Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Speaking on provision of guidance counselling in schools

Private Members Debate: Tuesday January 17th 2012

Aodhán: I thank the Minister for his contribution. In keeping with the tone of the previous speaker's contribution, it would be easy to list cuts implemented under previous administrations but that would not be fair to the people affected by this change. A few weeks ago, the Minister addressed students in the gallery and it was one of the most inspirational things I have seen in my short time in the House. Many developments in education are incredibly exciting such as reform of the junior and leaving certificates, tackling the dreaded points system, addressing vested interests in the context of school patronage and admissions policies and tackling the issue of literacy and numeracy and the fact that Ireland is slipping down the league table, as the Minister correctly stated. In a short time in the Department, he has, therefore, tackled a significant number of issues that are fundamental to how our education system is structured.

It is impossible to make a cutback in the education system without affecting the quality of provision, which no Member would deny, and nor would they deny that when a €3.8 billion budgetary correction is made, education cannot be ring-fenced. I wish that could be the case but it is not possible.

I spent time yesterday in four of my local schools and I spoke to the members of a particularly impressive student council in Manor House school, who referred to junior and leaving certificate reform, their hopes and dreams and what lies ahead of them. They referred to how important guidance counselling provision is to them in their school. It is not easy to be a young person in modern day Ireland facing into the leaving certificate and university life in the current circumstances. It is not their fault if they happen to be aged 16 or 17 attending secondary school in the middle of a recession and budgetary corrections. A number of the guidance counsellors I met spoke about the impact of the recession on their students and the fact that they hear discussions about what is happening in their kitchens and bedrooms at home. They are aware of financial pressures and their parents have lost jobs. They hear about people in their classes doing stupid things and getting involved in behaviour that they should not.

A guiding hand is important. If we take the sense of vocation out of schools, then we will lose pretty much everything. The position of guidance counsellor is important but it would have been easier to increase the pupil-teacher ratio in secondary schools, as happened previously, which would have result in the guidance counsellor having fewer things to guide the students on because they would have had fewer subjects to study. That is one of the choices, unfortunately, the Minister and the Government faced.

This is a great opportunity for the Government and the Parliament, given the Minister has been so open about the challenges in the education system. It would be easy to say we have the best system in the world but the PISA results say otherwise. It would also be easy to say we are the land of saints and scholars but some of our results do not stack up. Spending on education is an open book. For example, it does not make sense to spend €178 million on rural school transport but I have an urban bias and the Minister does not agree with me. Many of us might say it is a great deal of money. However, in the area of guidance, €9 million is spent on school chaplains. It is difficult to unpick this allocation because it is provided for in the deeds of trust of many community schools. We have to unpick aspects of the education budget that do not stand up to scrutiny. As Deputy O'Donovan correctly said, we are talking about students who are our future and who are going through a difficult time. They depend on us, their schools and on teachers who, like all public servants, have been incredibly vilified over the past number of years. They had 14% of their pay taken from them by the previous Administration and they understand why their pay packets are smaller and their days longer.

However, the Minister and I know, and the Government understands, that we have to focus fully on children's capacity to achieve their educational potential and education is a liberator.

If one has nothing else, if one's family falls apart or if one is from a dysfunctional community and there are elements in the area that are not working, the only solution that will always work is education and the school in which one has the chance to thrive.

I support the Government amendment to the motion. I accept the Minister's bona fides in this area. I agree with the previous speaker, Deputy O'Donovan, that we must look at and justify some of the matters on which we are spending money in order to ensure, hopefully, that in the future measures such as this can potentially be overturned or lessened. I am not sure that anybody in this House would justify spending €9 million on chaplains.

I commend the Minister on what he is doing to education. This is probably the most exciting time in education in a generation when everything is up for grabs, everything is being challenged, everything is being refocused upon, we are getting down to what really matters - literacy, numeracy and making a junior certificate and leaving certificate that work - and we are challenging the vested interests in terms of the patronage and looking at admission policies so that no child is turned away from any door of any schools.