Share, , Google Plus, Pinterest,


Education – Report Card

An assessment of the Government's perfomance on Education, 2011-2016

Result: B-

Significant achievements eclipsed somewhat by failures in high-profile areas

The Programme for Government 2011-2016 set out a range of quite challenging targets in Education. In essence it sought to re-shape provision in a number of key areas while at the same time ensuring continuity with the core strengths of the system. This was always going to be a difficult balance and, as was to be expected, the record is a mixed one.

At the most basic level – that of investment in education – the record is quite good. Promises made to maintain funding for the core system, to prioritise building and to keep key metrics such as staffing, pupil teacher ratios and other key areas such as ICT infrastructure were for the most part kept.

Another exception to this has been the Higher Education sector which has seen budgets reduced across all areas and a failure to meaningfully address the thorny issue of student contributions. This latter point has been particularly contentious.

While the Programme for Government and its annual reviews are silent on fees the failure to address the issue of who pays for Higher Education has been marked. Current students face a controversial ‘Registration’ fee which stands at €3,000 (around half the cost to the state of providing a college place), after being increased by €250 in successive Budgets despite pre- election commitments to freeze it at 2011 levels.

The recent ‘Cassells Report’ proposes loan repayments for college tuition, which would be paid back over 15 years at €25/week, once a student is earning a certain level of income. Irrespective of the final balance between student contributions and State funding arrived at there is an urgent need to find a resourcing model that works for a sector that is under increasing pressure.

At a broader systems level, the Programme recognised the need for significant change. The ‘PISA shock’ resulting from our precipitous decline in the 2009 tracking surveys in key areas such as literacy and numeracy was an ideal opportunity to radically to reform how we teach these core competencies. As a result the significantly improved performance in the PISA 2012 would seem to suggest that the national strategy for literacy and numeracy has had a significant impact.

School accountability structures were also quietly revolutionised, and a robust data-gathering process at school and national levels developed, something that will have a long-term impact far beyond the life of this government. Teacher education also underwent a radical reform in this period. Course content was changed, programme lengths were increased and the number of providers reduced through processes such as the DCU ‘Incorporation’ programme.

There were a number of areas of policy overreach that have resulted in significant setbacks. Two of these – reform of the junior cycle and reform of school patronage structures – have followed a remarkably similar trajectory. Both witnessed confident assertions by Ministers about the need for policy reform followed by processes that saw the ‘great and the good’ support change.

Significant resistance was met in both cases and despite pressure applied a combination of strong local knowledge and skillful national campaigns have resulted in the original proposals being significantly watered down. At the time of writing, junior cycle reform is stuck in a limbo, supported by one Teacher Union and rejected by a second. Reform of school patronage has been glacially slow but there are signs of alternative approaches emerging that will perhaps address issues of ethos and culture from an equality and procedural perspective.

Issues also remain concerning the casualisation of education careers across all levels of the system and the significant hollowing out of middle-management structures in schools. This latter point has resulted in increased pressure on school principals and a perception of initiative overload. At the other end of the scale differential pay scales for new teachers is a cause of real resentment and pressure on Unions to demonstrate relevance has increased.

In a general sense the Programme for Education Government was quite successful in Education, meeting most of its targets and putting in place structures that have the potential to have a significant medium-term impact. This is no mean feat given the popular attitude to education in Ireland – while many might complain in the abstract, most are happy enough with their particular encounters with the system. This combination makes it difficult for any set of policy proposals to address both the abstract desire for change and the innate conservatism of end-users. This policy programme probably did as well as could be expected given the straitened economic circumstances.

Report Card – Education

Early Childhood Care and Education
“Maintenance of free pre-school year provision, implementing a standards framework, enhancing training options and targeting disadvantaged areas”. Free pre-school year provision was maintained with a commitment to examining its extension. New qualifications standards were implemented at FETAC level 5/6 and an inspection framework piloted. Community Childcare Subvention programme targeted at disadvantaged family groups extended.
School Standards and Reforms
“Position Ireland in top ten performing countries in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)”. 2012 PISA results saw Ireland bounce back from disastrous 2009 scores. Out of 34 OECD countries Ireland is now 9th for science; 4th for reading and 13th for mathematics.
“Provide school management with greater autonomy to address issues of quality at a local level allowing them allocate and manage staff and resources”. Consultation process around issues of autonomy initiated but little real progress made in practice.
“Maintain high calibre of teachers in the system and prioritise enhancement of school leadership capacity”. The Irish Centre for School Leadership established; however retirements and hollowing out of middle management combined with casualisation of the profession and differential pay scales are leading to significant discontent across the profession.
“Develop and implement new modes of school inspection prioritising the generation of a range of useful data at school as well as system level”. Significant overhaul of school inspection; all schools now engage in mandatory self-evaluation, role for parents and others guaranteed and national system of standardised testing agreed.
“Review of Junior and Leaving Certificate systems and implementation of reforms using work of National Council of Curriculum and Assessment”. Attempts to reform Junior Certificate system have met with significant and ongoing opposition from Teacher Unions and others. Individual subject curriculum reviews ongoing at Leaving Certificate level but no systemic change.
“Commitment to develop a national literacy strategy targeting all aspects of education continuum and prioritising training, timetable and curricular changes”. National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy (2011-2020) implemented, literacy and numeracy mandatory areas of competence in teacher education, new primary literacy curriculum starting in 2016 and increased teaching time given to literacy and numeracy at primary level.
“Prioritisation of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) performance at second level”. Introduction of ‘bonus point’ for Mathematics, implementation of project maths curriculum, ongoing revision of science and maths curricula.
School Infrastructure
“Prioritise school building and providing of resources for school maintenance / development”. Overall increase in school builds / refurbishments with 1.35 billion euro invested since 2012 in 189 new builds and other works.
“Invest in key ICT infrastructure ensuring that all schools have access to fibre broadband, embedding it across full curriculum and develop plan to integrate ICT in teaching, learning and assessment”. 99% of schools are connected to the Schools Broadband Network, enhanced ‘Scoilnet’ facilitating curriculum integration and launch of comprehensive ICT plan for 2015-2020. Issues around maintenance of ICT and embedding remain.
“Enhance effectiveness of ICT investment by merging the National Centre for Technology in Education with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment”. This was not achieved.
The Programme for Government and its annual reviews are silent on fees. There is a Registration fee which currently stands at €3,000 (less than half the cost to the state of providing a college place), after being increased by €250 in successive Budgets until it reached that point. A Government draft report proposes loan repayments for college tuition, which would be paid back over 15 years at €25/week, once a student is earning a certain level of income.
Inclusive Schools
“Establishment of Forum on Patronage and Pluralism with a view to increasing diversity in school ethos at primary and post primary levels, explicitly involving parents in any process developed”. Forum on Patronage established and reported and a number of pilot parental surveys on school choice completed. New models of school patronage piloted at both primary and secondary levels however little or no progress in divestment made in system as a whole.
“Address issue of employment rights of LGBT teachers in state funded denominational schools”. Equality Act amended to remove prioritisation of protection of school ethos over employment rights of LGBT and other groups.
“Development of a strategy on school admissions to address issues of diversity, social cohesion and fairness”. Education (School Admissions Bill, 2015) proposed but withdrawn.
“Development of a national Anti-Bullying Strategy and development of policies and supports for schools”. Action plan on bullying strategy launched in 2013 and anti-bullying policies mandatory in all schools.
“Review of Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) with a view to maximising supports to areas of greatest need”. Funding reductions in key areas not reversed however review of DEIS designation initiated in 2015 with a view to rebalancing allocations.
“Support diversity of educational opportunity for children with special needs and restore NEPS”. The 15% reduction in resource teaching hours and cap on special needs assistants in 2012 made this difficult although overall numbers of SNA’s have been increased recently.
Planned implementation of the EPSEN Act 2004 to prioritise access for children with special needs to an individual education plan (IEP). IEP’s are not yet mandatory however are considered best practice and might be facilitated through consolidation of services under Inclusion Support Service.
“Reverse the cut to the number of psychologists in National Educational Psychological Service in Budget 2011”. By September 2015 recruitment to NEPS was expected to reach agreed target number however there are ongoing concerns about the reach and timliness of the service provided.
Higher Education
“Review recommendations of ‘Hunt Report’ and seek to maximise existing funding, reform academic contracts and prioritise key strategic areas”. Development of new funding model for Higher Education with performance compacts, key performance indicators and targeted priority areas including teaching, research and access however sector significantly underfunded and no concrete action on issue of future funding and fees.
“Examine feasibility of establishment of Technical Universities and consolidation of Dublin Institute of Technology on Grangegorman site”. Technological Universities Bill (2016) debated in Dáil in January 2016 and first phase of student relocation to Grangegorman Campus is completed.
“Introduce sectoral oversight and facilitate consolidation of a range of accreditation authorities”. Remit of Ombudsman extended to cover Higher Education. Quality and Qualifications Ireland formed replacing HETAC, FETAC and NQA.
“Maintain and enhance standards in Teacher Education through changes in curricula and programme structures”. ‘Re-conceptualisation’ of initial teacher education provision extending overall length of consecutive programmes, providing for more in-school teaching time and introducing a new national induction programme.
“Reform higher education institutions, encouraging greater specialisation and reducing duplication of provision in teacher education”. Overhaul of teacher education providers resulting in merger of Froebel College with Maynooth University and ‘Incorporation’ of Mater Dei Institute, Church of Ireland College and St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra into DCU. Development of a range of new organisational structures linking other ITE providers.
Lifelong Learning
“Enhance opportunities for those accessing non-compulsory education including job seekers, Further and Community education students and those interested in lifelong learning”. Establishment of Solas and Education and Training boards led to a significant restructuring of provision in Further and Vocational Education. Substantial investment in labour market activation schemes and commitment to prioritising apprenticeships.
International Education
“Creation of a Brand Ireland in education seeking to double student numbers from key non-EU markets and seeking to streamline visa and residency requirements to facilitate this”. Establishment of ‘Education in Ireland’ brand and 85% increase in non –EU students. Immigration and visa issues still challenging and major controversy emerged around language school sector.