With over 300,000 second-level students in Ireland, the majority of whom do not have the right to vote, trying to represent their voices and opinions can be difficult. One organisation seeking to do this is the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU). Despite the fact student activism has existed in Irish second-level institutions since the 1970s, it wasn’t until 2008 that the ISSU was officially founded. Since then, the union’s impact has resonated throughout the country. Their presence was felt just a few weeks ago at the #EducationIS demonstration led by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), which saw an estimated 10,000 people descend on the capital to march in a fight against the implementation of a student loan scheme. President of the ISSU, Jane Hayes Nally, was one of four people who addressed the crowd, using her speech to emphasise the importance of investing in education: “It comes down to a choice. We have a choice in what kind of Ireland will exist in the future. By improving Irish education today, we can improve the Ireland of tomorrow.”
The ISSU is completely student-led, working relentlessly to promote the voices of their peers. Roibeárd Ó Domhnaill, a second-year engineering and management student and International Officer of the JCR in Trinity Hall, is this year’s Honorary President. He became involved in ISSU three years ago: “I attended the AGM back in 2013 and decided to run for election. I was elected International Officer at seventeen which mean representing Irish students in Europe at events and conferences whilst also working on languages and integration.” ISSU is a not-for-profit and voluntary student rights’ organisation which is recognised as the national umbrella body for student councils across Ireland. As demonstrated by Ó Domhnaill’s position as International Officer, their work is not solely based in Ireland. They represent a movement which works to implement Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child guaranteeing every child the right to express their views freely in all matters affecting them, a right which is often ignored and dismissed.
The ISSU is working to inspire and empower young people across Ireland, ensuring that they have their say in the decisions that will impact them in the future
From a grassroots beginning to now working on an international level, the ISSU is working to inspire and empower young people across Ireland, ensuring that they have their say in the decisions that will impact them in the future. “Most people get involved through events they attend on behalf of their student council”, explains Ó Domhnaill. They dismiss the idea that the young people they represent are merely citizens in waiting, but as individuals who deserve to be heard now, rather than when they turn 18. Nationally, they attend relevant meetings and consultations, give their input and recommendations in drafting policy and contact politicians, whilst also working as a lobby group and advocate for young people. On a local level they assist in setting up, training and supporting student councils. Providing a unique platform in which student voice is heard in an official capacity, they work closely with the Department of Education and Skills and other stakeholders in an effort to improve and enrich the education of each student to enable them to reach their full potential and become influential and positive members of society.
In his role as Honorary President, Ó Domhnaill mainly has an advisory role. “Having the experience of President last year, I take more of an advisory role whilst also focusing on outreach and training. On a personal level, I am passionate about the Irish language and teaching methods favouring non-formal reaching and presentations”, he explains. Ó Domhnaill emphasised the importance of student councils in schools: “They are one of the only representative bodies in schools and whilst they are not compulsory at the moment, we are keen to change that.” The Education Act 1998 merely suggests that a board shall “encourage the establishment by students of a student council”. Students spend nearly half their time in schools and it is where they learn, grow and develop to a large degree. It is often argued that student participation is fundamental to the success of their education, and the ISSU is looking to provide a platform for this participation.
One of the most important ways the ISSU seeks to fulfil their aims is through the support they offer to Student Councils up and down the country, providing training and assistance to ensure that they are democratic, transparent and representative of the people they represent. Speaking to The University Times, Hayes Nally reinforces this idea and explains the goals of the ISSU’s advocacy campaign: ‘The campaign aims to make the appointment of students as associate members of school Boards of Management compulsory across the Republic of Ireland.” Hayes Nally pointed out the inadequacies with the present student council system in schools: “In most Irish second-level schools, the student council construct is bounded, controlled and subverted by a discourse of power and manipulation by school management towards tokenistic involvement for student members.”
Student councils, as they currently exist, do not provide a forum for a deeper student voice to develop in schools. At its deepest level, student voice is a process where students and teachers and school management work together
Hayes Nally recognises that whilst many schools have a student council system, they are not given the freedom to discuss the bigger issues but are bound to issues much closer to home: “Research suggests that representative student councils do involve students in the affairs of the school but, at a level that concerns issues like school uniform, the quality of food and facilities in the school, and the quality of the school environment. Students are invited to ‘have their say’.”
The training offered by the ISSU aims to improve student councils in their ability to carry out their functions which are to ask, act, share and highlight. Hayes Nally believes that student councils could have a much greater role in society, if given the adequate support and training. She explains: “Student councils, as they currently exist, do not provide a forum for a deeper student voice to develop in schools. At its deepest level, student voice is a process where students and teachers and school management work together continually to research, examine and analyse what happens in schools and classrooms.” Hayes Nally emphasises the importance of meaningful participation and its significance on a larger scale: “Currently in second-level schools, no such platform for this kind of partnership exists. From a rights-based democratic citizenship perspective, this badly needs to be addressed and rectified.” She offers a solution to ensure that student voice is heard and, most importantly, listened to in a similar way to every adult organisation: “To make the platform for student council more meaningful and significant we need a member of this council on the highest platform of decision-making within the school, in the same way in which every other council – the parents council, the staff council, religious trustees and the [Education and Training Boards Ireland] can be represented.”
In an effort to support every young student, not only those in a leadership position, they provide blogs written by students, for students on issues that students encounter every day. Hayes Nally emphasised the importance of partnership with other organisations. One organisation in particular is the Organising Bureau of European Schools Students Union (OBESSU), with whom they are launching their international event under the “Seeds for Integration” project surrounding migrants and refugees which will take place on International Students Day, November 17th 2016. The project aims to build bridges between migrant children and their peers in second-level education.