The publication of a highly critical report regarding the refusal by a Munster post-primary principal (identified only as School A) to admit a young mother by the Ombudsman for Children and Young People conveys both acutely negative and positive messages. On the positive front, the report – and the Department of Education’s response to it – represents a clear message that mistreatment and exclusion of teen parents (parents between 13 and 19 years old) within the education system is simply unacceptable. Emily Logan’s indictment of the school’s ideological and administrative approaches as clearly discriminatory, and the acceptance by the Department of Education of this appraisal, is undoubtedly a positive sign.
Nevertheless before we crack open the champagne we must face the negative aspects of this case. Most obviously, the fact that this case even arose is extremely troubling. The very idea that a school principal could feel unshakeably justified at demonising a young parent and that, saving the Ombudsman’s judgment, be allowed to refuse her an education by the Department is, frankly appalling. Further, his portrayal of the young woman, who wished to return to School A for personal reasons even though she was already attending another school who were happy to provide her with an education, as a ‘reject’ who was being ‘dumped’ on his school (s3.10) is almost laughable in its ignorance to the facts. The conflation of maintaining a Catholic, moral ethos with the entirely unjustifiable removal of a young person’s right to a basic education borders on insulting.
It would be misleading of me to indulge this principal by portraying his comments as representative of Irish educators. Without evidence to the contrary I am not convinced that many educators will agree with the level of bigotry rationalised by this school’s management board – which, incidentally consisted only of the principal and his son – or their baldly discriminatory attitude towards one of their students. My hope is that the majority will actively and vehemently distance themselves from this school’s ideology.
That said, underneath the condemnations that could be thrown at this particular principal, there is a deeper, more worrying problem for the Ombudsman for Children and the Department of Education in that, despite the moves that have been made in recent years towards the inclusion and support of young parents in education, the main project of the report was the reintegration of the young girl at the school and that she receive an apology. What was ignored in this is the bigger question: why hadn’t the existent guidelines on supporting young parents promoted by the Department been implemented? This question is perhaps the most troubling element of this case and introduces a supplementary question: how many other schools are either ignoring these guidelines or, like this school, refusing to implement them based on the arrogant marketing of religious bias as an informed, moral pedagogical project?
The wrongs in this case are clear – a young woman was refused an education based on her family status. This contravenes equality legislation and symbolises the maltreatment of a vulnerable young person by a school. But it also contradicts the current frameworks for supporting teen parents – most notably the Teen Parents Support Programme (TPSP) – and contravenes the stated mission of the Department of Education to ensure that teen parents are not rendered ‘invisible’ within or excluded from Irish schools. Over the past five to ten years the Department of Education has gone to some lengths to minimise the multiple exclusions faced by young people who become parents while in post-primary education. The establishment of the Teen Parents Support Initiative as well as the provision of financial supports such as the Back to Education Allowance have signalled that an effort is being made to stop young parents falling out of education and into the downward cycle of social and education deprivation – both for them and their children – that can result from this.
Yet despite this there are still some, as this case indicates, who feel themselves exempt from this social project. The principal’s main argument was that he had to maintain a moral order for his other students. It is this application of ‘morality’ as legitimising clearly amoral behaviour which goes against national standards in education which needs to be campaigned against. What the Department of Education should do now is review how many other schools feel themselves outside policy because of a prejudiced version of ‘ethics’.