I move, that Dáil Éireann:
notes that over the last number of years there has been a significant increase in resources allocated to education and training including:
· the increase of primary teacher numbers from 21,000 to over 31,700 with a reduction in the pupil/teacher ratio from 22:1 to 16:1;
· the introduction of a wide range of new special education schemes underpinned by the expansion of the number of special needs assistants from 250 to over 10,000;
· the expansion in third-level participation from 100,000 students to almost 160,000; and
· the creation of research programmes which have brought Ireland to a world-leading position in key areas and are currently underpinning the majority of job-creating investments in Ireland;
· further acknowledges that in spite of these and other improvements there remain significant issues within the education and training system which require to be addressed;
· believes that education and training will be a central part in economic recovery and job creation in the months and years ahead; and
· therefore states its belief that education and training should be protected as a priority area for funding in future budgets.”
Over the last month a series of urgent issues have rightly dominated our discussions in this House. However, we should never lose sight of the need to make sure that longer-term issues also receive attention.
I don’t believe that anyone can question the idea that education lies at the heart of the future of our country. The major expansions in provision and participation which have happened over the last four decades provided the essential foundation for broad and deep social and economic progress – the bulk of which remains. As we consider the policies required to help Ireland to build a lasting recovery we should be clear in stating that education is a priority.
This motion represents the first time that education has been debated in the 31st Dáil. It is not the typical partisan motion which has too often been the mainstay of private members’ debates in recent years. Our intention is to put before the House a constructive motion based around a core principle which all parties should be able to support.
The motion points to a number of areas where it is quite simply impossible to deny progress – but it equally acknowledges that there are serious problems still in our education system. Finally it expresses the belief that education will be central to recovery and, based on this, says that the house believes it should be a priority. It attacks no one and demands no extra spending – it simply says that in the allocation of what is available, education and training should be a priority.
We believe that it is important for the Dáil to make this statement not just because it is early in a new term, but also because budget policy is apparently currently being discussed in government and important decisions will be made in the near future.
In the last few weeks there have been a number of occasions where a wider consensus of the House could have been achieved on a motion had the Government been willing to either consult with the opposition or to pass up an opportunity to introduce an amendment which would require the opposition to endorse the government. I hope that the Government will not insist on this tactic in tomorrow night’s vote. There is nothing in this motion which is incompatible with the manifestos of either government party or of the Programme for Government. On a number of occasions in the last month we have supported government proposals, and I hope that this will be reciprocated on this motion.
Progress in Education
One of the great past failings of debate in this House has been that issues have been approached in an almost cartoonish way by different sides. Our debates are generally framed around the idea that everything can be seen as either black or white. The opposition denies any progress, the government is reluctant to concede any problems. A new variation on this is being followed by the government in the last month, where it has been implied that nothing positive happened in Ireland before March 9th.
I would like to acknowledge the ingenuity of government scriptwriters in finding new ways to explain how policies which were disastrous on March 8th are today radical and visionary. The ungenerous and narrow approach to spinning and diminishing clear advances from recent years reflects poorly on those involved. They would be well advised to understand that such spinning has a habit of rebounding badly in the long run.
Fundamentally, you cannot have a constructive debate on policy if you insist on denying all progress. It is not possible to set a credible and effective agenda for the future of Irish education if you blindly refuse to give any credit to past policies or to accept that many things are better today than they were in the past.
We believe that there are serious and sustained issues to be addressed in our education system in the years ahead. Many of these have been identified in the programme for government, and were identified by parties on all sides of this House during February’s campaign. But let’s not fail to recognise what has been achieved.
Equally, let’s not fall into the trap of believing that every problem we face is uniquely Irish. Yes there are unique elements to our system, but the underlying educational issues in areas such as literacy and standards are ones which are shared with many countries.
The facts show that there has been a significant expansion in every element of the education system in the last number of years. Resources have expanded as have the positive outcomes in the system. To give just a few examples:
· Irish class sizes are high in some schools, but they have been steadily reduced in all schools and are today at their lowest level in history.
· There are many schools in significant need of capital investment, but the largest building and refurbishment programme in their history has been underway for many years and the OECD has shown how, on average, our school buildings rate well internationally.
· Participation in third-level education remains unequal, but increased participation has been fastest in groups which have historically had very low participation.
While education is at the core of any commitment to social progress, its economic role is clearly undeniable. At a time of enormous pressures those areas of the economy which are most reliant on the education system are also the strongest. In areas where the skills and knowledge built up in education are the key to success Ireland is continuing to be a world-leader. It is knowledge-intensive industries that are our greatest bright-spot at the moment and they represent our greatest opportunity for the future.
Every serious examination of how Ireland recovers sees export-led, knowledge-intensive industry as being the essential element. We support this and this is why we believe that this Dáil should signal that education will be a priority when vital fiscal decisions are taken. We also believe that this Dáil should support a programme of addressing key weaknesses within the system.
The expansion in primary education in recent years has been unprecedented – and this is something which happened by choice not by chance. In early 1997 the Government endorsed a fiscal policy based on the idea that there would be a reduction in teacher numbers. It also entrenched capital funding policies which put up an enormous roadblock against parents and communities wanting to build new schools or expand existing ones.
I don’t think anyone in this House could dispute that the move away from this policy towards one of a sustained programme to increase teaching resources and enable new schools was the right one. The expansion of primary teaching positions from 21,000 to 31,700 has been enormously beneficial, as has been the fact that non-traditional patronage of schools has been enabled to reach a critical mass for further expansion. I believe that these new teachers and new schools are doing great work which should not be undermined as we seek to deal with undoubted problems.
I have always had a personal interest in special needs education, and I intend raising this area regularly as my party’s spokesperson. I hope that Deputies will acknowledge the dramatic increase in support for children with special needs in recent years. By any measure, the increase in special needs assistants from 250 to 10,000 is significant.
The most recent literacy surveys raised important concerns. While factoring in the reality of non native-speakers on the figures, there is no doubt that Ireland needs to improve literacy levels in its primary schools. Fianna Fáil welcomes the Government’s stated intention to prioritise this area.
I welcome the move from a rigid curriculum which ultimately excluded as many as it helped. The introduction of many important areas into the curriculum in the last decade has been very positive – but the need to revisit and strengthen the emphasis on literacy is clear. The Minister will find us to be constructive on this matter and eager to debate evidence-based solutions to the problem.
The 4-year fiscal strategy outlined last year contained funding to increase the numbers of posts in education and maintain a high level of funding for school building. We hope that this high priority given to education will be maintained.
On a number of occasions the Minister has pointed out that Ireland has an unusually large number of small primary schools, primarily though not exclusively in rural areas. He has rightly pointed out that there is a value for money audit going on into the spending attached to these schools.
Our position on this review is that it is about maximising the educational return to communities from these schools and not about finding ways of rationalising them. There may be areas where shared resources, such as specialist teaching and IT support could make a big difference. This would correspond to some of the clustering work which has been carried out so well under disadvantaged area schemes. However, I want to make it clear, just as we did well before the election, we do not and will not support any programme to rationalise smaller schools.
In Government we very explicitly increased the teaching and other resources available to small schools. The number of one-teacher schools was cut not by closing them but by giving them extra teachers. We did this because we see local primary schools as an irreplaceable part of community life. This is true for areas with few people as well as for minority religious communities. In fact, the biggest beneficiaries of expanded support for small schools have been the schools of protestant denominations outside of Dublin.
The Minister should be clear, we will support him if his agenda is to increase the educational gain from spending on these schools. If his agenda is to reintroduce the rationalisation programme which we abandoned in 1997 we will oppose him as strongly as we can.
At second-level, school completion figures have increased over the long-term due to a range of measures including curriculum diversity. Research indicates that completion is likely to increase further due to economic circumstances. There is no doubt that the issue of standards and the relevance of courses is the most important item on the minister’s agenda.
The Programme for Government commits to the reform of the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate, including reform of Maths and Science teaching at second level. The Government also plans to introduce a bonus system for maths, make science a compulsory subject by 2014 and continue investment in the professional development of Maths and Science teachers.
I strongly welcome this commitment to the improvement of maths and science teaching at second level, building on progress made in recent years. As a recent study from the Higher Education Authority showed, prior educational attainment, particularly in Leaving Certificate Maths, is closely associated with successful progression through higher education. In terms of individual subjects, Leaving Certificate Mathematics appears to be most strongly linked to successful progression to higher education after secondary school. The HEA study last October also found that prior educational attainment outweighs all other factors, including social class, gender and choice of education institution, when determining how likely it is that a student will go on to college and complete their certificate or degree. Students with low levels of achievement in Leaving Certificate mathematics are the most likely to drop out of their higher education course where such students have enrolled in scientific or technological courses.
In the last couple of years a major programme of reform was introduced designed to encourage a better understanding of maths, to reinforce the practical relevance of maths to everyday life, and to ensure better continuity between primary and second level, and between junior and senior cycle. The former Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe introduced the Project Maths Initiative in 2008, which was first piloted in 24 schools but has since been mainstreamed in all secondary schools across the country since September 2010. This initiative was supported by a national programme of professional development for teachers which began in 2009. While it is early days, the emerging results are positive with 18.5% taking higher level maths in those schools where project maths was piloted compared to 16% nationally. I welcome the Government’s commitment to this initiative.
In science, there have also been further increases in participation rates in Chemistry and Biology, but participation in Physics was down very slightlythis year. Engineering and Technology have also had increases in participation rates at higher level. I welcome the proposal in the programme for Government to make science a compulsory subject by 2014.
The report of the innovation task force recommended the introduction of bonus points for higher level mathematics so that students beginning their leaving certificate can make informed decisions about subject and level choice now. Mary Coughlan indicated her own view at the time of the desirability of sending a clear signal to second level students about the introduction of CAO bonus points for achievement in leaving certificate mathematics at higher level. She wrote to all seven universities and they all agreed last year to the introduction of bonus points for maths. This scheme will run on a pilot basis for four years from 2012.
The new Government’s commitment to follow through with measures on maths and science reform is to be welcomed. I would also like to see the Government make a clear commitment to protect funding for the project maths initiative and the professional development of maths and science teachers.
We acknowledge that problems remain in our system in terms of early school leaving and that more can be done to encourage greater completion levels at leaving cert level, particularly among young males. An ESRI Report entitled “No Way Back” found that approximately 9,000 teenagers are leaving school every year without completing second level education. Since the mid 1990s the level of school completion has remained relatively stable, at 80 to 83%, with gender and social class strong determinants in early school leaving. Young men from working class or unemployed households are most likely to leave school before completing the Leaving Certificate. The report found that Ireland occupies an intermediate position in rates of early school leaving in Europe with levels of early leaving lower in Ireland than the European average.
In order to tackle early school leaving, we need to tackle disadvantage within our school system. We welcome the Government’s commitment to follow through on measures aimed at tackling disadvantage in our schools. The programme for Government commits to maintaining the free pre-school year in Early Childhood Care and Early Childhood Care and Education and commits to considering the recommendations of the review of the DEIS programme. While it is too soon yet to assess the impact of the free pre-school year, the take up of the scheme has been considerable and it is welcome news that the Government is proceeding with this important initiative.
For those that do leave school early or who have completed their schooling, a wide range of training measures are required for people of all abilities. The National Recovery Plan provided for stronger activation measures for the unemployed including the setting up of a community work placement programme, a skills development internship programme and additional placements on the work placement programme.
Last December a suite of new and expanded initiatives were announced which were designed to provide assistance to the unemployed, with a particular focus on graduates and apprentices. These included the creation of a new €20m multi-annual higher education labour market fund, an expanded Redundant Apprentice Placement Scheme for up to 1,000 apprentices, 700 places in the Institutes of Technology for redundant apprentices to complete their training, 5,000 places on a new Skills Development and Internship Programme and finally the expansion of the Work Placement Programme from 5,000 to 7,500 places.
These new initiatives are in addition to a total of almost 465,000 training and education places which are currently available in 2011. Of those, 140,000 are training places, 168,000 are in the further education sector and 156,000 are in the higher education sector. We believe in the importance of providing training for people according to their own abilities.
The programme for Government commits to providing additional training, work experience and education places for the unemployed and to do so in a supplementary budget. However, it is unclear as to exactly which additional training measures it intends to pursue. We would urge the Government to prioritise the introduction of training measures which are focused at key skills needs of the economy.
One of the most surprising aspects of the programme for Government is the lack of detail around the Government’s strategy for higher education. It simply says that it will review the recommendations of the recent Hunt Report and reform third level funding. With higher education playing such a crucial role in our economic recovery and job creation, greater clarity is needed around its plans for the sector.
Only last week, a unique new QS World University Rankings by Subject placed a number of Irish universities in the top 100 for their engineering and technology degree programmes. This survey was particularly unique in that the rankings also took into account the employability of graduates. The results of this survey are hugely significant for Ireland and the Universities involved. Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and University College Cork all achieved a number of placings in the world’s top 100.
These results confirm that the massive investment in the third level sector is paying off. Not only are we producing some of best graduates in the world, but we are employing some of the best graduates in the world in computer science, technology and engineering. These are sectors that are critical to economic recovery and job creation. This country cannot afford for this progress to be squandered.
During our time in Government we were hugely successful in pursuing ambitious goals to widen participation and increase student and graduate numbers. As a result, we have positioned ourselves in the front rank of OECD countries. The expansion of opportunities for higher education in Ireland is reflected best in the attainment levels of young adults, 45% of whom have now acquired a higher education qualification. The proportion of 18 year olds entering higher education is approaching two thirds. Alongside this dramatic expansion, we also significantly increased retention rates at third level over the past decade. A recent HEA study on the issue of early college leaving found that 85% of students progress from first year to second year and that the Irish higher education system compares favorably with other countries in terms of student progression and course completion. There is a progression rate in the university sector of 91% and in the Institute of Technology sector of 84% on honours degree programmes. As with every country with expanding tertiary provision, we have to be vigilant in relation to the use of the money and the standards achieved within the system. We will support the Minister in his efforts in this area.
Over the past decade we have witnessed a dramatic transformation of the research landscape in Ireland. In 1997 the exact total of dedicated research funding allocated to the Department of Education was zero. Not only has the level of funding changed, it is a great example of clear, measureable progress emerging as an output. Last year, a comprehensive international study of higher education research performance ranked Ireland eight on the impact of our research publications and also noted that the volume of research articles and reviews from Irish universities and colleges published in recognised international journals more than doubled in the past decade. On volume, Ireland shows an impressive increase of 33% in terms of research output for the five years 2002-2007, second only in terms of the increase by China.
According to the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Authority, not only have we become a serious player in research but we have really made an impact. I hope the Government will place the same level of importance on investment in research and that the next step for the Government must be to increase collaborations between universities in the area of research, and between institutions in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
I would have to say that the failure of any cabinet member to reaffirm the government’s belief in the role of basic research in promoting excellence in education and underpinning economic success is deeply worrying. The idea that there is a dividing line between basic research and economically relevant research seems to be gaining ground in some official circles. If this were to be reflected in funding decisions it would be a mistake of enormous consequence – potentially undermining activity which lies behind the majority of job announcements in the last three years.
We believe that investment in education and training has delivered great progress to Ireland in the past and will be central to building a positive future. Even at a time of great fiscal pressure there are choices which can be made in allocating funds and there are many initiatives which require few if any resources. Education cannot escape untouched, but it can and should be given a priority.
The government has many welcome proposals relating to education in its programme, as well as many areas which remain unformed. We will support the Minister in many of his intended initiatives, but we will also strongly oppose him where we disagree.
I commend the motion to the House.