Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Questions (36)

Mick Barry

Question:

36. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Education if she will consider initiating an investigation into allegations that females in a school (details supplied) were asked not to wear certain items of clothing due to them allegedly being revealing; if she will report on measures taken to counter sexist attitudes in schools; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40068/20]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Education)

The question is to ask the Minister if she will consider initiating an investigation into allegations that females in a school were asked not to wear certain items of clothing due to them allegedly being revealing; if she will report on measures taken to counter sexism in schools, and if she will make a statement on the matter.

In the case referred to by the Deputy, the Department of Education has made initial contact with the school and is engaging further to establish the facts in this case in order to provide a report for my attention.

It is important to note that decisions on school uniform policies are a matter for the school's board of management at local level. Schools are advised to consult with parents and students when drafting a policy on uniforms. My Department provides funding and policy direction for schools. It has legal powers to investigate individual complaints where the complaint involves a refused enrolment, expulsion or suspension, in accordance with section 29 of the Education Act 1998. The Department's role is also to clarify for parents and students how their grievances and complaints against schools can be progressed.

With regard to the broader question posed by the Deputy, I agree that there is no place for sexist attitudes in Irish society, including in our schools. The Department has been working along with other Departments and agencies to support the full implementation of the National Women and Girls Strategy 2017-2020. The vision of the strategy is "an Ireland where all women enjoy equality with men and can achieve their full potential, while enjoying a safe and fulfilling life". The overall goal of the strategy is "to change attitudes and practices preventing women's and girls' full participation in education, employment and public life at all levels, and to improve services for women and girls, with priority given to the needs of those experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, the poorest outcomes."

It is the aim of the Department that every child has access to equitable education and that each learner feels safe and happy in the school environment, at every stage. The curriculum at both primary and post-primary levels aims to foster inclusivity where equality and diversity are promoted. Attitudes towards gender are primarily explored in the social, personal and health education, SPHE, curriculum. This is addressed in an age-appropriate manner from primary level through to senior cycle. At each level, multiple strands of the SPHE curriculum examines gender roles and stereotyping and their adverse effect, in particular regarding gender effects. As a part of the curriculum, students explore and deepen their awareness of stereotyping and its influence on attitudes and behaviour.

The school in question is being asked for a report. Are the school authorities alone being asked to supply the report or is contact being made with the student body to get a report and information back from it? Something happened in that school. Would a petition come forward to be signed with thousands of names for no reason? It appears that protest took place in the school, including boys coming into school wearing leggings and skirts in solidarity with the girl students. People would not do this for no reason. It is not credible to say that nothing happened or that it was a misunderstanding. I am raising a question about that. I think questions need to be asked and information needs to be got, not just from the school authorities but from the student body itself. As part of the report, I would also like to know if any of the boys who took part in the protest were suspended, how long they were suspended for and why.

It is important that in any incident that pertains to a school that each school is given the time and space to address the situation as it arises and to make a determination. My Department has already engaged with the school and it will continue to engage with it. A report will be furnished to me once that engagement is concluded. The engagement is in the first instance with the board of management, which has responsibility for the day-to-day running of the school. Deputy Barry will be aware that the board has autonomy in the running of the school. As I outlined to the Deputy, the Department primarily has control over the policy and funding of a school, and in particular instances where an individual complaint involves refused enrolment and expulsion or suspension. In terms of the current report, the initial engagement with the school involves a determination of what occurred, how it occurred, who was involved and who was impacted. When the report is available to me, I will study it in due course.

On the broader issue of sexism in schools, I think it is fair to say that young people in general, including teenagers, have been ahead of the curve in Irish society on social issues. They were ahead of the curve on LGBT rights, including gay marriage. They were ahead of the curve on abortion rights. I think they are ahead of the curve on sexism in schools as well. They ask many legitimate questions about policies in school, including policies on uniforms, sport in schools, subject choice, the rights of trans students in schools and how seriously some school authorities take the question of sexist name calling. Overwhelmingly, the victims of sexism in schools are girls and non-binary people, although boys can be affected by sexist stereotyping as well, for example, school bans on long hair and the wearing of earrings, among other issues. What measures have been taken and what measures does the Minister intend to take to address this issue, which I believe is a feature within the school system?

I concur with Deputy Barry on the importance of the student voice, which is immeasurable in the school community. Testament to that is the manner in which the student voice is very much integrated into all actions within the Department in terms of consultation with the education partners. Deputy Barry will be aware that the student voice was a critical one in the calculated grades process. The student voice was represented at every step of the way. In the first instance, the proposal on calculated grades came from students themselves. That is equally the case in curriculum reform. The student voice is embedded in the consultation process that is undertaken by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, and in other initiatives of that nature.

The entire curriculum that is provided in schools is considered to be for all learners, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, gender or orientation. It is the aim of the Department that every child has access to equitable education and that every learner feels safe and happy in the school environment at every stage of their experience of the school environment. The curriculum at both primary and post-primary levels aims to foster inclusivity where equality and diversity are promoted.

I am sorry, but we must move to Question No. 37.