FOUR MAYO General Election candidates got a taste of what they will face in the coming months when they received a grilling on educational issues from students at an Election Educational Seminar at GMIT in Castlebar last week.
The seminar, which was organised by the Students Union of Ireland, was chaired by its President Colm Hamrogue and involved Cllr Gerry Murray (Sinn Féin) John O’Mahony (Fine Gael), Dara Calleary (Fianna Fáil) and Harry Barrett (Labour).
Each candidate was given two minutes to air their views on education and were then given a chance to answer questions from the floor. The seminar was well-attended, not only by students but also by politicians and parents.
A number of issues affecting parents and students were raised on the night. Among the most contentious issues were the delay in processing grant applications and the long hours students are being forced to work in order to get through college.
While all of the aspiring TDs were largely in agreement that more needed to be done to improve the education system, how it should be done raised the decibels of the debate.
The greatest division on the night arose between Harry Barrett (Labour) and Dara Calleary (Fianna Fáil) over where the money has to come from to reform the education sector. With the chairman struggling to keep order, Mr Barrett said the Government was able to give tax breaks for ‘hotels in the middle of nowhere’, a point that was echoed by Castlebar town councillor, Johnny Mee, who gave his view from the floor.
Mr Barrett championed the Scandinavian model of social inclusion in education, where it is a right and not a privilege. He claimed that a two-tier system is being developed in Ireland whereby people who can afford to spend money on private tuition are benefiting in the education system.
Mr Calleary defended the Government’s record on education, stating that more students are getting into college than ever before, with 44,000 new places in third level institutes now opened up to students. He said the Minister for Education had also topped up the grants and increased the income limits for applicants.
John O’Mahony, Fine Gael Dáil candidate, a retired school teacher in St Nathy’s College in Ballaghaderreen, said one of the main reasons he retired from teaching was because teaching was becoming ‘too computer orientated’ and there was not enough focus on the wholeness of education. He claimed that, as in other sectors, the education system was not being given its fair share of investment in the west.
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Murray claimed that the Government was applying a stringent approach to education while there was a surplus to the budget. He called for the grants to be increased substantially because students are ‘working all hours to pay their way through college and it is not helping their academic studies’.
What the candidates said …
“The human side of education is very important, there is more to it than points and degrees. Some of the most successful people in the world are people who did not achieve in the points’ system. There is more than the courses and there is not enough of the human approach that there was in the past.”
“Increasing grants raises the issues of taxation and revenue and Sinn Féin feel education is worth the investment. With all the hype of the Celtic Tiger, many are led to believe it is exclusively to do with the low tax economy, but the main reason is the huge investment made in education. That investment needs to be made on an ongoing basis and we are prepared to make that investment.”
“I would love to say I will abolish the registration fee for everybody, but where are we going to get the money? Are we going to take it from buildings or the ACCESS programme or upgrading computers or facilities for students?”
“The question is whether we are going towards the Boston model of education or the European socialist model? A league table recently published showed figures of students going to third level. All the fee-paying schools were getting 100 per cent while a school in Donegal was struggling at 36 per cent. It was not because of poor teachers but because of the poor social circumstances in the area.”