That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to disapply at separate future dates, in relation to recognised primary and post-primary schools, the exemption provided by certain enactments from the prohibition against discrimination on the gender ground in educational establishments, and to provide for connected matters.
I thank my Labour Party colleagues for co-signing this Bill, which provides for all schools in receipt of State funding and recognised by the Department of Education to reflect society outside the school gate, which they serve. We have an unusual scenario in Ireland whereby 17% of Irish primary school children attend single-gender schools. At second level that figure is 30%. Since 1998, the Department of Education has not given sanction or recognition to a new single-gender school. Effectively, for the past 25 years the Department has decided we should be moving towards a co-educational model.
It is strange to me, therefore, and I expect to anybody who comes to this country from elsewhere, that we are so obsessed with separating children. We love separating them on the basis of religion, gender and income.
If we really are serious about our education system, there are a number of issues we must consider. We have to look at equality in education, eradicate illiteracy, end educational disadvantage and make education entirely free. We also need to get rid of the legacy issues in the Irish education system, including why we consider it so important that boys go through one gate and girls through another. It does not stand up to any analysis anywhere internationally that such separation is good for children or society. In my constituency, in places like Raheny and Marino, for example, parents are beginning to ask strong questions as to why their children need to be separated for school, with one gate for the boys and another for the girls. I see strong young women in Maryfield College in Drumcondra who are standing up against this old-fashioned, outdated practice of demanding girls wear skirts to school. They have managed to change the uniform practice in their school.
It is time for the State to lay out a vision that all children and young people should go to the same schools and that we do away with outdated gender stereotypes. There is no reason why girls need to go to one school and boys to another. On that basis, our Bill proposes that, over a ten-year period, we get rid of the single-gender legacy issue for primary schools. We are trying to be as reasonable as we possibly can in providing for a period of ten years to make the change. We recognise that conversations are needed in school communities and between patron bodies. We acknowledge that the Department of Education has to lead this charge. After ten years, however, it is our vision that every primary school in the State will be co-educational. In addition, after 15 years, we want every second level school in the country that is in receipt of State funding and recognition from the Department of Education to be co-educational.
If we are serious about gender equality, this seems to be the only area of Irish public policy about which we never speak. We talk about gender equality in sport, politics, the media and business, but our education system is separated on the basis of gender to a degree that is unparalleled outside of the Arab world and we seem never to want to tackle it properly. We are trying to be as practical and reasonable as possible in our proposals in this Bill. There is no justifiable reason to contrive a scenario where all the boys go through one gate and all the girls through another. It does not stand up any more. Let us have an education system that is truly reflective of the society outside the school doors. Let us believe in gender equality. If we pass this legislation, we will be in a position, after ten years, to ensure all our primary schools are co-educational and the same for all secondary schools after 15 years. Our education system will then properly reflect the society it tries to serve, which is a co-educational society in which there is gender equality.