Posted on May 22, 2015
Kevin McCague is Legal and Social Welfare Intern with FLAC
Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights guarantees a right of everyone to education, emphasising that education should be made available and accessible, and that there should be a progressive introduction of free access to secondary and higher education.
However, in many ways Ireland has moved away from this commitment to cost free access over the last number of years. New costs and charges have been introduced at all stages of the education system; at the same time, supports for children and young adults from low income families have been cut.
At primary and secondary levels, the most vulnerable students have been particularly affected by education cuts. Funds for traveller education projects have been reduced drastically. Support for students with disabilities and those who do not speak English as a first language have also been restricted. It is hard to see how educational outcomes for these students will not be negatively impacted by these policy decisions. Already, there is evidence to suggest that some students are losing out: Children with disabilities are being turned away from mainstream schools because these schools lack the supports to cater for them; Traveller children are disproportionally affected by the withdrawal of extra school transport assistance, as they often have to travel long distances to school due to discrimination.
There is evidence that failing to finish school may lead to lifelong disadvantage. The DEIS school programme was designed to combat educational disadvantage by providing supports to students in disadvantaged areas. The need for such a programme encompassing some 852 public schools at primary and secondary levels is indicative of the fact that Ireland has a two-tier educational system where inequality of educational outcome is the norm. However, the success of this scheme in delivering equality of opportunity in education is being undermined by cuts to programmes such as the Student Completion Programme and third-level student grant supports. Ensuring that children receive a good quality education that leads successfully to higher education and training for all students should always be at the centre of policy decisions if the Government is intent on realising its human rights obligations.
For third-level students, the rise in registration fees has been substantial and has meant a greater transfer of education costs to individuals. At the same time, eligibility for the student grant scheme has been restricted . These changes have major implications for the ability of students from poorer backgrounds to access third level. Delays in approving students for the grant scheme also appear to be forcing them to drop out of third-level courses.
Furthermore, the disparity in rates of progression to third level for students from different socio-economic backgrounds indicates that equality of access has not been achieved. The current dispensation most favours students from better-off backgrounds whose parents can invest in school fees or extra tuition to achieve optimum exam results. Current education policy is not in keeping with Ireland’s human rights obligations to make education generally available and accessible to all by every appropriate means. The net result of discouraging people from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend third level is a human rights failure and means that one of the core purposes of our education system is not being realised. This group is being locked out of higher education, calling a halt to one of the most effective means of social progression.
To fully vindicate human rights in the context of the right to education under Article 13, Ireland needs to remove financial barriers to education that are disproportionately affecting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The State must provide adequate supports to families to cover the cost of a new school year, or to young people who for financial reasons cannot progress to third level and realise their potential.