Summer 2012 Lead Article
The Future Development of Education in Ireland
Full text of article by Ruairi Quinn, Summer 2012, vol.101, no.402
Education is universally regarded as a key driver of social and economic progress. This is one reason why reforming education is so high on the political agendas of most countries in the world today. Governments everywhere want schools and colleges to better prepare young people to live and work in a rapidly changing society.
However, some governments that invested considerable time and resources into reform have found little or no improvement in educational outcomes for students. The clear lesson is that reforms have to be thought through, planned and implemented carefully, with ‘buy-in’ from the main stakeholders and a clear understanding of why such changes are necessary for students and society as a whole.
The decision of the editor of Studies to devote an entire issue to the topic of education in Ireland is very timely. I am particularly pleased to contribute this lead article a little after a year in office as Minister for Education and Skills.
When the Government was formed, people sympathised with me because of the economic situation of the country. They thought that hard financial times prevented any progress on reform being contemplated. I disagree. The oft-quoted example of successful educational reform is Finland, whose economy was in crisis in the early 90s, with unemployment approaching 20%. It transformed its economy to one based on information and knowledge. It placed a new emphasis on innovation and on improving teacher education. This, in turn, led to schools cultivating greater creativity, flexibility, initiative, risk-taking, team working and the ability to apply knowledge in different situations among their students. Now Finnish schools are envied throughout the world, and not only because their students have ranked at or near the top in reading, maths and science in PISA studies since 2000.
It is because times are so challenging and the need for change so clear that I detect an appetite for real reform. While I recognise that, during the years of the Celtic Tiger, there was additional investment to assist children with special needs and to address educational disadvantage, I do not consider that the opportunity was taken to transform our educational system or our schools’ infrastructure.
A remarkable policy agenda had been nurtured and developed through the 1990s, which saw the publication of Green and White Papers, a forum on early childhood education, the Universities Act 1997 and the Education Act 1998, as well as the national qualifications framework, which became a model for other countries. But the impetus for reform faltered and what was missing in the past decade was the political will and vision to champion change. I believe that there was also a lack of ambition amongst recent governments for improving educational outcomes. For example, literacy levels have not substantially improved since 1980, despite the increased level of state investment. More alarmingly, the recent 2009 PISA results for reading literacy and mathematical literacy have shown a sharp fall in student performance, when compared to results in 2000.
The hunger for radical change which I have encountered has been heightened by the present economic constraints imposed on us by the Memorandum of Understanding with the European Central Bank, the IMF and the European Commission. The new society which we will construct, as we regain our economic sovereignty, will be totally different to the Celtic Tiger model which failed us so dramatically. People are agreed that its foundations should stand upon a vibrant, dynamic and creative education system.
Where are we now? Where are we going?
Education is deeply ingrained in the national psyche and Irish parents have long held a passionate interest in their children’s schooling. From the earliest days of the hedge schools right through to the present, they have been prepared to make personal sacrifices to ensure that their children get the best possible education. They realise that in a time of uncertainty a sound education is the bedrock on which to secure their children’s future.
Despite our tendency in recent years to look inwards because of our economic crisis, the rest of the world has not been standing still. The rise of China has been relentless. It is now the world’s second largest economy and will soon be its largest. India and Japan, along with South-East Asia, are now matched by the rise of Brazil and other countries in Latin America. All of these countries are, with the rest of the developed world, now part of the new 21st century integrated, global economy. They are looking to their education systems to give them competitive advantage especially in high-tech, pharmaceutical and other growth areas.
Of course educational reform is not just about boosting economic growth. It is also about helping students reach their potential and prepare for citizenship in a rapidly changing society. Along with the economic transformation of the world around us, we need to look at the many changes that have already taken place in Ireland and which will remain influential in years to come.
We should acknowledge the positive developments which, perhaps, we take for granted. Peace has come to our island; politics in Northern Ireland have become normal, some might say even boring; there is sound and solid cooperation between Dublin and Belfast and much more is possible.
Apart from far-reaching changes in religious practice and belief, there has also been an extraordinary and welcome influx of people from other countries to our shores, bringing with them a rich diversity of skills, linguistic abilities and talents. They present an opportunity and a challenge to welcome and integrate them into a changing community.
It is against this background that we must renew our education system at a time of constraints on resources. Not only must we change what is taught in our schools and colleges, we must also change the way in which the curriculum itself is taught. As the OECD Education Directorate has noted, schools have to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented, and problems that we don’t yet know will arise. We can’t foretell what four-year-olds of today will end up doing in twenty years time, but we have an idea of the skills and competencies that they will need. It is our obligation to ensure that we can provide our children with an education that prepares them for the 21st century. Specifically:
• We need a system where students learn to learn and where they develop critical thinking skills and the ability to solve problems both individually and through working with others. Students need to be liberated to think rather than be forced to memorise.
• We need an inclusive education system which facilitates parental choice and caters for diversity.
• We need a system which can help people to develop new knowledge, attitudes and skills as they move through life and face different challenges and situations.
• We need highly skilled teachers who can use a wide range of teaching and assessment approaches to guide students’ learning and enable young people to achieve their potential.
• The transformational potential of information technology must be fully realised. There is a real opportunity for us to utilise the great IT companies that are based in Ireland to facilitate new teaching methodologies.
• We need a higher education sector capable of competing with the best in the world.
Much of our current education system is good – but we need it to be better. Some would have us postpone reforms until the economy improves. But I argue that we cannot hide the education system in a bunker and wait for the economic storms to pass over. We need to initiate changes now to prepare our young people for a vastly different social, moral, cultural, political, economic and environmental landscape. This requires a re-prioritisation of goals. The yardstick of the success or failure of our reforms will be simple: are we improving learning?
In its report, ‘How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better’, McKinsey and Company found that a system can make significant gains from wherever it starts - and these gains can be achieved in six years or less. We have made a good beginning at reforming the Irish education system and we need to press on.
In the remainder of this article I will outline how I see that reform agenda developing in a co-ordinated and complementary manner, under three main headings Quality, Inclusivity/Diversity; and Structural/Infrastructural Changes.
Four-year-olds entering junior infant classes this autumn will spend about a million minutes in school by the time they finish their Leaving Certificate at age 18. What happens during that time in school will help shape the rest of their lives. Primary schools are much happier places than they used to be but useful research by the ESRI shows that too many become disengaged on their journey through the schooling system. We have to ask ourselves why. What is it in their educational experience that either switches them on or puts them off learning, often for life? The answer is multi-layered but can be summed up in a single word – quality.
Until relatively recently, the focus of Irish educational policy was largely on the expansion of the system to extend equality of opportunity and release the talents of our young people. Now, from pre-school through primary, second-level, further and higher education to life-long learning, the emphasis is increasingly on quality.
Here we are talking about quality in all its facets – the quality of the curriculum that is taught in schools, the quality of the professional education provided to teachers and school leaders in both initial teacher education and during their careers, the quality of the facilities and resources available to schools, the quality of the ways we support learners who have additional needs, and the supports given to school management, as they all play important roles in ensuring the quality of the educational experience for learners. This means that the actors involved include the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), State Examinations Commission (SEC), the Teaching Council, the school support services, including the Professional Development Service for Teachers, the National Induction Programme for Teachers, providers of initial and continuing education for teachers, my own department’s Schools Division and inspectorate, as well as management authorities, teacher unions and bodies representing parents and students.
Improvements to the quality of the early childhood, primary and post-primary education provided in our preschools and schools cannot be achieved simply by changing the curriculum or assessment approaches alone. We know that, if the school leader, staff and board of management maintain a strong focus on the quality of teaching and learning, then students learn more effectively and more successfully. We have much to do to foster a reflective, evaluative culture among school communities and the roll-out of school self-evaluation has the potential to support this cultural change. Complemented by effective external inspection, rigorous self-evaluation will, I believe, make a very significant contribution to improving standards in schools and to informing school communities about the work of their local school.
Let me review how we are addressing the quality agenda at the different levels.
Research has long left us in no doubt about the positive impact of early education provision, especially among children from disadvantaged backgrounds. While Ireland had a very large proportion of its four- and five-year-olds in infant classes in primary schools, for many decades we languished at the bottom of the league in terms of pre-school provision for young children. That position is now changing. Universal pre-school provision was implemented in January 2010 by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and marked a radical departure from targeted interventions in early years.
The challenge now is to ensure that the pre-school year offers a quality experience for each child and that there is a continuum of learning between the pre-school year and the Junior and Senior Infant classrooms in primary schools. It is imperative that we focus on the outcomes of pre-school education as much as we do in other parts of the school system, for this is where the gap between success and failure first develops. The up-skilling of those working in this area is also of crucial importance, as is the creation of a culture of self-evaluation and external quality assurance within the early childhood sector.
The child-centred approach of the primary school curriculum, first adopted in 1971 and confirmed in the 1999 revisions of the curriculum, has stood the test of time. One of the welcome developments was the greater inclusion of experience of the arts and science for pupils. By and large, the broad and balanced development of the child, which is at the core of the curriculum, continues to inform practice in our schools. However, some elements have proved less successful than others or have been overtaken by subsequent research and development.
The publication of Aistear in 2009, the Curriculum Framework for Early Years, has considerably advanced the thinking underpinning learning at this stage and points to the need to review the infant curriculum. It is also evident that the curriculum needs to provide much greater clarity about the skills that we expect primary school children to acquire in areas such as literacy and numeracy, while also ensuring that curricular overload does not arise. A key challenge will be to enable schools and individual teachers to use a balanced range of assessment techniques to inform the learning of pupils.
In addition to extra time being made available within the school day for literacy and numeracy, we need to implement, in a standardised way, the measuring of teaching outcomes. Parents must be kept informed about the progress of their children. The home has an ongoing role to play in improving literacy and numeracy. It’s not just about getting students learning to read, it’s about them reading to learn.
The decision to radically reform the Junior Cycle curriculum is a major challenge to our system. The reform seeks to promote active learning, creativity and innovation, and address rote-learning and curriculum overload. It will require a cultural shift in schools but all the evidence is that they are more than ready. When the NCCA sought 40 schools to help plan the reforms it received 120 applications, three times the number needed.
The process of change will start in September 2014 and take some years to work through. Some would have us move much faster. But I believe that change cannot be rushed in education, even when it involves a radical but overdue departure from long established practices. We want to make the learning experiences more student centred. We want to embed the ethos of ‘assessment for learning’ rather than ‘assessment of learning’. The aim is to ensure that parents receive a broader picture of their children’s educational development. This will be based on standardised tests in core areas such as literacy and numeracy, state examinations and school assessment and other information on their activities such as participation in debating teams and school sports. This will give a more rounded picture of a student’s progress.
It is generally felt that the Leaving Certificate curriculum is satisfactory, but that it has been captured by a number of demands and requirements. The first is to maximise points achieved for CAO courses. In my day you were asked, ‘How did you get on in the Leaving?’ Now the question is, ‘How many points did you get?’ The second area of concern that is expressed about the Leaving Certificate is the suggestion that the examination questions have a high degree of predictability and that this leads to a focus of teaching to the test rather than covering the syllabus in its entirety. At my request this issue of predictability is currently being reviewed by the State Examinations Commission. The third area of concern is the proliferation of undergraduate courses and options which are designed by the CAO colleges to attract high-points-achieving students.
Many commentators have suggested that critical thinking, problem solving skills and the creation of self-confident, independent Leaving Certificate students have been affected by this capture and distortion. University and college lecturers have repeatedly stated that many undergraduate students are just not adequately prepared for the demands of third level study. They claim that many young students, having been coached towards winning points, cannot think for themselves and are unable to navigate their own way through undergraduate courses.
The Leaving Certificate is a high-stakes examination, which enjoys public confidence. We have to keep the syllabi up to date, to acknowledge the need for rigorous terminal examinations, and ensure that the third level entry system does not thwart the sound educational aims articulated in the syllabi.
Studies show that the quality of teaching is more important than smaller class sizes in terms of shaping educational outcomes. We are fortunate that teaching in Ireland still attracts high-calibre applicants. Long may that continue. Yet these teachers need to experience a radically reformed teacher education programme, both in their initial teacher education courses and throughout their careers. The skills of early-years practitioners need to be developed and extended and a professional development plan has been put in place. Already there has been a move to deepen and lengthen teacher education. The content of courses for both primary and second-level teachers will change radically so as to equip teachers with the necessary pedagogical skills for the 21st Century.
Lifelong learning must be a feature of a teacher’s career through regular involvement in professional development as a condition of ongoing registration. These changes will be overseen by the Teaching Council, which will acquire a full set of responsibilities when the Teaching Council Act 2001 is fully implemented.
To underpin these changes, we will need to look at the structures in teacher education. In this context, as part of the National Strategy for Higher Education, I have asked the Higher Education Authority (HEA) to provide me with advice on the future structures within the sector. I expect its report no later than the autumn of this year.
The major challenge in higher education is to maintain a high-quality system which can also facilitate the expected significant demand for additional places into the future at a time of restricted resources. This dilemma of matching participation, quality and funding is not unique to Ireland.
There is an assumption that the answer is greater levels of funding. However, this is no guarantee of success. Without other changes, such as improved governance, management and strategy, greater funding might simply produce expensive, as opposed to high-quality, outcomes.
The approach to quality assurance within Irish higher education is one of a developmental and improvement culture. But improvements are needed. Greater attention to institutional reviews as well as implementation of some of the recommendations of the National Strategy in areas such as employer and student feedback, are very important in this regard.
Schooling systems are sometimes slow in reflecting the changes in the societies they serve. Our schools have responded to some but not all of those changes in Irish society. They are now catering in a more inclusive way for students with special educational needs. Some of this improvement was wrested from the state by parents who, in absolute frustration, had to resort to the courts to secure the rights of their special needs children to a decent education.
Our schools are also constantly improving the educational supports provided to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. They have helped many of these children to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. However, not all schools are responding to this challenge as much as they could.
Equity and Inclusion in Education
In 2011, 19% of the schools budget (some €1.1 billion) was devoted to resourcing the needs of children with special educational needs. But a question remains over how effective these interventions are. Are we providing all children with an education that, to the best of their abilities, allows them to leave school with the skills to participate in social and economic activities?
I believe that the principles of fairness and equity must be more central to our work in supporting children with special educational needs. We need to move towards providing individual education plans for all children, to better measure the outcomes of our interventions. And we need to integrate the thinking between various Government departments on how the therapy supports required can be developed.
Similarly, we’ve come a long way in relation to tackling educational disadvantage. The Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) scheme seems to be working, according to research by the Education Research Centre and the inspectorate. But it only works where schools are planning and implementing the interventions fully and systematically. We need to improve the supports that enable such planning and we need to consistently reassess the scheme and the outcomes associated with it. It is a continuing focus on educational disadvantage that will allow us to achieve the long-term benefits associated with tackling intergenerational poverty and disadvantage.
The necessity for pluralism in the education system
I find it remarkable that there are still fewer than 70 multi-denominational primary schools in Ireland, especially considering that the first tentative moves in this direction began with the setting up of the Dalkey School Project (DSP) back in the mid 1970s. More recently, we have seen the development of other types of schools, such as Community National Schools, Steiner schools and Muslim schools, as well as the expansion in Gaelscoileanna. However, we still have a situation where 95% of our primary schools are under the patronage of the main Churches. The result is that there is a lack of choice for parents in many, if not most, parts of the country, where the only option is a denominational school.
The need for change has long been recognised, including by leaders of the Catholic Church. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin observed some years ago that the Dublin Archdiocese had over 500 primary schools. He went on to say that this number was far more than was required to meet the educational needs of the Catholics in Dublin. He called for the establishment of a forum which would provide for an orderly and sensitive structure within which the Catholic Church could divest itself of the patronage of a significant number of the national schools in areas where there was no longer a need or a demand for so many with a Catholic ethos.
I announced the establishment of such a Forum on my second day in office and am glad to say that its report was recently published. It gives a clear blueprint for divestment of some existing schools across Ireland. Support for a multi-denominational educational model is now part of Irish education in a way that was inconceivable when the DSP was founded. Educate Together is now recognised as an official patron both for primary and second-level schools.
We have just over 4,000 primary and post-primary schools, training centres, further education colleges and higher education institutions in Ireland – proportionately more than in most other developed countries. This is a legacy of the past, which created the distribution and complexity we have today. One thing is very clear: if we were to start from the beginning today, the overall system would look very different to what we currently have as our educational infrastructure.
The growth in population and the constraint on available resources obliges us all to look at how we can make the best use of the existing educational infrastructure. For example, in many large provincial towns it is not unusual to have up to six or seven primary schools, three or four post- primary schools, not to mention a College of Further Education, a FÁS Training Centre and, possibly, an Institute of Technology as well.
Primary and Post-Primary Schooling
We need a debate on the viability of small schools, primary and post primary. I recognise that small primary schools are an important part of the social fabric of local communities. They will continue to be a feature of our education landscape. However, this does not mean that small schools can stand still or never have their staffing levels changed to something that is more affordable and sustainable for these difficult and challenging times. The teachers in small schools cannot be immune from the requirement that is being asked of all public servants to deliver our public services on a reduced level of resources.
There are many small post-primary schools which, while important components of local community life, will never be able to provide students with the full spectrum of subject-choice or field a fifteen-a-side GAA team. We must separate the political sensitivities about small schools from a realistic assessment of what the current structure of our school network can and cannot deliver.
There is little structured cooperation or consultation, on a formal level, between primary and second-level schools. As a result, resources can be under-utilised, duplicated or badly allocated, particularly at post-primary level. We have to ensure the optimum use of resources, both human and physical, through structured cooperation between schools, especially at post-primary level. There is some pragmatic cooperation on the ground, especially through the use of ICT, but much more needs to be done. It has to be organised in a coherent and sensible way at national level. This work should start without delay and should involve all of the educational stakeholders.
As a preliminary step, I have organised the Building Unit of the Department of Education and Skills to undertake a series of pilot studies in a number of selected provincial towns which would provide a full and comprehensive inventory of the educational infrastructure in those towns, which would be a basis upon which cooperation and collaboration could be undertaken.
Further Education and Training
Our further education and training sectors were developed separately over many years, largely through FAS and the Vocational Education Committees. This separate development often resulted in ‘turf wars’, unnecessary duplication in some areas, and a waste of resources.
The Government has recognised the continuum between further education and training and we plan to develop a unified and co-ordinated sector through a new body called SOLAS. The local provision of training and further education programmes will be handled by 16 new Education and Training Boards, which will replace the existing 33 VECs. I recognise that bringing together two different systems with their different cultures is no easy task. But I believe that it will benefit tens of thousands of learners around the country by providing them with the specific and generic transferable skills needed for the workplace. But I want to stress that literacy, numeracy and community education will remain an important part of ETB programme provision. The setting up of SOLAS will be a major piece of reform and bring further education and training into line with other developed countries.
Third level student numbers have grown remarkably from 24,414 in 1971 to 161,647 in 2011. This expansion of access to higher education translates into impressively high tertiary attainment rates for the Irish workforce. Latest data show that 48% of all 25-34 year-olds in our population have a third-level qualification, placing us significantly above OECD and EU averages in this regard and fourth in the overall rankings.
Change is needed to bring more coherence to the system. The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, otherwise known as the Hunt Report, has set out an array of recommendations which I think have a lot of merit. I intend to implement many of them. An initial analysis of the overall higher education landscape has commenced. All institutions have been given six months by the HEA to respond by outlining what their strategic development plans are for the future. Such plans should include the possibilities for alliances, collaboration and other forms of cooperation between third level institutions.
Further changes are expected with the possible designation of a number of Institutes of Technology as Technological Universities. Criteria for such designation were published earlier this year. We need to ensure that a Technological University is not just of high quality but is clearly differentiated, by mission, from existing universities through the nature of its research, teaching and engagement activities.
The objectives of the various reforms at third level are to improve the quality of the sector, in terms of teaching and education, research and innovation, and relations with society and the economy. The end result will be fewer institutions but a more coherent higher education system.
The transformation of the education system should aim to enhance the quality of the educational experience of all its students, while achieving value for money. This is necessary if we are to maintain an education system which holds the confidence and respect of Irish citizens and taxpayers.
The educational infrastructure needs to be utilised in a manner which makes the best possible use, in every way, of our physical resources. The delivery of education, the quality of communications, and the teaching skills at all levels of education, will have to be systematically raised and monitored, so as to maintain standards.
The increasing professionalism of teachers and the empowerment of the Teaching Council, combined with robust school self-evaluation and effective external inspection of schools, will help to ensure the maintenance of high standards in primary and second-level schools.
The changing nature of Irish society in terms of religious belief and practice must be reflected in the delivery of primary schooling, by ensuring a range of choice, where practical, of ethos and a respect for all within the entire primary infrastructure. This must embrace the diverse ethos of the community and the rights of individual teachers. At post-primary level, space must be created to allow students to think more, to take greater ownership of their own learning, greater responsibility for the moral choices they make and time to develop the life skills they need to become responsible citizens. In addition, their schooling should allow them to become creative individuals committed to the well-being of the community in which they live.
The changes we are talking about are by their nature complex and multi-faceted. They require all stakeholders to contribute to the fullest possible degree. Ireland needs to plan and devise an education system which best serves the needs of current and future citizens and the well-being of society. The citizens of Ireland deserve no less.
Ruairi Quinn TD is Minister for Education & Skills in Ireland