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Opinion: Time to go back to the whiteboard and reimagine our education system

Tanya Ward of the Children’s Rights Alliance argues that we need a more modern, dynamic approach to education in Ireland.

Tanya Ward

AS A PARENT, having lived through two school closures, I can’t comprehend how hard it would be if my child suffered from such crippling anxiety that the very idea of going to school was impossible.

Imagine your child being out of school for two years and having to give up your job to be at home with them because they could not cope in mainstream education.

By international standards, we in Ireland are considered to have one of the top education systems in the world – but what about when attending a mainstream school is not an option – what then?

Our system

Five per cent of young people leave school early in Ireland, this rises to 15.2 per cent in disadvantaged areas. Each year, 4,500 young people drop out of school before completing their Junior Cert.

These children lose out not only on receiving an education but also on the opportunity to make friends, socialise with their peers and develop the necessary interpersonal and social skills that will see them through life. Studies show that early school leavers experience higher levels of depression, anxiety and their health and general wellbeing are detrimentally impacted.

The reality is, young people who leave school before the age of 16 have very limited opportunities to continue their education. Except for Youthreach, which is a state-provided programme of ‘second chance’ education, the area of alternative education is not explicitly defined or mentioned in the Irish education system.

While Youthreach supports many students in their education journey, it does not cater for all of their needs and many others who aren’t able to access a Youthreach programme find they hit a brick wall in terms of options.

This is where alternative education or out-of-education providers such as iScoil, Cork Life Centre, Citywise Fast Track Academy, Trinity Access 21, Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities (TCPID), Aspire2 and An Cosán VCC have stepped in to provide education at both Junior and Leaving Cert level.

Alternatives

Alternative education changes the lives of children who are left out in the cold by mainstream education. These settings provide students with individualised support, with a focus on personal development and a secure and safe environment where students are seen as individuals with a wide range of strengths and needs.

Students attending alternative education settings have explained how the experience has built up their confidence and made them excited about the future.

That’s what you want to hear as a parent. We want an education system that supports our children to reach their full potential, and an important part of that is instilling the self-belief that they can achieve their goals.

In research conducted by NUI Galway, parents reported huge changes in their children’s approach not only to education but to life in general thanks to alternative education. One parent expressed how her son is now excited about life and the future in a way he wasn’t before. Another parent expressed how alternative education has given her son the power to be in control of his own future and that he now believes he has a future because the education he received in an alternative education setting allowed it to happen.

Limited choice

Alternative education centres are at full capacity and do not have places for all the referrals they receive. For example, iScoil has reported that they had to turn down 100 referrals into their service in 2019/2020 and the Cork Life Centre has an annual waiting list of over 150 students. This means a significant number of students who are not in education and are denied opportunities to develop and learn.

Today, 24 January is the International Day of Education. This is a day to reflect on how we can reimagine our education system and think afresh about how best we support children and young people whose needs are not currently supported by mainstream education.

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Critical to this are the findings of the Department of Education’s 2018 review on current and future provisions of out-of-school education that have yet to be published. We have learned a lot over the last couple of years about how we can do things differently in terms of education and how we can and need to put children and young people’s interests first.

Building on the Department’s recent experience of responding to issues raised by Covid-19, the Minister for Education, Norma Foley is well placed to recognise that a ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work for every child and seizes the opportunity to recognise alternative education as a central component of our education system.

We need to examine the reasons why children and young people are dropping out of mainstream education, while recognising that there will always, for some children and young people, be a need for alternative education.

The Minister could deliver a clear alternative or out-of-education strategy with the resources to go with it. We need to get to a place where every child and young person, no matter where they live in Ireland, should be supported to remain in mainstream education, and at the same time, able to access an alternative education space if that is the best option for them to ensure that they reach their full potential.

Tanya Ward is Chief Executive of The Children’s Rights Alliance. She is currently the Chair of the National Advisory Council for the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People.

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