‘Equality isn’t achieved by treating everybody the same’

Aine Hyland

Musings from Edmund Rice Week @ the Cork Life Centre


We had a more than interesting discussion today with Professor Áine Hyland about educational equality- who better to take a master class with than the woman who has spent most of her life advocating for children’s educational rights!

Eloquently  and succinctly in less than 20 minutes Áine gave us a potted history of educational policy in Ireland and the face of educational disadvantage and how it has changed over the past 50 years. Like the very best of teachers  Áine favoured listening over being heard and gave most of the session over to questions, answers and lively discussion. She was quick to point out that while we need to look at the good change that has happened in education we must also look at what is yet to be done.

Again like only the best teachers do Áine was more open to learning from the discussion than playing the traditional role of Professor! When opening up the floor to comments or questions, in relation to the latter she very modestly stated ‘I will probably not be able to answer them’

What resulted was like a beautiful dance where Áine’s research, knowledge and insights were complemented and enlightened wonderfully by the experience of the staff but more so the students of the Cork Life Centre.

We spoke about, amongst other things:

– retention rates in the Irish context

-shortened school  days

-the fact that Ireland’s version of ‘free education’ is still not enough without further supports

-multiple suspensions that in reality become like expulsions

– the importance of school culture and the distinct power of people who want to create an inclusive culture

-’difficult’’ students and the realities of how possible it is to engage them & find their strengths

-stereotypes & overgeneralisation that influence the dialogue on ‘early school leavers’

-the problem with this label and how it seems to lay the blame on children and young people

-the fact that children and young people cannot fail school but the school or system fails them

-how funding should follow children and young people when they leave school

And of course the gem of wisdom of the day came from a student sitting at the back of the crowd who conveyed the message of the blog title-that treating people equally isn’t as simple as treating them the same. Silence washed over the room as everyone thought this through.

We have an education system and an approach to tackling ‘disadvantage’ that is completely focused on meeting the needs of all young people within the mainstream system. Yet after 50 years and yes a very substantial drop in the rates of young people leaving school early there is still a substantial cohort of young people(1 in 10) who are falling through the cracks. Roughly 1 in 10 young people in Ireland are still leaving school before completion of senior cycle.

For this reason alternative provision and the creation of a well-resourced consistent alternative structure needs to be high on the agenda of policy-makers.

We were more than privileged to have Áine solidify this idea in the following way  ‘There will always in my view be a need for alternative education provision like the Cork Life Centre and unfortunately it is very rare’

On a less positive note Áine pointed out the reality in Ireland where ‘People believe that schools and only schools can provide the educational experience young people need’

In the weirdly circular way that is life, later in the afternoon I spoke to a former student of our centre(now in University) She is due to attend a consultation we have been invited to this week on ‘Out of School Education Provision’ an opportunity we greatly value especially as we have been invited to bring young people to participate .

One of the key issues which will be addressed at this gathering will be the challenges of out of school education-the second this came up the young person stated that the main problem is stigma. Judgments about your education and how you access it, judgments about the type of ‘young people’ that attend alternative education, judgments about how much you can learn there and needless to say none of these judgments are positive.

A day that provided much food for thought and reminded us of difficult realities.

Yet reflecting on the day I take heart from how it demonstrated yet again how much we can learn from young people-we’re getting a bit better at this in Ireland but we need to double and triple our efforts-Decision-makers if you want to know  about issues that affect young people ASK YOUNG PEOPLE! And in relation to an education system inclusive of all where every child counts I can recognise on reflection that while we have some way to go we have come some of the way and we have time yet. And finally I am heartened by a vision or a dream for the future that I keep close……It goes a little something like this:

Perhaps in 50 years or more in this country there might be no such thing as an ‘early school leaver’ we might dispense with the label altogether because we will no longer need it. Our education system will have developed in a needs-based way to the point that schools will be more than buildings and institutions and young people will access education through methods and environments that best suit their individual needs not just academic but social, personal, relational whether this be in a school or somewhere that looks less like a school. And that will be all there is about that!

Is it a big dream….probably….But then again….

‘’You need to have dreams. Everything starts with a dream’’

Sheila Cornell-Douty

PS Stay tuned-another blog to follow in coming weeks on education by one of our volunteer teachers in conversation with Professor Áine Hyland!


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