It’s time for a truly free school system

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We have learned a lot from school closures over the past year. For example, we know that four types of resources are essential for children and youth to be successful in learning at home: access to technology; a good internet connection; a quiet space at home to study; and someone who has the skills and the time to support and assist with home learning.

Unfortunately, we at the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul (SVP) find that at least one, if not all, is not available for some of the families we have supported, thus exacerbating social and educational inequalities. We have also witnessed a dramatic increase in food insecurity which further hinders our young people from being able to learn successfully.

These inequalities existed before Covid-19 and it is not enough now to return to the situation before the pandemic.

Challenges

Our experiences in SVP shed light on the daily challenges of education and well-being that families face:

* We are supporting a family of five trying to survive on welfare living in a one bedroom apartment. The apartment is always cold, there is mold in the room. Three generations of the same family live in the apartment. Children aged 15 to 7 sleep in the bedroom while their mother and grandmother sleep in the small living room. They have lived this way for the past four years and are now at breaking point after enduring this situation through all the school closures and restrictions of everyday life;

* We supported a family who had to use their 12 year old child to act as an interpreter in finding accommodation for the whole family. We support many families in similar circumstances where English is not their first language and where they try to navigate on their own in often complex systems;

* We supported a single mother with five children trying to cope in emergency accommodation during the lockdown after losing their home to a fire. They don’t know when they will have a home again that they can call home;

* We also visit people living in direct delivery who were struggling before Covid but are now facing additional challenges. Parent with 15 and 17 year old both aspire to be doctors but fear this may not be possible as they have not been able to keep up with their schoolwork as they did not have computers laptops or sufficient space to study in direct delivery;

* Our members support a single parent who has had to flee the family home due to domestic violence. She and her children now live in a domestic violence shelter and as schools begin to reopen they have had to leave their homes without their textbooks, uniforms and other necessary school materials;

Impact

In February 2021, SVP launched an online survey of our members to measure the impact of the digital divide among elementary, secondary and third level students.

Half of the 200 conferences surveyed had direct requests for assistance with digital devices since March 2020. Additional grants for ICT equipment provided by the Ministry of Education were insufficient. For many low-income households, having a laptop and a broadband connection is a luxury, not a necessity.

Children and young people have lost countless opportunities to learn, grow, develop socially and emotionally over the past year: sports, music, theater.

So far, the Ministry of Education has committed to expanding and increasing funding for the Graduation Program. In addition, a reduction in the teacher-pupil ratio for primary and post-primary schools in Deis was recently confirmed by the Ministry of Education. This has made it possible for everyone involved in the school community to recognize that measures must be introduced to address the loss of learning when schools are closed for disadvantaged children and young people.

This is an important first step, but additional sustained support is needed.

Inequality

We know from our work at SVP that thousands of disadvantaged students do not attend a Deis school and therefore will not benefit from these additional supports. We are also keenly aware that the inequalities that existed before Covid in the education system remain and are a concern for any parent living on low incomes.

We must invest in our education system so that it is truly free for all; access to free textbooks for all primary and secondary students. Appropriate investment in schools so that parents are not asked for “voluntary” contributions to finance their child’s education. Access to extracurricular sports, theatrical and cultural activities during the school period without parents having to pay for the occasion.

The Ministry of Education must take the lead, see itself as a ministry of the future and ensure that no student is left behind. We also need to see a whole-of-government response to the effects of Covid-19 on our youngest members of society. The fight against educational disadvantages must be part of an overall strategy to fight poverty. This can be achieved by ensuring that low-income people have sufficient income to meet their needs, access to affordable and accessible education, housing, health care and transport.

We need to act urgently, but it is also right to take the time to develop a holistic approach, one that would see educational disadvantage a problem of the past.

Getting back to normal should not be what we aspire to for our young people. Building better is what we should be striving towards and at the heart of this plan should be inclusion. Basically we need to leave education in a better place than we found it before Covid-19. Our young people deserve our political decision-makers to be ambitious in this pursuit.

Marcella Stakem is Research and Policy Officer at the Society of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul (SVP)


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