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Column Ireland’s educational system is the most unjust structure in our society today

The fundamental role the educational system plays today is determining a young person’s future life choices, so if there is to be equal opportunity, then we need to tackle equal access for all, writes Fr Peter McVerry.

MY ONLY EXPERIENCE of teaching was in the 1960’s, when I taught for two years in Belvedere College, a Jesuit secondary fee-paying school, located right in the middle of Dublin’s Inner city, the most deprived area in Ireland at that time.

My experience now is with working with young homeless people, most of which have dropped out of school early. Not all of them, by any means.  Some homeless people have gone on to third level colleges, studying IT, addiction, social care, community and youth work and so on. Others became electricians, plumbers, carpenters, bricklayers.  One had his own construction company during the Celtic Tiger years, luckily not big enough to end up in NAMA.

But many dropped out of school early, or never really attended at all. This is hardly surprising. They were the young people who became homeless because of addicted parents, violent parents, severe neglect, dysfunctional families. Some of them ended up in an equally dysfunctional care system which continues to be highlighted in report after report. One young lad, aged 12, had to go into town each morning before going to school in order to buy the heroin his mother needed for the day, and then he had to help her inject it, as she couldn’t find a vein.  Another lad, aged 14, every time he went home, his mother slammed the door in his face and said: “Go away, you’re not wanted here.”

School retention

How could they stay focused in school? Their bodies were in a classroom, but their minds were somewhere else: perhaps they had been up half the night while their parents, back from the pub, had an almighty row, shouting and screaming at each other or perhaps they were wondering would their parents be drunk tonight again, or would there be any dinner ready when they came home, or would their father beat up their mother again tonight, or any one of a variety of dysfuntionalities that may have characterised their family. Attending school was not the most important issue in their stressed-out lives – indeed it was just another unwanted stress.

Some of these young people we work with take drugs. Why do they take drugs? They take drugs for a different reason to the reason why some young people in other schools take drugs. These young people take drugs to forget –  to forget their childhood experiences and to suppress the feelings associated with those experiences.

One young girl expressed it very poetically shortly before she died of a drug overdose: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” she said, “if you could run so fast that your memories couldn’t catch up”.  If they are taking drugs to run away from their memories, then what happens when they come off drugs? All those memories and feelings come flooding back to the surface – and they come back with a vengeance!  To cope with those memories, they need all the counselling, therapy and support that we should give them that. It is not just a question of saying: “why don’t they give up drugs?”  If only it were that simple.

Identity and their place in society

But even main-stream young people today sometimes struggle to find their identity and their place in this society. Many have doubts about what the future holds for them. Will there be a place for them in this society? We work with young people who started smoking cannabis at the age of nine and by the age of 13 or 14, they were using harder drugs. How could they stay in school? How could any school cope with them?

The recent suicides of very young children from cyber-bullying highlights just how isolated young people are, even very middle-class young people, can feel down in times of difficulty. Young people, even apparently successful young people, often doubt themselves, a doubt which can sometimes lead to tragic consequences for themselves or others. Unless young people leave the educational system feeling good about themselves, then, no matter how successful the grades they have achieved, the educational system and our society have failed them.

One of the lessons I have learnt from homeless people, particularly those whose behaviour is most problematic, is that there is always a story behind that behaviour. When I feel like throttling them, or walking away, I ask myself: “Where are they coming from?” It may take a long time to discover, but the discovery is always revealing and sometimes harrowing.

Their past reveals a lot

The 20-year old drug user who eventually revealed that, at 11-years-old, he was sent out each night by his parents into prostitution and had to bring back a certain amount of money or face a beating. Of course he’s going to be angry, distrustful of adults, and he’s going to bring that anger and distrust with him into school, if he bothers to go at all.

The 25-year-old with sixty previous convictions, who eventually revealed that, from the age of six, he was regularly taken out of school to go shoplifting with his foster parents, who needed him to distract the security guards, while they filled their shopping bags. The 17-year-old violent youngster who eventually revealed that the only way of surviving at home was to punch his father before his father could get a punch in. The young child who used to hide from his mother, for hours on end, in the dogs kennel in the back garden to avoid a beating.

We tend to define “problem children” as children whose behaviour causes problems for us. Our objective then becomes to change their behaviour, so that they are no longer a problem to us. Those we label “problem children” are better defined as “children with problems.”

As a rule of thumb, I believe that the more difficult young people’s behaviour, the more damaged they have been in earlier years. And therefore the more that they need our help and our support. But often the more damaged young people are the ones who get the least help, because no-one wants to, or, with the resources available, no-one is able to manage their behaviour.

Education can allocate a persons place in society

I would argue that the educational system is the most unjust structure in our society today. I say that because of the fundamental role that the educational system plays today in determining a young person’s future life choices. As we are all aware, it is primarily their success within the educational system that allocates to a young person their future place in Irish society, the opportunities, lifestyle and quality of life that will be available to them. Most young people only get one shot at it. Because of this, a just educational system must offer equality of access to the educational system and equality of opportunity within the educational system.

Politicians often describe our educational system as the best in Europe. Large multinational companies find here a ready supply of well trained young adults and this attracts them to Ireland. If this is our criterion for judging our educational system, then we do in fact have the best educational system Europe. Yet, each year, 4,000 children leave school with no qualification whatsoever and 1,000 primary school children do not even make the transition from primary school to second-level.

If we are concerned primarily with those at the top who will be the leaders of industry in the future, then, yes, we have a very good educational system; but if we are concerned about the more vulnerable and more disadvantaged young people in our society, then the educational system fails very badly.

Fr Peter McVerry has been working with Dublin’s young homeless for more than 30 years. This is a selection taken from the speech Fr Peter McVerry delivered at the ASTI conference this week.

Column: ‘Your hope goes, and that’s that’ – a homeless drug user’s story>

Report: Irish rate of young male suicide ‘among EU’s highest’>

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