The issues of youth mental health, early education and childcare, and protecting small schools are top of the agenda at the Fianna Fáil National Education Policy conference in Galway today.

Hundreds of party members from across the country are attending the event at the Galway Bay Hotel in Salthill.

Fianna Fáil Spokesperson on Education Brendan Smith said the conference aims to develop the party’s policies in three key areas. 

“We are discussing issues today that affect every single family in every part of the country – affordable childcare, quality early education, ensuring the mental well being of our young people, and protecting resources for our local schools,” said Deputy Smith.

The first debate centres on tackling mental health problems from primary to third level.  The guest speakers are Caroline McGuigan, CEO of Suicide or Survive and Scott Ahearn, Partnership & Outreach Officer with See Change.

Senator Averil Power explained, “There is still an incredible stigma attached to mental health problems and it can be particularly crippling for young people as they grapple with all the normal challenges of growing up. Our aim at this conference is to discuss how the education system, right from primary school up to third level, can best respond to this. How can we best equip our schools and teachers to support children with mental health difficulties and how can we develop a school environment that doesn’t tolerate bullying in any form? “

Director of Start Strong, Ciarín de Buis, and Avril Sweeney, Manager of the Donegal Childcare Committee will address the conference on developing quality early education and affordable childcare for all families.

Fianna Fáil Spokesperson on Children Charlie McConalogue said this is an issue that affects every young family in the country.

“While we have made important advancement in early education in recent years, particularly with the introduction of the free pre-school year in 2010, significant challenges remain. There are enormous economic and social benefits to investing in early education. Crèches, playschools and childminders are not just there to babysit children, they must also be about providing high quality learning for young children in an appropriate environment for their age.  Our conference discussions today focus on how we can ensure that we provide high quality early education and care that contributes to every child’s development,” said Deputy McConalogue.

The conference closes with a debate on the future of small schools, with contributions from Sean Cottrell of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network and Tom Byrne, Principal of Partry National School, Co. Mayo. 

Galway West Fianna Fáil TD Éamon Ó Cuív said, “This is about how we can protect and enhance learning, while ensuring that every child retains the right to be educated in their community.  There is no doubt that this Government’s blunt cuts to small rural schools will lead to forced amalgamations. Fianna Fáil strongly opposes the blinkered approach of cutting resources based on pupil numbers alone, with no consideration of a school’s ethos, its position in the community and the geography of an area.”