I would like to welcome you and thank you for attending this policy conference. We have decided on education as the topic for our first conference since the election for two main reasons. First of all, education is and always has been a core priority for Fianna Fáil. Secondly, we believe that there remain serious challenges to be confronted in the education system and we intend to use every opportunity in the Oireachtas to promote a positive agenda to address them.
I have no interest in the type of negative and destructive opposition which this country saw in recent years. That was all about preparing for an election not preparing for government – and it is why so many policies which were bitterly opposed just three months ago are still being implemented.
Our commitment to being constructive was shown in April when we tabled a private members motion in the Dáil which succeeded in gaining cross-party support. The debate on our motion is so far the only time that the new Dáil has discussed education.
Today is not about launching or selling policy, it’s about having an open conversation about the future of education. I accept fully that the party has been very bad in the past in drawing on the full policy expertise of its members and supporters. This is intended as a first step in an ongoing process where you will be actively encouraged to help frame our policies.
If you look back in our history you can see that periods of expansion and renewal in the party always began with an inclusive policy process. The sheer innovation and radicalism that characterised the party’s first years still inspire me. Ranging from clearing the slums to a broad constitutional law, our founders chose to set a new and ambitious agenda for our country.
In the 1950s our leaders saw that time had moved on and they were willing to question old certainties and radically revise priorities. A new industrial policy, a commitment to the great European project, major law reform and the beginning of building bridges to the Northern unionist community were direct outcomes of this policy process.
What also emerged was a deeply ambitious and resolutely implemented commitment to the role of education in achieving social and economic progress. Some years ago I had the opportunity to talk to a number of people who had been involved in our education policy groups back then and I was deeply impressed by how comprehensive and creative they were – as well as how the party at all levels contributed.
In recent years some people have tried to suggest that the historic decision to extend universal access to second level education was mainly due to non-political sources. This is nonsense. If you look at the first significant speech of Patrick Hillery to the Dáil as Minister for Education you see great clarity in our party’s objectives. He said Ireland could not have a future without opening up both second and third-level education to all people. He talked about new types of schools and colleges; about reforming curriculums; and about setting education in an international rather than insular context.
He commissioned the OECD report which Donogh O’Malley so brilliantly used with Seán Lemass to deliver free second level education.
It is a simple fact that every significant expansion in education participation in every part of the education system – and especially special education, second-level, third-level, further education and advanced research – was implemented by Fianna Fáil administrations. This didn’t happen by chance, it came because our leaders and members chose to make education our priority. I am determined that we will be true to this great tradition.
You Can’t Build Up Education By Tearing it Down
Before getting into detail about a number of specific education issues which I think we should discuss and develop proposals on, I would like to make a few comments about how debates on education are being handled at the moment.
There are very definitely problems with our education system which go well beyond resource levels. There must be reform and it must inevitably be uncomfortable for some. But we should never forget something: You cannot build up the education system by tearing it down. You can never find an effective agenda if you fail to acknowledge strengths as well as weaknesses.
I make no apology for the believing that there is a lot to be proud of in many elements of our education system. Even in the midst of an unprecedented recession we have a world-leading export sector which is concentrated in industries which rely on highly educated people. We don’t have enough of many skills and we need to broaden others, but these companies would not be in Ireland and they would not be successful here if our education system was broken.
Complacency is an enemy of good education. Equally, a tendency to look only for the negative spin on statistics causes serious damage.
I believe that we have highly dedicated professionals working in education. They have achieved a lot. We should see our challenge as being to help them to achieve even more – not to promote a sense of needing to start everything from scratch.
To have a constructive education debate we also need to recognise where challenges faced here are a reflection of challenges being faced throughout the modern world. Not every problem is uniquely Irish and most solutions can benefit from a broader perspective.
Internationally, no area has seen more failed initiatives than education. A consistent flaw has been the tendency to rush changes into place without testing them comprehensively and without identifying what needs to be protected when change is proposed. Change which works in practice rather than just in headlines is always based on detailed research and a balanced approach.
Public Finances and Education
Too many education debates focus solely on the issue of how much money is available. We spend too much time talking solely about providing resources and not looking at what they are delivering. However, of course resources matter and it’s not possible to look at the education agenda for the next few years and ignore the continued significant retrenchment which is required in the public finances.
Over 60% of the required adjustments have already been completed – and all reviews show that the continued implementation of the budget strategy prepared last Autumn will ensure that our public finances are on a stable footing.
A point we should not forget is that the four year plan published last year shows how it is possible to correct the deficit while still protecting education. The figures show in detail how to maintain the huge advances we implemented in relation to teacher numbers, special education supports and other key areas.
There is a game emerging where the new government runs away from every decision it implements as soon as some negative feedback emerges. They claim to have no responsibility whenever they are cutting something or breaking a spending promise made a few months ago. People will increasingly come to see through their cynical tactics – and in the area of education, and in particular in relation to schools, this will be very evident.
The agenda for our schools over the next few years is very broad. There is a need for further reform in relation to a number of topics.
I very strongly support the idea of redoubling efforts to improve literacy performance in our schools. If you compare literacy surveys over the years on a fair basis, scores are roughly flat. It is not reasonable to condemn schools for failing to ensure the pupils from families who are not native speakers speak and read at the same levels as others – and this is what is happening when last year’s survey is used without being qualified. The large number of non-national children coming into schools is one of the most important developments of the last decade and you cannot treat statistics from before and after this period as being fully comparable. This is a recipe for bad policy making.
I think we need to undertake two major initiatives in relation to literacy.
The first is within classrooms. The primary curriculum places primary emphasis on literacy but it’s clear that this is not being implemented in a structured enough way. I support the idea of providing a more structured approach to literacy in the classroom, including reserved time on each day. I also think that parents should have the right to receive a formal evaluation of their child’s literacy levels at each key stage. Teachers are very familiar with these tests and they are available to all schools. They are standard evaluation tools which do not involve the national testing which has nothing to offer at this level.
The second and more important literacy initiative needs to relate to parents. Every piece of education research ever carried out on this topic confirms that what happens at home is the biggest determinant of a child’s literacy skills. In 2000 I launched a specific initiative on this point, which included advertising which pointed out to parents that if they want their children to read they must read to their children. It was accompanied with a major expansion in school library and free books schemes.
I think we should go much further, and in particular find a way of showing parents of infants how they can help develop pre-reading skills.
Special Needs Provision
Fourteen years ago the provision of supports for children with special education needs was generally small and always segregated. In fact the state didn’t even acknowledge the specific education needs of many children, including children with autism spectrum disorder. The entire school system had around 200 special needs assistants. Today that figure is over 10,000.
Special needs is an area where you have to have a permanent commitment to evaluation and development of policy. At its best it is driven by a programme suited to an individual child or small group of children. Methodologies are constantly changing as are the patterns of need. An individual school may only need to provide particular supports for brief periods.
Special education was ringfenced in the last Budget and it should be ringfenced in future budgets. Within the budget, extra effort should be placed on evaluating the impact of provision and making sure that resources are allocated solely on the basis of the identified needs of children.
Diversity and Patronage
The issue of a diversity of school provision and patronage is a very significant one. For many reasons significant change is not only inevitable it is well underway.
Over the years the issue of a diversity of school models and patronage has grown. In Fianna Fáil we have always supported this. One of our first Ministers for Education, Seán Moylan was praised by the Protestant churches for what they called his real generosity in implementing policies to protect their schools. When Mary O’Rourke was Minister she gave official recognition to new forms of patronage and provision, formally recognising the multi-denominational movement and giving it full access to government.
I myself gave diversity a formal basis in law through the Education Act and removed financial barriers standing in the way of smaller patronage bodies opening new schools. Other Ministers continued this work – and as a result the number of pupils in their schools has increased five-fold in a decade.
When Mary Hanafin launched the piloting of the new Community National School model it was a recognition of the need to now step up the process of extending diversity and addressing the changed circumstances of different patrons. The commitment of Archbishop Martin to engage actively in a process for transferring a significant number of schools in Dublin to new patrons showed that this is not an area where conflict is either necessary or helpful.
In contrast, I think that the recent unilateral announcement of a target of transferring 50% of schools was unhelpful in the extreme. You can already see groups taking up more defensive positions which may make agreement harder to come by.
What is much worse is the fact that the Minister has admitted that he did not consult a single piece of research on the educational or financial implications of his policy before announcing it. If patronage matters to the core role of schools in educating children then it is profoundly wrong to announce a policy to affect 1,500 schools without taking a single step to check its likely educational impact.
Equally, we created the Community National School model and we believe it has the potential to be the core answer to the diversity issue – but there is no basis for massively expanding it before first checking that it actually works in practice as well as in theory.
Today we are circulating our formal policy statement on patronage and diversity which we have submitted to the Forum which is considering these matters. Our core principle is that diversity must be expanded but on the basis of clear evidence about likely outcomes and with the views of parents being central to decisions.
We should also talk about second-level curriculums. The Junior Certificate clearly is in need of reform, but simple abolition would be a step too far. It would be a big mistake for us to have a system where the first time there is any national assessment of achievement is when pupils are preparing to leave school.
I believe that there are many options which could be considered. It doesn’t have to be examined at one time – it could be spread over a much longer period. Equally, particularly in the sciences a form of ongoing assessment does need to be considered. This does not have to take the form of a teacher assessing their own pupils, there are many different approaches taken in other countries.
In relation to maths, much of the western world is seeing the decline in achievement that we our experiencing. I think the Project Maths initiative can work and should be implemented nationally.
Due to the 60% expansion in numbers implemented over the last decade and a half, Ireland now has one of the highest levels of participation in higher education in the world. There is still work needed, but major improvements have been seen in extending access to all parts of society.
There is no doubt that the issue of standards is one which must be tackled with renewed vigour in the next few years. When colleges drop standards to get more students through or give them higher than merited marks the people who suffer most are students. Employers can see when an institution has over-rewarded its students.
Taxpayers and students themselves have a right to expect that the money they put in to higher education goes to offering high-quality and challenging courses. There are a number of legislative provisions concerning standards which have been applied in quite a pro-forma way so far. I think we need to discuss ways of being more systematic in ensuring that courses and marking meet the standards which students and our society require.
Another area of great change in recent years which will continue to be important in the years ahead is advanced research. In 1997 the dedicated research budget of the Department of Education was exactly zero. Since then there has been a revolution in terms of the level of funding, targeted schemes and the international impact of the research which the state supports.
More than any other area this is one which is open to rigorous evaluation. Every single award is subject to international review and the significance of outputs are assessed internationally. Ireland is now a world leader in areas as important as immunology and the next-generation of web software.
Why this matters is that this is the foundation upon which future economic prosperity must be built. Already over 50% of IDA projects are based on our country’s research capacity. Tens of thousands of jobs throughout the country rely directly and indirectly on research.
Our universities and academics have achieved incredible things in this area and they are increasingly doing so in cooperation with industry. Every single significant private or semi-state employer in the country is involved in some level of cooperation with a research group funded by the state.
I am very worried that new ministers have been happy to launch research-based schemes prepared many months ago, but have so far refused to give a commitment to protecting our research funding infrastructure.
The multi-annual plan published last year explicitly protects research. We will fight any move away from this policy. It would be foolish in the extreme and do immense short, medium and long-term damage to our prospects for recovery.
Further and Community Education
The involvement of local communities in further education remains one of the most exciting areas for promoting educational opportunity and it is one I would like us to increase our focus on.
In the late 1990s a major issue with adult literacy was identified, particularly relating to people who had left school without completing any certificate. A wide range of initiatives were put in place backed by a dramatic extension of funding. As a result, the numbers participating in adult literacy programmes rose from 5,000 in 1997 to 50,000 last year.
These advances need to be protected. In particular, I think we need to use the reformed training agency to build literacy into every part of its work.
Training and further education places are currently undergoing a major expansion. They are essential to helping people out of unemployment when the labour market improves, as it will, in the near future.
I favour a broad discussion about the future of this sector and ways in which it can further integrate with community development initiatives.
A Positive Agenda
As I said at the start, I am determined that we will play a broad and constructive part in the education debate in the years ahead. We will fight to protect real advances of recent years, but also propose significant reform where it is necessary.
Our approach will be inclusive. I want you our members and supporters to take the lead working together with Brendan Smith our spokesperson. Brendan was a senior and widely praised Minister for Agriculture. He has this role because of his great personal commitment to education and his belief that Fianna Fáil can continue to be the party which is the driver of real innovation in the sector.
Now more than ever education is a key element in building a stronger future for our country. Our system has considerable strengths which must be acknowledged and significant weaknesses which must be addressed. It is also larger and more inclusive than at any time in our history. I want to thank you again for coming today and I look forward to talking with you and hearing your views.