Thursday, January 19, 2012

Young people under attack by Labour

Last week it was DEIS schools. The Labour Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn had turned Labour party policy on its head and imposed major cuts to schools situated in disadvantaged area.

And while Sinn Féin TDs like Sean Crowe and Peadar Toibin lashed government education strategy in the Dáil it was the mounting public anger and pressure on Labour backbenchers that forced Quinn to do a volte face.

But that wasn’t the Labour Minister’s only bad decision.

In the education system in the 26 counties schools employ guidance counsellors, who are normally qualified teachers, to advise students and young people.

They cover three separate but interlinked areas including personal and social, education, and vocational guidance and counselling.

As part of his cost cutting programme Quinn decided that guidance counsellors will no longer be provided on an ex quota basis in secondary schools. The goal is to save €32 million annually. In practice this means that many school principals will have to transfer counsellors back into the class rooms to teaching subjects.

One counsellor I spoke to before Christmas told me that she began her teaching career 18 years ago and immediately became a full time guidance counsellor.

She has never taught the language she has her degree in but will now be expected to go into the classroom. But for many more it means the loss of their employment as between 700-1000 posts will be cut.

The reality is that the government’s policies are not working. The evidence is all around us – mass emigration; mounting job losses; a health service on the rack - and one government decision after another imposing cuts on public services.

Ruairi Quinn’s decision to cut resources to DEIS schools was an example of this.

Last week he admitted that this had been a mistake. But the truth is that it wasn’t a mistake. It was a conscious decision taken by him – by a Labour Minister - to cut services to vulnerable young people.

In every society, as those of us who live in the real world will be aware, there are citizens who need a leg up. A fair society has an obligation to give them support.
A good Government, a visionary thoughtful Government, will supply this, protect it and build on it, while a unfair short-sighted Government will do the opposite.

The decision to cut resources to DEIS schools was an example of this. It was completely in keeping with the Government's commitment to austerity policies. This approach is aimed at forcing those who can least afford it to carry the greatest financial burden of the economic crisis.

This is also the reason the Government targeted disabled young people and DEIS schools and it is why services to our elderly are now being cut. It explains why Minister Quinn is determined to scrap up to 1,000 guidance counsellor posts.

The reality is that guidance counsellors are skilled professionals who provide an essential service to young people, their families and society.

Without the help of guidance counsellors students might pick the wrong courses.
Without guidance counsellors students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds who often apply to college through the higher education access route would have no one to help them fill in complex forms to avail of reduced points and assistance in college.

Without guidance counsellors students with learning or physical disabilities or mental health problems who apply through the disability access route would face similar hurdles.
Guidance counsellors also help students with ADD, ADHD, OCD and autism. They help students identify careers, which is particularly important during this recession.

They are also the first port of call for young people under threat or who are experiencing difficulties with their mental well-being.

One guidance counsellor from County Louth outlined for me some of the issues she has dealt with in recent times. Incidents included self-harm, rape, family breakdown, bullying, eating disorders, child neglect, alcoholism in families, drug abuse and mental health issues. At a time when self-harm and suicide are increasing, who will help these students if guidance counsellors are not available?

It is also likely that cuts will result in the privatisation of guidance counselling. For those who can afford private counselling this will not prove an insurmountable difficulty.

However, those who cannot afford private guidance counsellors will not get help on any of the issues I have mentioned. This means that students from low and middle income homes will be at an even greater disadvantage.

The notion of two Irelands is becoming apparent. The Labour Party used to have a slogan, "one Ireland", even if its Ireland stopped at the Border. We are not seeing the emergence of a sense of one Ireland. Rather we are seeing two Irelands, namely, those at the bottom and the rest of us.

On Tuesday and Wednesday the Dail debated a private members motion on this issue seeking a reversal of the cuts. All of these points were made by this blog and others. Once again Labour backbenchers were discomforted but they voted down the motion.

And this time there is no sense that the Labour Minister for Education will acknowledge another mistake and change tack.

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