Even before the country’s finances were in a state of disarray, funding for education at all levels lagged behind where it needed to be. This is not to say that we cannot provide a world class standard of education to everyone. We have a two-tier system at present, where like most things in this country, you can get what you need as long as you have the ability to pay for it. A recent report by the Higher Education Authority showed that just 15% of school leavers in Dublin 17 go on to college. Education can and should be a means for everyone to better themselves and become active members of society.
Cuts to education were presented to us in the most disingenuous of ways. Fine Gael and Labour told us that we couldn’t have affordable college tuition AND special need assistants. It had to be one or the other. We were told that if frontline education services were spared then the money would have to be taken out of the health service or somewhere just as vital. Education standards were pitted against lecturer and teacher pay. Each time, the choices offered were an illusion. Opponents of investment in education weren’t simply born out of the rubble of the economic crash. The peak of the Celtic Tiger was rife with power hungry and greedy individuals seeking to privatise our education and put college as far out of the reach of the masses as possible. This is an ideological argument, not an economic one. In fact, countries with similar sized economies to our own have actually injected more money into education despite the economic uncertainty. The same argument existed in the late 1950s when the state introduced free second level education.
Around the world, education is invested in heavily and in many different ways. Some countries ring-fence a portion of corporation tax as those who seek to profit on their shores benefit from a highly educated workforce. Others simply spend a significantly higher percentage of GDP on education as a whole because it guarantees a return on every single euro. Every single cent we invest into education at every level will come back into the exchequer at some point.
The fact of the matter is that education has simply not been a priority for the government in the 31st Dáil. It absolutely needs to be a priority in the 32nd one. Finding a good quality school in the locality remains a prime concern for every new parent yet plans to divest schools from the Church have been all but shelved it seems. Our trusted teachers have constantly rejected the direction set out by the government in relation to Junior Cert reform and Minister Jan O’Sullivan has had her tenure marked by industrial action. Almost every aspect of the Early Childhood sector is in a state of emergency, spanning from the treatment and pay of new graduates into the sector to the spiralling annual costs faced by parents.
It must not be forgotten either that education is of great importance to people of all ages. More and more people are returning to education to upskill, reskill or simply pursue knowledge. People do this not enabled by but despite their economic circumstances. The decision to go back to night school and upskill having been in a particular career for decades is an immensely brave decision. These are the kinds of people that the government should be supporting, not making life more difficult for. This anti-education government saw fit to cut maintenance grants, the back to education allowance, the lone parent allowance and even removed the exchequer funding for apprenticeships. You never know when you might need to access your supposed right to an education.
Irish society needs to be set up in such a way that puts education right at the centre. We often take it for granted. Education at every level, from the pre-school years up to the courageous pensioner seeking to learn computer skills should be valued as a public good. We all benefit from a highly educated, enriched society.