Speech by Education Minister Norma Foley TD to the education panel at the 81st Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis

Published on: 04 November 2023

Some in the opposition try to portray Ireland as a failed state - but what I see when I visit schools around the country are young children who are smart, articulate and full of enthusiasm for learning, sport, art, music and dance. 


We welcome with open arms those who have come from Ukraine and other countries around the world. Our schools are wonderful mirrors of what society should be about in terms of integration. More than 17,500  young people from Ukraine had been seamlessly integrated into our schools. And that didn't happen by magic. That happens because staff want it to happen. Staff put in the extra hours, do the extra work to make sure that every child has a place, that every child is heard, including those who are coming from war torn areas. The Department of Education has provided resources. But I acknowledge time and time again, we are blessed beyond measure, because of the flexibility and resilience of staff who make things happen every single day, and who rise to the challenges that we face in education every single day. 


One of the top three items raised with me every time when I visit schools and it's raised with me by school leadership, or by parents, it's the question of smartphones and children, in particular primary school children and their use of smartphones. 


And I want to be very clear, because I think we have to be fair, and we have to be balanced. There are clear benefits to owning a smartphone. There's no doubt about that. But there are also risks, and risks must always be managed. Principals tell me that online bullying using smartphones happens outside school hours.  They can't control it. It happens outside of school. 


Children can be exposed to violence and sexual content that no parent would want them to see via their smartphone.  


And to be fair now, we're all guilty, every single one of us here, of being stuck on our phones. But it really can be damaging for children, because they can miss out on real life experiences with their family and their friends. I always say that as a nation, we've always prided ourselves on having the gift of the gab. 


That's what we'd say at home in Kerry. It's a gift, the ability to converse, to chat and to talk. But you only get that gift when you do engage with other people. And you won't get us if you spend your time engaging with Siri or with Alexa. They have their uses, but they also have their limitations.  


I have been really impressed by initiatives that I've seen in so many schools around the country around smartphones for children of primary school age. I've been especially impressed by what I've seen in Greystones in Wicklow where parents of primary school children agreed collectively not to buy smartphones for their children whilst in primary school. I would really like to see a similar model being rolled out across other schools. 


Improving education in Budget 2024 


During a recent visit to a school in Mayo, students presented me with a framed picture with a quotation from Nelson Mandela. It reads: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  


That picture now holds pride of place in my office in Leinster House. That was where Mandela addressed the Dáil in July 1990, just five months after he had been released from 27 years in captivity. 


At the time, he was still four years away from becoming the first democratically elected president of South Africa. But he drew on Ireland’s history of achieving independence as an example.  


He said: “The very fact that there is today an independent Irish State, however long it took to realise the noble goals of the Irish people by bringing it into being, confirms that we too shall become a free people; we too shall have a country which will, as the great Irish patriots said in the proclamation of 1916, cherish all the children of the nation equally.” 


There have been 25 Fianna Fáil ministers for education in the history of the state. And each one of them have done everything possible as they strive to cherish all of the children of the nation equally 


These ministers include Jack Lynch, Donogh O’Malley, our current party leader Micheál Martin, and three Fianna Fáil women – Mary O’Rourke, Mary Coughlan and Mary Hanafin. When I was appointed as Minister for Education, there was much discussion and much upset at the fact that I had broken a Fianna Fáil tradition, that I wasn't a Mary, and that only a Mary could be a Fianna Fáil minister for education. I didn't say anything at the time, but in actual fact, I am Norma Mary Foley. So that Fianna Fáil tradition continues. 


In my time in office, I have undertaken the single largest expansion of the DEIS scheme, our flagship programme to support disadvantaged students. 


When this government took office, there were around 186,205 pupils in 887 DEIS schools. But we have increased that to 240,000 pupils in 1,200 DEIS schools. 


But we know that there are things that we need to do. We’ve given particular emphasis to special education. €2.7 billion of the department's resources are now spent on special education. By the end of this year, we have more than 3,000 special classes. We have seen an acceleration in delivery of special education, both in terms of the special education classes, but also special schools. We believe fundamentally that every child must be supported to be in school and receive an education. Alongside that, we believe that every child should have the facilities that meet the needs and the challenges of the day. So we have an ambitious program of €1 billion next year that will be expended on new school buildings and additional accommodation.  


I believe there is a defining moment for us in terms of senior cycle education. We must ensure that the students of today in the 21st century can meet the challenges of the 21st century. We must ensure that there is a recognition that we need, not just a new curriculum, but a new type of assessment to go with it. In 2025, the first cohort of students will avail of new subject areas which would include physics, chemistry, biology, business studies, the new subjects that we're bringing in -drama, theater and film and climate action and sustainability. These are subjects which are pertinent to the world in which we live today.  


But they will have a second component where students will have an opportunity to showcase talents that are not presently recognized in the system. How to create a film, how to conduct a science experiment. It’s the practical application of knowledge. Knowledge can't just be the written alone. It must be a skill set where we can demonstrate and we can use to the good what we have learned. That's our vision for education in the 21st century. We have a good education system. We need to ensure that it will be better and greater going forward. 


So in 2025, more than 60% of our students will avail of a new type of Leaving Certificate with the first tranche of subjects coming on stream. The last thing I want to say about senior cycle reform is that we can tinker with it, we could do a little bit.  But that's never been the Fianna Fáil way. 


If we're doing this, we're going to do it right. So we have a big vision for equality of opportunity in education that's not just DEIS, that's also senior cycle reform. That's also inclusion in education. When we're doing it, we will do it right. I want to conclude by saying I am eternally grateful to everyone who participates proactively within the parliamentary party. Our councillors are so proactive on the ground in terms of involvement with school boards of management. Boards of management are fantastic. They are people from the community who give up their time, their talent and their expertise, and they don't get a single penny in return for doing that. Our councillors serve on boards of management. 


Plato tells us that “nothing ever is, it is always becoming.” I believe that has always been a Fianna Fáil mantra. We are constantly seeking to do more, become more, be more for the benefit of society. Who in society could we better serve than the children and young people that are in our care? It is my privilege to be your Minister for Education and to continue our rich treasure of service in Irish education.