The Equality Authority of Ireland has a broad legislative mandate to promote equality of opportunity and to combat discrimination. The field of education is a core focus in the work of the Equality Authority. In Ireland the Employment Equality Acts prohibit discrimination in the workplace, which is relevant for staff in educational establishments as well as educational contexts of cultural institutions. The Equal Status Acts prohibit discrimination in the provision of goods and services, accommodation and education. The Acts include specific provisions in relation to educational establishments.
Diversity at School (2004) is a unique and valuable report of the Equality Authority. It encompasses all nine grounds covered by the equality legislation — gender, marital status, family status, age, disability, sexual orientation, race, religion and membership of the Traveller community — in a single study. It is valuable in its identification of a broad range of issues that need to be addressed in schools and other educational institutions if equality is to be effectively promoted in a context of diversity.
Under the Education Act (1998), a number of key partners (in addition to the Department of Education and Science) are identified as playing a central role in education policy at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. These include teacher unions, national parents’ associations, school management bodies and school patrons (including the Vocational Education Committees). In addition, a number of statutory bodies and support agencies have important roles such as the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the National Educational Welfare Board, the Higher Education Authority and the agencies and support services of the Department of Education in such areas as school development planning, curriculum development, student guidance, etc. Students are defined as key partners in their own education under the Education Act. The Diversity at Schools report suggests that if equality-related change is to be implemented within the education system then each of the partners needs to be involved.
Barriers to diversity education include inherited historic post-independence policy attempts at promoting a homogenous cultural identity for Ireland. Differences around disability, ethnicity, or beliefs were subsumed or suppressed in a society in which all were deemed to be the same. While the policy situation has improved in relation to providing access and participation to all, there remain barriers. Single sex denomination schools as well as a high proportion of private schools dominate the compulsory components of education (primary and secondary level). Over 90 per cent of primary schools are denominationally controlled (mainly Roman Catholic.) However, since the mid-1980s the majority of newly established primary schools have been multi-denominational schools as provided under Educate Together or Gaelscoileanna (Irish Language Schools), representing a change in traditional patterns.
It was the recommendation of the Diversity at School report that education about equality should become more systematic in the Irish educational institutions. Equality principles need to inform all programmes taught in schools, regardless of whether there are members of groups from the nine grounds named in the equality legislation on the roll.
A further report by the Economic and Social Research Institute in 2009 entitled Adapting to Diversity: Irish Schools and Newcomer Students studied the diversity policies at primary and secondary schools. It found that over half of the schools had a specific policy to support the integration of new students from diverse backgrounds, including special language support programmes. The report recommended a policy focus on language programmes. An anti bullying policy was also recommended. While the report does find a lack of understanding amongst Irish students of other cultures, it falls short of recommending diversity education.
In 2013, Anti Bullying Procedures for Primary and Post-Primary schools were introduced by the Department of Education and Skills. In accordance with the Education (Welfare) Act (2000) and guidelines issued by the National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB), all schools in Ireland are now required to have an anti-bullying policy within their overall code of behaviour.
Since 2005, an action plan by the Department of Education and Science called Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) has been in place to support equal opportunity in education. The plan has focused on identifying economic disadvantage and offering support for disadvantaged students to continue in education. The action plan is grounded in the belief that:
- every child and young person deserves an equal chance to access, participate in and benefit from education;
- each person should have the opportunity to reach her/his full educational potential for personal, social and economic reasons and;
- education is a critical factor in promoting social inclusion and economic development. The Action plan does not include specific actions related to diversity education.
The DEIS plan of 2017 has focused on implementing “a more robust and responsive Assessment Framework for identifying schools” in need of supports, as well as improving the learning experience of pupils in DEIS schools.
The Educate Together schools in Ireland are co-educational and have no school uniforms. The schools are led by an equality based ethos and work hard to instill a sense of equality and justice in students. All children have equal access to school and no religion or worldview is given priority over another.
Goal 4 of the Irish Government’s Sustainable Development Goals National Implementation Plan 2018-2020 sets out government targets in 2030 related to ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all in Ireland. Most of the emphasis is on removing inequality barriers for children, girls, women and disabled. There is little specific emphasis on diversity education related to cultural or ethnic diversity.
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