It is said that education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. There are very few issues more important to the Labour Party than education and the Dáil debated our motion this week, and the most urgent issue was school buildings. Some 58 school communities got devastating letters telling them that the school building projects, in which they were so invested, are not going to happen. There was no increase in the capital budget of last year’s budget, and escalating construction costs that have stalled 58 school projects should have foreseen. We still do not have the list of 58 schools. We have also had mixed messages from the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education as to when work would start on these sites.
The ability to get a school place for their child is top of the list of concerns many parents have and was a key part of the debate. Labour representatives across the country have raised this with me, especially in growing urban areas where long waiting lists exist for secondary schools. We have sought to change the elitist provision in the Education (Admission to Schools) Act that allows for 25% of places to be kept for children or grandchildren of past pupils. This measure was brought in because of the lobbying power of the private school sector.
On School Transport there has been a welcome measure last year to make it free, but the government must accept that it was shambolic when rolled out and we cannot see those scenes again. Children should not be left on the side of road.
On Special Education classes we are also still hearing from parents who cannot be assured there will be a place in September for their children, the most acutely vulnerable children, especially those with autism. We congratulate Irish international player, James McClean, on his courageous statement this week of his own diagnosis, the same diagnosis as that of his daughter, Willow-Ivy. His advocacy will help break down barriers and start a conversation.
We want a status report at the end of this month on the provision of special education classes for children with additional needs, and we want movement on the national autism strategy. We stand with parents who are absolutely exhausted dealing with a challenging diagnosis in their families, who expected to be able to turn to the State for help, support and compassion, but who then realised they had to go to war with the State for any sort of provision, for basic interventions, even for an assessment.
We stand also with SNAs who work with children every single day but who have had to break through a legacy of disrespect over the past number of years. It is only because they joined the Fórsa trade union in large numbers that they have achieved some progress. The tradition of announcing allocations in May shows no respect for SNAs so it is welcome that the Minister will now make this in April but more recognition and respect is needed.
Our motion also spoke to Leaving Cert reform, DEIS and disadvantage. We need a re-evaluation of the most acutely disadvantaged schools, we need an extra designation for those who are acutely disadvantaged, and we need to return to the vision of a 15:1 ratio that Niamh Breathnach had in her Breaking the Cycle scheme. We also must return to the vision of free education and ban voluntary contributions. We need to have free school books at second level. We need to make sure that no parent in this Republic is worried about having an interact with their school because they are going to be asked for money.
We need ambition to deliver 400 multidenominational schools by 2030 as the current process is failing. We have to stop subsidising private schools. If a school wants to be elitist or exclusionary, that is fine but let us stop backing such schools with State money. On gender, outside of the Arab world, Ireland has more gender-segregated schools than anywhere else. We need to challenge that. Within ten years, we can have a situation where we phase out gender segregation in primary schools. We can do it in secondary schools within 15 years.
We have a vision for education that is inclusive and that will lift the experience of every child. We in the Labour Party know that poverty is a thief. Poverty steals childhoods, imagination and ambition. Poverty humiliates. If you are in a family that does not have access to funds in order to pay for a schoolbook, to pay for a uniform or to pay the voluntary contribution, it is the humiliation that grinds you down, and education is the only thing that will ever set you free.
Labour is campaigning for more vision, and more ambition on school building, on school places, on school transport, on special education, on autism, on SNAs, on the leaving certificate, on disadvantage, on multidenominational schools and on producing an education system which is worthy of a country that wants to call itself a republic.