On Wednesday the 22nd of March, the ISSU Student’s Charter for Inclusive School was formally launched by the Minister for Equality, Integration and Immigration, Mr David Stanton.

The Students Charter for Inclusive Schools is a document imagined, written and designed by students to focus on the integration of migrant and refugee students in second level schools in Ireland. We believe this is an extremely important issue and one that is rarely discussed in our country. Emigration has long been a part of the Irish story, but immigration is a relatively new phenomenon. Ireland today is a multicultural society, with over 163 nationalities represented in schools across the country. However, this diversity is an aspect of our education system which is rarely talked about, and much less celebrated. In a way this is a good thing - as differences have not been pointed out, Ireland has not been swept up in the tide of xenophobia which is flooding the continent. Nevertheless, we believe that diversity can enrich our education and that difference should not only be respected, but celebrated. As the representative body for second level school student councils in Ireland, we wanted to find out more about the issues facing migrant students, and what we, as the students union, could do to help. We were delighted to have received funding from OBESSU’s ‘Seeds for Integration’ project, which allowed us put our ideas into action.

In November, we organised an event called ‘Tools for Inclusive Schools’ which brought together over 60 students from a diverse range of backgrounds from schools all over the country. We set them the challenge of creating a concrete document that schools could use to promote integration. The results were astounding, and proved, more than anything, that students are the experts in their own education. The contribution of students with migration experience was integral to the process and would not have been possible without their profound knowledge and expertise. All of the ideas and experience shared on the day were put together in the form of the Students Charter for Inclusive Schools. The Charter is structured under five different headings, outlining what students want from their schools, from the curriculum and from the government of Ireland, as well as the rights and responsibilities of students to act for inclusion. To give an idea of the topics we covered, here are a few highlights from the Charter

  • As students, we want a curriculum that reflects the diversity of Irish schools and adopts a critical perspective towards privilege and history. The students pointed out that textbooks do not reflect the diversity in classrooms, and that the majority of topics studied were very Irish or European-centric. They raised the issue that when they did study places outside of Europe, be it Africa, or Asia or South America, it was mainly focusing on poverty or their troubled past, without any mention of their positive aspects. This could potentially produce negative stereotypes of students from these places.
  • As students, we call on the government of Ireland to provide increased funding for English as an Additional Language to ensure that all students who require support receive it at the earliest possible opportunity. This one is particularly crucial, because students noted that if your English is not good, you will struggle in school and your grades will suffer across the board. It is even more concerning given the recent fact that EAL support has been subsumed under Special Education Needs, and not an independent resource in its own right. We strongly believe that every student should have access to resources which enables them to reach their full potential.
  • As students, we want a school that rejects and denounces racism and xenophobia. This was one students felt particularly strongly about: race should not be an issue in any matter and it is vital that schools explicitly mention this in their anti-bullying policy
  • As students, we recognise that it is the responsibility of all students to make everybody feel respected and welcome. This one is deceptively simple, but it recognises that true integration is a two way process.  If newcomers are willing to adapt and change to fit into Irish society and schools, then the society and school must also make an effort to change and welcome these newcomers. 
  • As students, we call on the government of Ireland to cherish all children of the nation equally and remove any barriers in schools admissions policies. This is a line taken from the Irish Declaration of Independence signed over 100 years ago. In Ireland, there exists a problem whereby the majority of schools are still owned by the Catholic Church. Many have discriminatory admissions practices, meaning that students who are not Catholic are often put at the bottom of the waiting list. Students were concerned that something as secondary as religion can decide whether you get a place in a school, regardless of how close you live or your academics.

On the 22nd March, we launched the Charter in the Department of Education in Dublin. The Minister for Equality, Integration and Immigration, gave the keynote address, which was followed by a short panel discussion and Q&A.  Our panellists shared their wide range of experiences: Larissa Nenning of OBESSU Board talked about Seeds for Integration and social inclusion on a European level, SamiyaMooge of ADYNE, shared her experience as a Muslim girl of refugee background in an Irish School and her advocacy work with her organisation, and the Minister for Integration, David Stanton talked about policy on a national level and his background as a secondary school teacher and guidance counsellor.  In attendance, we also had representatives from the teachers unions, NGO workers and a number of students that have helped in the entire process of the campaign.

We hope that the legacy of the charter is just beginning, and hope that it will continue to serve as a reference point to promote inclusion in schools on a local, national and international level.

We want to start a conversation about migrant and refugee students in second level schools and the issues they face. We want schools to recognise and celebrate diversity. We believe it will be a long time before all barriers to education will be removed for students from migrant and refugee backgrounds, however we have faith in our students and schools to create a more inclusive environment for all.

The full text of the charter can be read online at issu.ie, if you would like a physical copy of the charter for your school or organisation, please email studentvoice@issu.ie

Written by Ellen O'Rourke, ISSU International Officer