I would first like to welcome you all here to Galway and hope that we have a fruitful conference. I would like to thank the Party Leader Micheál Martin and my colleague, Fianna Fáil Education Spokesperosn Brendan Smith for organising this Conference.
It was Thomas Davis the Irish Patriot who said, ‘educate, that you may be free’. Rarely in Irish history has a truer thing been said and education has been to the fore in the renaissance in Ireland over the last 150 years.
When we look at the disaster of the famine in the 1840’s and the amazing recovery of the Irish people both at home and abroad in the following 50 years, you have to ask yourself, why? Is there any comparable case where a nation lost to so many millions to death and starvation and poverty and saw so many others emigrate, and despite all of this made such an incredible comeback, entirely from its own resources.
Equally, abroad, the success of the Irish in the New World is particularly striking and the families of people who immigrated in dire poverty made it up through the social classes very rapidly.
I have often puzzled over this question and the answer I have come up with is that there was a thirst for learning amongst the Irish people that had been retained throughout all of the centuries from the time that St. Patrick came to Ireland and the first Monasteries were set up.
This constant theme of learning was very central to Irish society, as were the bardic schools, right up to the fall of the Gaelic order. What we tend to overlook now is the extraordinary feat in terms of third level education of the Irish people after the fall of Limerick. During the penal times instead of becoming a non-educated people, the Irish nation sustained many third level Colleges on the continent, in places such as Louvain, Salamanca, Paris, Rome, etc. These ensured a constant stream, not only of priests but also of educated people coming back to Ireland, operating through the hedge schools and ensuring that the flame of learning never died in our country. I believe that it was this interest in learning that enabled the Irish people to pick themselves up so rapidly at home and abroad, after the famine. Due credit also must be given to the role that the Church played in setting up education establishments in the Nineteenth century, not only in Ireland but also throughout the world.
There is no doubt also that the success of Ireland in the twentieth century was due in so small part to the interest by the ordinary people of the country in education, and also to the opportunities in education given by successive Fianna Fáil Governments. This is particularly evident with the establishment in the sixties of the free education system, the free education transport system and also much better access to third level.
In looking at the success of the education system, it is important to look at those circumstances, both community and family, that best encourages a thirst for knowledge amongst young people. I have long believed that no matter how much we invest in education, unless we can continue to encourage an interest in education amongst people of all classes, as the way to progress, a lot of our investment will go to waste. A constant theme of mine has been the preservation of that which is working, along with new approaches where the system is failing. Every analysis shows that the success of young people coming from schools in rural Ireland is equivalent to that of middle class Ireland and is at a very high level indeed. Instead of trying to destroy this system of inter-action between community, parents and school, that has been the hallmark of a rural education system, we should be trying to strengthen it and strengthen in particular, its links with the community.
I am delighted that we will be discussing today how we can have strong small schools into the future. I know that this is of great concern to many who are here.
In our disadvantaged urban areas, we face different challenges. We often have schools where we have put in a lot of resources, but where we are not getting the results we would expect. This has to be tackled in a multi-faceted way and in particular there is need to ensure early intervention in communities that do not have as high a traditional value on education as other communities. It is said that a child from a disadvantaged background is at a serious disadvantage before they go to school. I would accept this and I believe therefore that in particular when we talk about early and affordable education, we must focus on those who will likely fail in the education system, no matter how much we put into it, if there is not early intervention.
During our time in Government Fianna Fáil was behind the building of St. Ultan’s School, in Cherry Orchard in Dublin. This is an example of absolute best practice, where you literally have everything from the crèche, to the pre-school, to the after-school and the primary school itself on the same campus.
If we are serious about tackling disadvantage we must prioritise our most vulnerable children by continue investment in schools in disadvantaged areas. The targeted cuts to these supports made by this Government are not only unfair, but they are extremely short-sighted.
I am pleased that we will begin today’s discussions with the problems of youth mental health and the challenges it poses us. Many more people die in Ireland each year from suicide as compared to road accidents. This is something we need to focus on and it is something we need to develop, a scientific and considered response too. I hope today’s Conference provides us with pointers to the future and example of best practice.
Finally, I would like to say that we often spend a lot of time in this country discussing the past and the mistakes of the past. I believe it is very important to study the past and to learn from it, but to focus on how we can create a better future by developing new policies and new approaches to old problems.