[Sinn Fein]

29th March 2003

Sinn Fein Ard Fheis 2003

Address by Martin McGuinness MP, opening the Education section of the Ard Fheis

I am delighted to propose this policy document, `Educate That You May Be Free'.

Policy development is a time-consuming task, and I know quite a few of you have been involved already in conceiving, drafting and discussing this important document. I believe this is our first comprehensive policy document on Education! It was long overdue. It was worth the wait.

``Educate that you may be free''. This is such a powerful exhortation. It reminds us of the link between national liberation, social liberation and personal freedom. Its author: Thomas Davis - an Irishman, a Protestant, and a standard bearer for the Irish people. He sought to define an inclusive Irish identity embracing all classes and creeds.

Today, this definition is a work in progress: it must include and make welcome those who define themselves as British, as it must include the 'New Irish all those who, for whatever reason, have recently made Ireland their home. Education has a major part to play in building that welcoming home.

This policy document also calls to action all Sinn Fein activists involved in education - whether as learners or as teachers. It will advise and guide the work of Sinn Fein elected activists, the words of our spokespersons. It will hopefully influence the work and the thinking of republicans involved in the youth service, the trade union movement, the student movement or the community sector, and all those involved elsewhere in the great project of education. It will also, of course, advise and guide those members of Sinn Fein who are Ministers of Education!

Just as importantly, this document will contribute to the ongoing public debate on education. We, like Thomas Davis, see freedom both as an aim and instrument of education. Like Davis, 'we are most anxious to get the quiet, strong minded people who are scattered throughout the country to see the force of this great truth.''

I use this opportunity to state publicly my admiration for all teachers in all sectors of the education service north and south. As Minister of Education in the 6 counties, I was acutely aware of the pressures under which teachers work day after day. I also know how the pressures are significantly greater for those teachers who work in areas that suffer from disadvantage.

In the 6 Counties over the past number of years, and as a remnant of Thatcherite thinking, there has been an excessive focus on educational outcomes. I would be concerned if the 26 Counties were tempted to follow suit. Sinn Fein does not wish to ignore the importance of such outcomes. At the same time, we acknowledge that teachers contribute to the growth, development and education of our children and young people in ways that are not readily or immediately measurable.

I want to express my admiration for, and appreciation of, the contribution teachers make to the lives of our young people, and for the role that teachers play in helping to build a society that is more just, more equal, more democratic.

These values are at the heart of anything we do. When I took office as Minister of Education in the North, I said that education was at the core of society, and of course, equality has to be at the core of education.

Sinn Fein is the party that has brought Equality to the fore of political debate in this country. This document enshrines equality as one of the key principles on which our strategy and objectives are built.

And while this policy gives a comprehensive overview of this complex multi-layered system, it also offers a vision.

At the core of our vision is the concept of Learning Neighbourhood, which underlines the necessary partnership which must be established between all the partners in the education system. Forgive me for quoting this old proverb, full of truth: ``It takes a whole village to educate a child.''

That is the essence of a Learning Neighbourhood, as defined in this document: a cluster of education providers working locally with the community, parents being involved, community groups, other agencies, all bringing talent, imagination and resources to bear on the task of teaching and learning. I also agree that it may provide us with a viable model for moving away from the system of academic selection that has blighted the educational landscape of the 6 counties. Learning Neighbourhoods can also be a vehicle for tackling generational disadvantage, by raising the status of education within the family.

This idea is not Sinn Fein's private property. There are lots of progressive people working in education, and the idea of multi-agency work and community involvement in education is an idea whose time has come. As a party we wish to give it maximum support. I look forward to seeing the final evaluations of the projects which are described in the document.

I am pleased that this policy includes an entire section on tackling disadvantage. This has been a central preoccupation of mine while in office. I have ensured that funding would be allocated on the basis of greater need, and I have started putting in place a common funding formula for schools which would take account of social need in each school in a transparent way.

I also commend the section on Irish Medium Education. It has been my privilege as a Minister to assist in the development of this vibrant sector. They have struggled for many years with little or no funding, now they are a recognised part of mainstream education in the Six Counties. My lowering of viability criteria has assisted Irish Medium schools in receiving funding, as indeed it has helped integrated schools, and prevented some small rural schools from closing.

I could go on, but time is pressing, so I will bring your attention to just one more part of the document, `Education and National Reunification'. Sinn Fein is presently involved in developing policy objectives in relation to all-Ireland institutions. One of my regrets is that the work of the North South Ministerial Council in education sector was slowed down because of a unionist ban on Sinn Fein ministers attending the Council.

I am particularly proud that we secured funding for the establishment of an all-Ireland Centre for Autism in Armagh, and I look forward to developments in this project. But there is much work to be done in this area, and this document points the way in a number of promising directions.

Comrades, this document will keep us busy for a long time to come. I urge you to endorse it, and I ask you to work on it.

Go raibh maith agaibh go léir.

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