President delivers keynote address the AGM of Educate Together

Sat 21st May, 2016 | 14:30
location: Donabate Educate Together School

Speech at Educate Together AGM

Donabate Educate Together, 21 May 2016

Educate Together movement has been a critical and committed agent of change in the Irish education system

Is mór an pléisiúir é a bheith anseo inniú ag cruinniú ginearálta bliantúil Foghlaim le Chéile

[It is a great pleasure to be here today at the Annual General Meeting of Educate Together.]

Since the establishment of the first Educate Together school in Dalkey Co. Dublin thirty eight years ago, the Educate Together movement has been a critical and committed agent of change in the Irish education system. Sabina and I were involved in supporting those early efforts for pluralist education in Ireland, and it is a special pleasure for us to be here with you today to celebrate how much has been achieved in the intervening years.

The Ireland of 1978 was a very different landscape from the one we survey today; an Ireland very much on the brink of seismic change, but an Ireland which had yet to overcome a cultural conservatism that had dominated our society since independence.

It is perhaps difficult for a young generation, who have grown up in an increasingly multi cultural Ireland, to appreciate the pioneering nature of those citizens, including Áine and Bill Hyland, who were responsible for the establishment of the  Dalkey School Project almost four decades ago.  The idea of schools where children of all religions and none would be welcomed and equally respected; where every child could learn in an inclusive, democratic, co-educational setting was an audacious and brave one.

It represented a challenging of a status quo that had existed for many years, one which many felt no longer reflected all of the needs of an evolving society and a slowly changing demographic, gradually becoming more diverse and more secular. Those who worked so hard to bring the Educate Together ethos into Irish society and the Irish education system, and those who continue to do so, are citizens who realise the critical importance of continuing to adapt our policies on education in order to respect diversity, to offer choice, and to truly meet the needs of an increasingly multi cultural society.

They are citizens who view a truly inclusive education as one in which all children are welcomed by a school within their community; a school where they can actively participate in and contribute to all aspects of school life. They are citizens who understand the important role that local schools play in community life, and in providing a vital sense of ‘belonging’, and who recognise the great injustice we visit on children when we deny them that basic right.

Their work has borne significant fruit. Educate Together has now transitioned from a pioneering movement, hovering somewhere outside or on the very edge of our education system, to one which occupies a significant space in the mainstream.  Today, over nineteen thousand pupils are enrolled in seventy six primary schools which operate under the Educate Together patronage.  Indeed, the new ground broken by Educate Together has smoothed the path for a number of other multi-denominational providers, giving parents even greater choice and further increasing patron diversity as they consider options for their children’s education.

It must be recognised that this has all been possible because of the success of Educate Together schools, teachers, parents and pupils, in delivering education of the very highest standard and quality. It is that success, measured now in the generations of successful students who have learned and grown in your schools, that stands as the legacy of Educate Together across the country.  Yes, there has been innovation and creativity and new ideas about education have now taken root in Ireland and influenced all schools and educators as a result of Educate Together’s influence; but Educate Together has proven that new ideas can also enhance achievement in the traditional core areas of the curriculum too.

We have, in recent weeks been reflecting on the idealism of the words and vision, and the legacy and meaning, of 1916 and the Proclamation. Those reflections have reminded us that, at the very heart of republicanism lies the principle of participative citizenship, and the right of all citizens to be represented, to have their voice heard and to be enabled to reach their full potential. The enactment of that principle must begin in our communities and in our schools if our young citizens are to garner a true understanding of the common welfare where ideas of community and public are placed at the very centre of our principles and policies; and if they are to learn to reject the limitations of a narrow individualistic concept of citizenship.  This sense of the school and the student in the community lies at the heart of the Educate Together ethos and has been so valuable in your development over the years.

There can be no doubt that, as a society, we have travelled far from the Ireland of 1978 when the Educate Together movement first took root. We have made considerable progress towards the elimination of discrimination against citizens based on class, gender, physical and mental ability, religious faith or the absences thereof, ethnic origin or sexual orientation and have learnt to welcome alternative communities and identities.  We must ask ourselves, however, if we have fully engaged with the challenges and complexities of becoming an increasingly diverse society. 

Mar shampla, an bhealach is fearr le fíordhaonlathas a mheas ná trí féachaint ar an mbealach a chaitear leis "an strainséir" laistigh den phobal, agus ar an mbealach a chaitear leis "an strainséir" a thagann ag súil lena fhlaithiúlacht.

[For instance, a true democracy must always be tested on how they relate to ‘the stranger’ within their community and ‘the stranger’ who arrives in anticipation of their hospitality.]

We must recognise that, while we have made progress in many of the areas of diversity and equality that I have mentioned, there is still a long way to go in other areas. Children in the travelling community, for example, continue to experience serious discrimination in our society, and discrimination on the basis of poverty and social exclusion is still acute in what is a profoundly unequal society.  We must ensure that our efforts to make equality a reality in our society do not focus on only some forms of difference – we must also strive to address these deep rooted and complex differences which pose such a great challenge to us all.

There can be no doubt that in the Ireland of the future we will be judged with reference to how our policies and practices responded to the plight of those who sought refuge here. We will be judged on how we treat and make judgements on those who present themselves at our borders as strangers in difficulty, on how we respond to their stories as they seek our protection, and on the respect we afford them in the legal and administrative processes we oversee. Did we do so, it will be asked, with empathy and compassion; did we offer such people justice, as is our obligation?

The roots of such a sense of justice must be sown early. If our society is to embrace all its members and welcome the stranger, this principle must be witnessed by our young people through an education system which supports and enables all citizens, in their diversities and their similarities, placing no single group above another. Policies which marginalize, or discriminate, or exclude at an early stage do not teach our children the language of equality, justice and democracy. Such language must become a lived reality in our schools, our workplaces, our communities and our societies if we are to lay claim to being a true Republic.

That is why, as a society, we owe a great debt of gratitude to all those who support, promote and commit to Educate Together, a democratic concept that embraces the input of children, parents, teachers, and supporters to enable the highest level of partnership and participation in its school. The vision at the heart of Educate Together is one which empowers future generations to constantly strive to make our society a more equal one for all citizens.

It is a vision which continues to grow, with the opening of the first Educate Together second-level school in 2014 marking a new chapter in Ireland’s evolving education story. I understand that four post-primary schools are now operating with an Educate Together ethos comprising almost 600 students; and that in September next five new post-primary schools in Cork, Dublin and Wicklow. This is an impressive achievement and I wish you well with it.

Many years have passed since the first pupils to benefit from the Educate Together Ethos first walked through the doors of the Dalkey School Project in 1974. At that time they were part of a brave new vision for education in Ireland. I have no doubt they have gone on to make their own unique imprint in their communities and societies, benefiting greatly from the valuable opportunities they received in inclusive classrooms which welcomed all children.

Sa lá atá inniu ann, tá tús áite ag an fís ceannródaíoch seo inár gcomhras oideachais, áit a bhfuil sí ag fás agus ag forbairt agus ag tabhairt an deis don ghlú nua an sochar a bhaint as eiteas Foghlaim le Chéile.

[Today, that pioneering vision has taken its rightful place in our education system, growing, flourishing and enabling a further generation of citizens to benefit from the generous and participative ethos which defines Educate Together.]

May I congratulate and commend you on your hard work and dedication and wish you continued success in your important role.