My speech to the Minister for Education & Skills, Richard Bruton, on his statements regarding the Action Plan for Education 2017

For our education system to be truly equal fair and inclusive  – every child must have the opportunity to fulfil their  potential, regardless of circumstances. Moreover, we must strive to ensure that every child enjoys the optimum health and well- being in which they can thrive personally, socially and academically.

Last week The DEIS Plan 2017 was published by Minister for Education & Skills, Richard Bruton.

The Action Plan which centres on using the potential of the education system to break down those cycles of disadvantage through improved educational outcomes must be commended for its forward thinking and vision.

It builds on the experiences of existing DEIS schools and draws on international best practice.  It sets out new targets to:

  • Further improve literacy and numeracy
  • Improve school completion rates
  • Improve progression to further and higher education

In my view, however, as important as academic success is- the most crucial aspect is the promotion of health and well- being among our young people. Studies show that a healthier, happier student will also perform better academically anyway.

I commend the fact that The Department of Education and Skills is involved in a number of measures to promote the overall government ‘Healthy Ireland’ agenda that is being led by the Department of Health.

This work feeds directly into the work relating to student Wellbeing and mental health. The Department is cooperating with the Department of Health in a number of ’Healthy Ireland’ issues including:

  • Special Advisory Group on Obesity (SAGO)
  • Actions under the Sexual Health Strategy
  • Actions under National Physical Activity Plan

I have long been a strong vocal advocate for the urgent necessity to tackle the scourge of childhood obesity.

Currently one in Irish four children is considered to be overweight or obese. In fact the World Health Organisation has predicted that Ireland is on course to be the world’s fattest nation by 2030.

I have also highlighted the fact that Irish children are consuming far too much sugar which is alarming considering the number of medical experts have compared the dangers of sugar to health to that of tobacco.

Moreover, I have continually stressed the importance of promoting physical activity and highlighted the gender gap in fitness among our younger people. According to the 2016 Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge- fourth year male students are 41% fitter than their female counterparts – this is not acceptable.

In my view, a comprehensive plan to tackle obesity encompassing both diet and exercise should take precedence!

Mental health is also an area which must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

I commend the fact that under the Junior Cycle Wellbeing programme action plan – every school will be required to have dedicated guidance counselling time available for all students.

An additional 10 NEPs psychologists will be also be appointed.

Every school will be required to have dedicated guidance counselling time available for students and we are appointing an additional 10 NEPs psychologists across the country.

Moreover, a wellbeing steering committee will be established to develop policy statement and identify gaps in existing services.

I also welcome initiatives such as the: Wellbeing in Post Primary Schools Guidelines for Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention (2013) and Wellbeing in Primary Schools Guidelines for Mental Health Promotion (2015) These guidelines provide a Framework for schools to present, in an integrated way, the existing elements of good practice to promote positive mental health, and direct then to new practices as appropriate.

The framework provides clear information for schools and for agencies supporting schools on how to address issues of mental health promotion.

Key Messages in the Guidelines include:

  • Mental health promotion is a shared responsibility of the whole school community.
  • Mental health and Wellbeing are critical to success in school and in life.
  • Schools play a vital role in providing a protective environment for young people which can counter risk factors.
  • Having a whole school approach which fosters important links with the wider school community, and agencies which support schools, is key to successful implementation.
  • Whole school focus on implementing the Social Personal and Health Education/Relationships and Sexuality Education curriculum.

In my view however, far more immediate emphasis needs to be place on drug awareness.

I previously highlighted the fact that there has been a virtual explosion in the volume of synthetic drug use.

According a Consultant Psychiatrist with the HSE – families hide behind closed doors trying to cope with the violent side of users as young as 13 accessing lethal drugs at the click of a button.

It was confirmed that U4 was the cause of over 50 deaths since 2015.

It is hugely alarming that not even tragedies such as these have curbed the use among Ireland’s young, and families are ill-equipped to deal with  a narcotic scourge transforming to quickly the  justice system can keep up.

As such we need to make up-to- date drug awareness including the dangers of synthetic drugs a top priority.

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