Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Micheal Ferguson MLA West Belfast

19 February, 2006


I am speaking in support of Ard Chomhairle motions 254 to 257.

Educate that you may be free. These were the words of inspiration chosen by Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness during his time as Minister for Education and they remain at the heart of this party's determination.

The education systems we have inherited, north and south remain an anathema to that vision. For too long education has been a mechanism for transferring privilege rather than creating equality. For too long education has been about marginalizing and disqualifying the majority to the advantage of a minority.

This must change.

Education is a fundamental human right and at the heart of Sinn Fein's equality agenda. Education should be about enlightenment and empowerment. And my message to the hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of
inquisitive, imaginative, inquiring children the present system is turning into silent, angry teenagers is "Sapere aude!"- "Dare to know".

In the north historic under-funding of the education system is now being compounded by Direct Rule ministers intent on withdrawing 80 to 100 million pounds from the budget within three years.

The impact of this financial vandalism has been immediate and wide ranging.Over 500 teachers and support staff have been cut in two years. Over 80 have been lost in West Belfast in the last three months. At a time when schools are facing increased responsibilities to meet the requirements of special needs, the number of classroom assistants is being slashed. Rural areas have lost their school transport. Music tuition, sports coaching and youth provision have been virtually abandoned.When the cuts hit, Sinn Fein was policy ready and campaign hungry.

When British ministers denied there had been any loss of services we swiftly nailed that lie. We refused to police British budgetary cuts, challenging decisions by Education and Library Boards and challenging any compliance by
our political rivals. We utilised our political strength in local councils, challenged NIO departments through our MLAs and raised policy issues within the media. But most importantly we used our political expertise to mobilise and empower
people to challenge the system themselves.

We reached out and found common ground with ethnic children being denied access to English language teachers. We reached out and found common ground with Protestant, as well as Catholic teachers, parents and pupils fighting
to protect school transport and staffing levels.

Together we confronted British ministers on the streets of Armagh and when Angela Smith ran away we followed her to Stormont.

Falling rolls should not impact negatively on the needs of those within the education system. It should not be used as an excuse to impose cuts. Rather it should be viewed as an opportunity to improve the quality of service and
enhance best practice. Almost a quarter of our children left school last year without any qualifications, many left barely able to read, write or count.

Falling rolls offers us the opportunity of addressing that literacy and numeracy deficit. It offers us the opportunity to improve the teacher-pupil ratio in our classrooms. It should allow us to improve support for special
needs.

While British ministers have sought to justify budget cuts on falling rolls within mainstream education, rising rolls in the Irish Medium sector has not been accompanied by increased funding and greater provision. Irish language
schools are still being denied quality estates, equitable resources and services from early years to further and higher provision.

When Bobby Sands wrote "the rhythm of time" he was being forced to live naked in a ten by six foot cell. Like many of us here, he was self-taught. But through his knowledge of the world and its history, he was able to place his immediate experience within the wider context of centuries of human endeavour. He dared to know. And in knowing, he knew he was right.

Bhí Bobby ina Ghael agus is comhartha í an Ghaeilge don áit a bhfuil na hÉireannaigh sa am i láthair. Tá bagairt an bháis ar theanga dhúchais na tíre seo. Teanga ar tugadh teanga na cosmhuintire uirthi agus ar nós chosmhuintir na tíre, nach bhfuair aitheantas ariamh, thuas ná thíos tír. Ach tá an chosmhuintir ag teacht i réim anois.

Oil go raibh tú saor.

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