Carthy clashes with Education Minister telling Foley she faces ‘widespread loss of confidence’
Cavan Monaghan Sinn Féin TD, Matt Carthy, has told the Dáil that the Education Minister, Norma Foley faces ‘widespread loss of confidence’ at her handling of the sector during the current restrictions. Deputy Carthy was part of a debate with the Minister for Education last week.
Deputy Carthy cited the failures of the Minister in addressing school transport needs for many families in rural communities and the challenges faced by students who did not have access to laptop computers or broadband. These were issues brought to the Minister’s attention last Summer, he said, but the Minister has refused to engage with those affected.
The Sinn Féin representative said that the failure to address this longstanding problems raised concerns as to the Minister’s capacity to address the new challenges posed by teachers, students and parents during the new lockdown. He referenced specifically the issues highlighted by leaving cert students and their families.
The exchange went as follows:
Deputy Matt Carthy: “There is widespread loss of confidence in the Minister’s ability to address the challenges that will face education in the coming weeks and months. Like many Deputies, I have been speaking to leaving certificate students, other students, families of children with special needs, school management, teachers and other workers in education, including SNAs.
“The overwhelming view is that the Minister has not engaged with any of them sufficiently until after a crisis has emerged and that the Minister has failed to understand their concerns with her approach over a myriad of issues.
“A large part of the reason for this lack of confidence is the Minister’s failure to even start to address problems that have been identified to her since last summer.
“I have two questions to put to the Minister. I have raised in the House on several occasions the absolute mess that has been made of school transport for many families, particularly those in rural communities. I have brought to the Minister’s attention a number of instances of children who have been deemed eligible for school transport but who have been denied a place on their local school bus because their parents or guardians submitted their payment after the arbitrary 4 August deadline.
“Families missed that deadline for an array of reasons, including in instances I know of in which parents simply did not have the funds in place at that stage. They have been treated disgracefully for that. Bus Éireann has just stopped engaging with them at all. It has stopped engaging with elected representatives on this in many instances. The Minister has appeared to wash her hands of the matter.
“My first question is this: what will the Minister now do to ensure that all schoolchildren who have been deemed eligible for school transport will get a seat on their school bus before the schools return after these current restrictions?
“Second, I have been inundated this week with communications from parents and families unable to facilitate remote learning because either they do not have access to broadband or they cannot afford laptops. What is the Minister doing to address their needs?”
Minister Norma Foley: “Regarding the Deputy’s remarks on lack of engagement, which I utterly reject out of hand, it has been the hallmark of my Ministry that substantial engagement right from the very beginning has been attested by the reopening of our schools and ongoing engagement with all the partners in education. This includes parents, teachers, students and managerial bodies right across the weave of education. I therefore reject out of hand the Deputy’s remarks in that regard.
“Regarding school transport specifically, it is very clear that all those who were eligible and who paid on time have been facilitated. Deputy Carthy may or may not be aware of the reality of the Covid-19 situation, which has led to public health issuing advice on school transport. I reiterate, as I highlighted earlier, that everything we in the Department of Education have been asked to adhere to, including flexibility in terms of public health, we have done so. In adherence to public health, we have accepted the recommendation that we accommodate 50% on our school transport, and we are rolling that out. Where there is extra capacity, accommodation will be made, but we are abiding by public health in that regard.
“In the context of parents and families, again, I acknowledge that there has been ongoing representation and engagement. There is a parent voice, a parent representative, in all my engagements. I have facilitated that regularly and will continue to do so. It is hugely important. In the Department of Education and in the education sector we work as a collaborative, and I acknowledge the willingness of all the various partners in education to contribute positively”.
Matt Carthy: “The Minister is essentially saying that all the people who have been contacting Deputies across the House are liars. On Thursday last, her suggestion was that the schools would operate this week for leaving certificate students and children with special educational needs. That did not happen precisely because the engagement had not taken place beforehand.
“All those leaving certificate students who have been contacting us this week to say they have had no engagement from the Minister or her Department, all the teachers who were absolutely flabbergasted by the Minister’s position only a week ago and all those parents who are still wondering what exactly will happen.
“The Minister asked whether I understood the reality of school transport. I will tell her the reality of one family in my constituency. The father passed away in the most tragic circumstances a couple of years ago and the mother has been doing everything in her power to hold her family together under the most difficult circumstances. As a result of financial constraints and all the other issues in that house, it was 10th August when the mother paid her school transport fees.
“The school bus passes her front door every single morning and she has to get into a car with two of her children and follow it. That is their lived reality. I understand that when the schools were reopening in September, lots of issues needed to be dealt with. But, the Minister had September, October, November and December to sort out issues for these families and she has not engaged at all. The problem is that those families are sitting at home now and are unaware whether or not the children will have seats on their school bus. It is crucially important they do.
“In my county almost half the households do not have access to broadband. The Minister has not answered, her Department has not answered and the Government has not answered how in the hell these families are supposed to facilitate remote learning for their children.
“It is simply not good enough”.
Speaking after the debate, Teactha Carthy said:
“It has since been reported that Minister Foley turned up to one meeting with the Teachers Union of Ireland an hour late and stayed for only five minutes.
“The Minister may have hoped that engagement would be a hallmark of her Ministry, but what I am hearing from people right across our education sector is that it seems as if the Department and Minister are detached from the realities on the ground. A huge disservice is being done to parents, teachers and of course students”.