COMMENT & ANALYSIS: In the 1960s, the State was failing the children of Ireland. Around a third of children who finished primary school were dropping out of education. By the age of 15, fewer than 50% were still in full-time education, but change was ahead and that change needed leadership.
Upon becoming the Minister of Education in July 1966, Donogh O’Malley asked an Assistant Secretary in the Department of Education about plans to introduce free secondary level education for all. O’Malley was informed that there were plans to increase the school age to 15 in 1970 with free education up to that age.
The idea of free secondary level education was not revolutionary at the time; this was already in place in many countries in Europe. However, despite the clear economic, social and ethical benefits of providing free education at second level, efforts to provide additional education opportunities to children in Ireland had been avoided for fears of upsetting the status quo and leading to difficulties with the Church authorities. Government after Government had avoided the issue.
O’Malley was decisive. In the summer of 1966, he asked his Department to draft up plans for free education. He was told it would take 6 weeks. O’Malley wanted a plan for the following Monday. By September, O’Malley sent a memo to An Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, informing him that would be making a speech shortly and would make reference to the plan. Lemass, by all accounts approved the memo but the plans had not come before the Cabinet.
In his speech, O’Malley noted that there was a ‘dark stain on our national conscience’ and that it is a situation ‘which must be tackled with all speed and determination’. In what the Cork Examiner called a ‘bombshell’ announcement, O’Malley stated that ‘no boy or girl in this State will be deprived of full educational opportunity – from primary to university level – by reason of the fact that the parents cannot afford to pay for it’.
The effect of the policy change was dramatic. Participation rates for 15 year olds increased from 50% in the 1960s to 70% by 1970 and 86% by 1979. The Government underestimated the immediate take up rate also, only 7,000 extra children were forecast but 21,000 wished to avail of the schooling.
Many commentators have speculated was the free introduction of secondary level school was one of the greatest moments for Fianna Fail in this country. However other commentators, such as Dr Carole Holohan have noted that decisions like this can in fact be seen as reactive and Government playing catch up to a huge demand in society.
Fast forward over 50 years and much has changed. Ireland has some of the highest educational credentials in Europe. It’s now in other areas, we lag behind.
In 1975, just 1% of children were obese, that number now stands at 10%. By the time a child reaches 6th class in Ireland, there is a 20% chance they will be obese or overweight. Just 12% of teenagers in secondary schools are meeting Department of Health daily physical activity guidelines. Research from Dublin City University has found that the cardiovascular health of some inactive 15-year-olds is comparable to that of 55 to 65-year-olds. Traffic pollution is causing 1,700 new cases of childhood asthma every year in Ireland.
Health is just one area in which we fail our children. Climate action is another. Road Transport greenhouse gases emissions have increased by 143% between 1990 and 2018. In 2018, Ireland was identified as the worst performing country in the EU at tackling climate change. Furthermore, Ireland is set to face multi billion Euro fines in the coming years for failing to meet 2030 emissions targets.
There have been calls from many in Ireland in recent years to invest in a series of cycling networks in our urban areas to promote cycling levels, especially for children. In 1986, there was a 15% chance a child attending a secondary level school in Ireland would cycle. By 2016, that number had dropped to 2%, an 87% decrease over 25 years. Numbers of adults and children cycling have bounced back slightly in recent years but not significantly.
We find ourselves in a situation not unlike we were in the 1960s. Free education was introduced as it would being huge benefits to both the individual and society. Cycle networks will do the same.
Free education was introduced because Ireland was failing behind its European neighbours. Cycle networks will allow us catch up with our European neighbours again. Free education was introduced because there was a huge appetite for change in society. Once again, people want change. They want to travel short distances in a way which is kind to the environment and good for their health.
Ireland stands at a crossroads regarding serious and meaningful investment in cycle networks. We can slowly roll out small improvements over the next ten years. And we’ll see small increases in the numbers of people cycling. Or we can start with a vision like Donogh O’Malley had and work backwards.
And what would that vision look like? ‘That every child in an Irish town would live within a mile of a cycle network?’ or ‘That the State would provide as much funding for active travel as vehicular travel to ensure the health, wellbeing and safety for all children?’.
Perhaps one day in the not too distant future, an Irish Minister will go on a solo run and make a speech on a Saturday night that will surprise us all.