Address by Minister Of State to the ASTI Conference on Education (Part 1)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very pleased to have this opportunity to speak to you on one of the important themes you are addressing at this Conference - interculturalism. This issue is not only important, but action is urgently needed to make the concept part of our national ethos if we are to develop the kind of society we would be happy to see our children inherit. Education is where we should start.
The evidence that our society has changed profoundly is all around us. Mono-cultural Ireland has gone. A little later than most developed countries, we are now part of a world of diversity and a global economy. The great majority of our people welcome it, some are fearful, some resent it. It is profoundly gratifying and encouraging to see that among those who have welcomed increased diversity in the most unambiguous terms are our teachers. There is no other group in society as important to have at the cusp of positive social change than the teaching profession.
I am certainly not here to offer you advice on how to go about your business. What I can perhaps bring to you is my sense of where we are at as a society in the national and international contexts, with an emphasis naturally enough, given my Ministerial brief, on the rights of all who have made, or hope to make, this place their home.
In trying to adjust with the novelty of having among us relatively large numbers of people of non-Irish origin, we are moving, steadily, from notions of tolerance, through multiculturalism to interculturalism. While there is, of course, nothing wrong with any of these terms in themselves, I must say it is important to know what we are talking about. It is a cold comfort to be "tolerated" in being some way different from the dominant group in society. Does tolerance mean we should merely "put up" with people who are different? Do we tolerate only a certain level of difference? Multiculturalism is now a familiar concept but can mean whatever we want it to mean. It is also an entirely passive concept. One could say that the old South Africa was a multicultural society. Remember the "separate but equal" fiction that was pedalled internationally to justify the system of apartheid?
Interculturalism on the other hand, demands a lot of us. It is a dynamic policy driven concept and has implications right across all sectors and services. Where does the education system fit into this? In 1998, the National Forum on Early Childhood Education stated:
"... in the context of a marginalised minority group, the education system offers an incomparable opportunity for children from majority and minority cultures to grow in mutual respect and understanding born of knowledge and appreciation of each other's strengths and differences".
Such an educational system has two major functions:
• first, it promotes respect for diversity. It deals positively with the appearance of prejudice and racism on an individual and group basis. It provides the attitudes, skills and knowledge to function across cultural divides. It affirms difference and gives a platform to children to assert their culture and individuality with confidence. It prepares them to live productively in a pluralist society;
• secondly, it provides equal educational opportunity. It assumes that the differences children bring to school with them will be acknowledged, will influence how they learn and must be catered for. It recognises and makes resources available to deal with genuine ethnic considerations such as language, religious or cultural barriers and discrimination.
I was very pleased to learn that following agreement with the Department of Education and Science and with the Refugee Reception and Integration Agency, the National Council of Curriculum and Assessment will shortly appoint two people, one primary, one post-primary, to research and examine ways in which the existing curriculum at both primary level can best be mediated and adapted to reflect the emergence of an expanding multicultural (hopefully leading to an intercultural) society.
The time-frame for this initiative, as I understand it, is one year and its specific aims are:
• to support the integration of students from diverse cultural backgrounds into the Irish education system;
• to enhance the intercultural educational experience of all our students at early childhood, primary, and post-primary level;
• and to develop effective intercultural educational policy and practice in Irish primary and post-primary schools.
This is a significant development and one which needs to be emulated in other sectors.
For some time now, I have been concerned that we are not moving fast enough to develop a comprehensive integration policy that will enable refugees, asylum-seekers and other non nationals to fully participate in Irish society. While we have made very real progress in putting in place an fair and efficient system to process asylum applications, we have lagged behind in taking steps to give the new arrivals the opportunity to see how he or she can play a role in our society beyond that of being an asylum or immigration statistic.
The report to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform by the Interdepartmental Working Group on the Integration of Refugees in Ireland which was published more than two years ago provided an excellent basis for work to begin but, more needs to be done.
On 24 October this year, we had the very welcome launch of the 3-year national anti-racism awareness programme. This aims to raise public consciousness about the dangers that face us as a society if we drift or fail to tackle the emergence of tendencies, born out of fear, ignorance and intolerance, which create divisions in our society.
However, this well funded programme must be accompanied by the parallel implementation of a practical integration and service delivery policy to build on the raised awareness and respect for difference. We have accumulated enough experience over the past few years with Bosnian and Kosovar programme refugees to know what needs to be done. We also know, that an integration policy is no mere hand-holding exercise. It is a two-way process that places a real obligation on both society and the individual. From the individual's perspective, integration requires a willingness to adapt to the lifestyle of Irish society without abandoning or being expected to abandon one's own cultural identity. From the point of view of Irish society, it requires a willingness to accept people of a different background on the basis of equality, and to take action to facilitate access to services, resources and decision-making processes in parity with Irish nationals. Integration policy must be framed to prepare individuals to function in Irish society and also create a social environment which is positive and welcoming to them.
The objectives of good integration policy must be to:
• ensure equal rights and opportunities for everyone lawfully resident in the State, regardless of ethnic and cultural background. The superior courts have regularly found that personal rights enshrined in our Constitution are not confined to citizens;
• create opportunities that enable individuals to be economically active, participate in society in all respects and access mainstream services as soon as possible;
• support initiatives which encourage the preservation of the ethnic-cultural and religious identity of all individuals;
• and promote the development of an inclusive society in Ireland in which everyone can participate and share a sense of commitment to the country.
The education sector has and is moving ahead and it is appropriate and not surprising that it has taken the lead as it is perhaps the most important element in the anti-racism/intercultural mix. However, wider society has a part to play. It would be inconsistent for interculturalism initiatives to stop at the school gate and go no further into our communities.Top