In July 1963, An Taoiseach, Seán Lemass appeared on the cover of Time Magazine with the title, “Ireland: New Spirit in the Auld Sod”.
It was international recognition of the dynamism with which the Lemass Government was pursuing an agenda of change and modernisation in Ireland at that time. Among Lemass’ accomplishments, one was the appointment of Donogh O’Malley as Minister of Education, in a political portfolio that now had real importance and status in the emerging modern Ireland.
Lemass and progressive contemporaries, like T.K. Whitaker, understood the importance of education and educational opportunity - beyond primary level - in developing Ireland as a modern state, with a well-educated and skilled citizenry.
On September 10th, 1966, the Minister would make the historic declaration of free second level education, (including free school transport), a decision that resounds to this day; as Prof. Dermot Keogh has said, “Free education was liberation for an entire generation of Irish school children, and successive generations”. (O'Mórdha, 2000)
Over 50 years on, the commissioned book: Education for All? The Legacy of Free Post-Primary Education in Ireland, edited by Prof. Judith Harford, is a most timely, incisive and comprehensive review of Minister Donogh O’Malley’s visionary and historic policy announcement: its background, contemporary impact and ensuing legacy.
As well as its nuanced and compelling narrative on the provenance and legacy of the free second-level education scheme, the book is itself a landmark collection of the voices and perspectives of leading figures in Irish education. It adds new, critical insight and analysis of previously unexamined primary source material, which deepens our understanding of the 1960s, (and 1966-1967 especially), as a pivotal period in the history of Irish education.
This book is no mere hagiographic retrospective, however, and the question in the title sets up the rich and compelling discourse, as the editor and contributing authors examine critically how the scheme initially emerged, and how it has formatively influenced key dimensions of Irish history and the history of Irish education – social, infrastructural, curricular and political - from the announcement of free second-level education in September 1966 to the present day.