, for increased sharing of resources and expertise, easier contact and mobility and a harmonisation of the two systems based on equality and inclusion.
Education For Transformation
As a title for this policy document, we chose "Educate that you may be free" - the words of Thomas Davis, (1814-1845) the Young Irelander who founded the newspaper The Nation. Davis was indeed very concerned with education and convinced of its potential as a tool for liberation. And just as Davis, in his 1840 Address to Trinity's Historical Society, warned the privileged few that the peasants were being educated and would challenge them for their power, so Paulo Freire in 1970 argued for education as a means of liberation and a tool of empowerment for the poor.
The education systems in Ireland are driven by competing demands. Educators are concerned to promote the holistic development of each child, including reaching satisfactory levels of educational achievement. At the same time, the demands of the market economy and other global forces such as the media/entertainment industry have given prominence to the utilitarian demands on schools and promote competition at the expense of solidarity and social inclusion. Today the data still points to the tendency of education to reproduce and consolidate social inequalities. Notions of 'elite', 'meritocracy', social divisions, the docile acceptance of one's place in society, are conveyed in many ways, from early academic selection to classroom architecture and teaching methodologies. Thirty-two years later Paulo Freire's words on 'banking' and liberatory pedagogies are still very relevant:
"In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing... The raison d'être of liberation education, on the other hand, lies in its drive towards reconciliation."
What does Sinn Féin understand by 'Education'? The last two decades have seen competing views of education vie for prominence both in the Six and 26 Counties.
Education can fundamentally and positively transform society. At its best, it is empowering, liberating and enlightening. In this form it is child and student centred, focusing on the needs, aspirations and talents of each individual learner. It is based on principles of social justice. It respects the diversity of intelligences and learning styles among young people. It fosters a strong sense of social solidarity whilst encouraging and valuing difference and ensuring inclusion.
Market approach to education
In the 26 Counties, decades of underfunding have prevented children and adults from reaching their full potential through the education system. Serious underfunding remains, leading to the education system being unable to redress, and even reproducing social inequalities. In the Six Counties, in addition to sectoral underfunding brought about by decades of unionist discrimination, years of British Conservative government have led to an ideological battle around issues such as academic selection at age 11, delegated school funding, school performance tables, performance related pay awards for teachers, and the introduction of private funding in education.
The inevitable and regrettable consequence has been that the educational experience of many young people, and the operation of the school system itself have been characterised by wasteful competition and narrow individualism. Many young people have been left feeling disempowered, inadequate and alienated, and with a deep sense of failure which marks them for life.
In the current context of changing patterns of public ownership and accountability in schools we want to reassert, loudly and clearly, the democratic mission of the public education system. Sinn Féin believes that education in its true liberating sense is a fundamental right of all people. We strive to present a model and advocate a practice of education which has this vision of education as a driving force. For republicans, education can, and must be emancipatory, that is, provide the means by which people will liberate themselves individually and collectively, take control of their lives and effect change.
This is why education is central to any political project.
Sinn Féin's project can be summed up as the creation of an Irish democracy:
grounded in principles of equality and social justice
which promotes inclusion, a culture of participation and human, social and economic rights for all
with a confident Irish identity which is evolving, inclusive and pluralist, secure in its own cultural and political roots, values difference and diversity, and plays a positive role in the international arena
Education in the Sinn Féin political project
From this political project flows our Policy on Education. At its centre lies our vision of education as an instrument of liberation for all, and in particular for the most disadvantaged and marginalised.
We believe that the means by which education can best be delivered is in encouraging maximum co-operation within the education system. Central to this is the concept of 'Learning Neighbourhoods'. These would consist of meaningful partnerships involving teachers, learners and their community and would harness and co-ordinate the efforts of the statutory, voluntary and community sector. Only through partnership at this level can we hope to tackle disadvantage and avoid the human and social waste of educational underachievement.
At present the strongest predictor of an individual's educational attainment level continues to be his/her class background. Many children are already educationally disadvantaged by the time they reach primary education. The education system which should be a force for equality and opportunity is instead in many respects re-enforcing inequality and disadvantage. Tackling inequality must be brought to the centre of education policy and planning. Significant increases in funding and concerted action will be needed to impact on the quality of educational experience in areas of high deprivation and in groups traditionally marginalized such as those with disabilities.
The core partnership is of course that of the learner and the teacher. We believe with Freire that:
"The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is him/herself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow."
Sinn Féin believes that this partnership must be given optimum support, particularly where it is most fragile, that is in neighbourhoods with high relative deprivation. Adequate and sustained funding is the key, together with the development of structures specifically designed to be more supportive of the needs of teachers and learners than those presently in place.
At the organisational level - schools, educational establishments, education authorities, government departments - Sinn Féin advocates the concept of 'learning organisation' as being the ideal model for development. Learning organisations are organisations which produce high quality work by a process of continuous learning and improvement. They work in such a way as to:
provide continuous learning opportunities
use learning to reach their goals
link individual performance with organisational performance
foster inquiry and dialogue, making it safe for people to share openly and take risks
embrace creative tension as a source of energy and renewal
be continuously aware of and interact with their environment
provide the support and the opportunity to allow individuals to reach their potential.
A learning organisation promotes a culture of learning, a community of learners, and it ensures that individual learning enriches and enhances the organization as a whole. A school which is a 'learning organisation' would have core values including the following: individuals are valued, teachers are professionals, parents are partners, decision-making is shared, innovation and debate are encouraged, inclusion is a right. 'Not knowing' and 'getting it wrong' are integral parts of the learning process. Such a school would have to devote resources to the development of staff as individuals and teams, give recognition to, and make use of, teachers' own learning, foster participatory democracy in pupils, parents and staff alike. An education system which itself was a 'learning organisation' would also value and trust its teachers, encourage innovation, include all participants in decision-making and devote large resources to training, development and research.
Team work and collegiality must extend beyond the walls of classrooms and the gates of schools to other schools and the communities which use them. Sinn Féin advocates that learning institutions be enabled to take seriously their role in the communities they serve. In particular, in areas of relatively high social deprivation, they can aim to become "the most effective bulwark against social fragmentation and a crisis of values."
All this runs contrary to the current neo-liberal ethos. All over the world, educational policy in recent years has tended towards: increased prescriptiveness of the curriculum, credentialism, measuring teachers' performance by results, apparent decentralisation of management of schools which in fact results in increased competition between schools and increased uniformity of delivery. 'Principal teachers' in larger establishments have seen their role change from curriculum development, pedagogic leadership and pastoral care to that of managers of medium to large budgets and performance appraisers. Furthermore, many schools still follow the industrial model of the 19th century, with the same hierarchical and non-participatory relationships as exists further up the ladder, and indeed in the world of work generally.
Sinn Féin advocates nothing less than a top-to-bottom change in the culture of the educational system. We believe many in education will welcome, indeed be enthused by this prospect.
Anyone interested in contributing to the debate, or who wants to order a copy of the draft policy for feedback, can e-mail Joelle Gartner (Sinn Féin Advisor on Education) at: [email protected] or mail a request to Room 264, Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast BT4 3XX.
Tackle educational disadvantage - Kehoe
Speaking at the launch of Sinn Féin's Education consultation document, 'Educate that you may be free' (See Pages 10&11), Dublin City Councillor and candidate for Dublin Central, Nicky Kehoe, said that tackling educational disadvantage is essential to address social and economic disadvantage in the North Inner City.
"A country's prosperity and the wellbeing of its citizens can be directly linked to the success of its education system," he said. "The so-called Celtic Tiger, which no doubt improved the financial lives of many, can be attributed to the educated workforce that this state is rightly proud of. It is no coincidence either that those who benefited least from the Celtic Tiger are those areas where poverty and disadvantage are rife and where education facilities are minimal.
"Dublin's North-East Inner City has suffered extensively from long-term educational disadvantage. This is evidenced by a number of indicators, including higher than average early school leaving, lower than average participation in third-level education, and poor literacy levels."
Kehoe said that the establishment of the Social Inclusion Unit in the Department of Education and Science was a positive first step and an important recognition of the need to adopt a specific, targeted and integrated approach to respond appropriately to the education needs in disadvantaged areas. He added that the Education Task Force proposed as part of an overall education strategy by the Inner City Organisations Network (ICON) in 1998 should be implemented as a matter of urgency. "An Education Task Force would work from a lifelong learning perspective," he said. "Its structure would reflect the needs of those in pre-school, primary, secondary, adult and community education.
Early school leavers
"The early school leaving age, which is a hallmark of inner city education is a statistic that must be reversed," Kehoe added. "Many young people feel forced to leave school as a result of the poverty that exists in the home and the need to contribute to the household income. Others simply find no reason to remain in the education system, witnessing as they do daily, the never-ending cycle of unemployment and poverty in their communities.
"A fundamental shift in the focus of education is required if this is to be resolved. I believe that students from low-income households who wish to remain at school should receive financial assistance to do so.
"Facilities themselves are seen by many as an indication of government commitment to education in North Inner City areas. School buildings are in a terrible state in most inner-city areas. If the government is to convince young adults in these communities that their education is important; then at the very least they must invest in the infrastructure and facilities.
"So too must class sizes be reduced. Despite repeated assurances, teacher/ student ratios have yet to be reduced to an acceptable level. Again, this is a matter that needs to be resolved immediately.
"Just as with so many other areas, this government's record on education is marked by wasted opportunities. The unprecedented resources available to the government have not been invested in the youth of our country."