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04 March, 2016 - Speech by Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General, Department of Education and Skills at the 2016 ACCS Annual Convention

Introduction

Good morning.

Unfortunately, it is not possible for the Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan, to attend today.

She has asked me to pass on her apologies and to speak on her behalf this afternoon.

I would also like to allow an opportunity for dialogue with you this afternoon. For the discussion,I will be joined by my colleagues from the Department – Martin Hanevy and Kevin McCarthy.

An agenda for improving education in Ireland

In my speech today,I would like to update you on the programme of extensive change to all levels of the education system that we are implementing.

The four themes for the reforms are as follows:

·        learning for life;

·        improving quality and accountability;

·        supporting inclusion and diversity; and

·        building the right systems and infrastructure.

Learning for Life

On the first of these themes, I would like to update you on the literacy and numeracy strategy, curricular reform and the digital strategy.

Literacy and Numeracy

As I emphasised last year, the 2011 National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy drives the implementation of a programme of reform focused on curriculum, assessment and teaching practices.

Given the progress in the area, the Minister decided to bring forward the interim review of the Strategy.   The views gathered during the review process, to date, have shown us a number of areas which merit more specific emphasis up to 2020.

Junior Cycle

Reform of junior cycle is necessary. We know that we can, and must, do better for our young people.

In May 2015, we reached an agreement on the shape of the reforms.  In July, we reached agreement on the resources necessary to implement Junior Cycle reform.  We gave a clear commitment to make a substantial investment in teacher time and professional development for teachers to implement these reforms.

The reform has the support of parent and management bodies including the ACCS.  

First and Second year students are now studying the new English specification with new specifications for Science and Business to be introduced in September 2016.

As you are aware, Community and Comprehensive schools have been invited by the JCT to register for CPD and I understand that a large number of schools have now completed registration.  JCT are scheduled to commence the delivery of CPD to teachers registered with them in the coming days.

A Circular letter outlining the revised arrangements and supports for the implementation of Junior Cycle reform in schools in the rest of this school year is now issuing to schools. This will provide important clarity for schools on requirements and resources.

The new framework that is now being implemented has evolved considerably from the original proposals. While the stated grounds for original teacher union opposition have been addressed, the essential benefits for students have been retained.

The decision of the TUI membership last Autumn to formally accept the agreement reached with the leadership of the two main unions was very welcome.  As you know, the ASTI membership has not yet reached a similar decision.   I know that this is a concern for schools in your sector.

The current ASTI directive puts teachers and their students at a risk of disadvantage as implementation now gathers momentum.  It is vital in the interests of fairness that any period of continuing uncertainty in this regard is minimised.  

Transitions Reform

For a number of years now there has been public debate about the use of the Leaving Certificate for selection and entry into higher education, as well as the impact that this transition has on the student experience at both second and third level.

We all knew that something positive had be done to ameliorate some of the difficulties faced by our young people during this period of their lives, especially in terms of reducing the stress associated with the Leaving Certificate and in better preparing students for third level education.

For that reason, last year, the Minister for Education and Skills announced a package of reforms designed to support students in the transition from second-level into higher education, reforms which were developed following broad consultation with all stakeholders, including students.

These reforms will -

·        address the perceived predictability of the Leaving Certificate examinations, and thereby reduce inappropriate reliance on rote learning,

·        change the grading structure of the Leaving Certificate, to reduce the inordinate pressure on students to make tiny gains in marks,

·        revise the Common Points Scale, used by higher education institutions to admit students, to minimise the use of random selection in allocating places, and

·        broaden undergraduate entry by reducing the number of entry routes into higher education, which will reduce the complexity facing students and enable them to make better choices.

The new arrangements will commence for the Leaving certificate in 2017 and for entry to higher education for the 2017/18 academic year.

Skills Strategy

Changing patterns of work, in an ever more globalised economy will require people to upskill and reskill throughout life for different careers and jobs. To meet this challenge a new Skills Strategy was launched by the Government in January.

The new Strategy sets out an ambitious course for the next ten years for skills development in Ireland and helps us look towards the future, and to the creation of a society where the talent and skills of all our people are nurtured.

The curricular reforms underway in second-level education are particularly relevant to the skills strategy.

Digital Strategy for Schools

The new Digital Strategy for Schools 2015-2020, enhancing Teaching, Learning and Assessment was launched by the Minister in October 2015.

The new Strategy builds on earlier work and it links with other strategies curriculum and otherwise.

Improving quality and accountability

In relation to improving quality and accountability, I would like to focus on school leadership and school autonomy and accountability.

Centre for School Leadership

The Minister formally launched the Centre last December.

The establishment of the Centre is an exciting development and presents a great opportunity to enhance leadership in our schools. The Centre will, through a process of genuine collaboration with other providers, ensure that school leaders can access a rich programme of support that is designed to enhance and support leadership.

Currently, the Centre’s main focus is on the training of Principal Mentors to support newly appointed Principals from next September.

The Centre will also develop a new post graduate programme for aspiring school leaders.

The team will continue to explore with you how school leaders can be further supported and I thank you for your contribution to the Centre to date.

School Autonomy and Accountability

Last December, the Department published a research paper on the issue of advancing school autonomy in Ireland.  The research paper summarised a detailed review of the research on school autonomy and examined the feasibility of a range of possible options for advancing school autonomy in Ireland.

The paper was accompanied by a consultation paper, which set out some key questions arising from the findings of the research.  We sought views, observations and suggestions on the issue.  We hope that this will be the first step in a wide-ranging debate on the topic of school autonomy. 

I am pleased that the process is underway with submissions having been made by a range of education partners, including the ACCS, as well as individuals and I look forward to an ongoing debate on this in the near future.

Supporting Inclusion and Diversity

Turing to supporting inclusion and diversity, I would like to update you on our re-examination of how we can best support children and young people with special educational needs and those experiencing educational disadvantage, and on school patronage issues.

New Resource Allocation Model 

In 2014, the National Council for Special Education recommended a new model for allocating resource teaching support to schools, based on the profiled needs of each school, rather than on the diagnosed disability of individual children.

Following a wide ranging consultation process, the Minister established a pilot of the new allocation model. The Pilot commenced at the beginning of the current school year and is ongoing.

On conclusion of the pilot, at the end of this year, a review will be conducted with a view to finalising the new allocation model for introduction, subject to Government approval, from the start of the 2017/20018 school year.

Educational Disadvantage

DEIS – Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools aims to ensure that the educational needs of children and young people from disadvantaged communities are prioritised and effectively addressed.    Evaluations of the programme show that it has made a significant impact on learning outcomes at both primary and post-primary levels.  

A review of the DEIS programme announced last year is now well underway.  The majority of the work involved is scheduled to take place during the course of the current school year and it is envisaged that a renewed programme of supports will be in place in schools in September 2017,subject to Government approval.

Patronage

Since 2011, a patronage process is conducted for all new schools whereby parents are afforded an opportunity to express a preference for the particular model of school they desire for their area.

Under this process 27 new post-primary schools have been established, or are in the course of being established.

Two of these new schools are community schools that are under the patronage of Educate Together and the relevant ETB.  The two schools are Ballymakenny College in Drogheda, which opened in September 2014 under the patronage of Educate Together and Louth & Meath ETB, and Celbridge Community School which opened in 2015, under the patronage of Educate Together and Kildare & Wicklow ETB.  The establishment of these schools is a new development in the community school model that necessitated collaboration between all the partners and the Department.

There are more challenges ahead that we need to continue to work together on.  In particular I am aware that progress needs to be made on the development of a single Catholic patronage body for community schools.  I understand that over recent years, at the request of the Department, existing Catholic patrons have been giving some consideration to the concept of establishing a single Catholic patron for existing Community schools. 

Resourcing

As well as advancing the change agenda which I have updated you on today, there is also a need to consider the priorities for investment in the future.

Following some difficult years there was a welcome increase in resources for schools announced in the Budget. Additional teaching resources equivalent to 550 teachers are being provided for post primary schools for the 2016/17 school year. 

These additional teaching posts will enable Deputy Principals to be freed up from teaching time and be more fully available to assist the school principal with the leadership of the school.

Up to now only schools with over 500 students received an allocation to free up the Deputy Principal. With effect from 01 September 2016 second level schools with over 400 students will receive an allocation that will bring those schools in line with the schools that have over 500 pupils where the Deputy Principal is fully freed up.

A pro rata allocation of additional hours to support school leadership will also be provided to the schools with 400 or fewer students enrolled.

I am pleased to say that this successful outcome was a product of the collaborative effort of your organisation, the JMB and ETBI with the Department. I accept that there is more to do, but a good start has been made and this approach shows the considerable benefits of what can be achieved by collaboration.  I want to thank you for this engagement and I know that you are already building on what has already been achieved in discussions with my colleagues last week.

Budget 2016 also provided for an improved pupil-teacher ratio from 19:1 currently to 18.7:1 for the school year 2016/17. DEIS schools will now have pupil-teacher ratio of 18.25:1 compared to the standard 18.7:1.

In a circular issued earlier this year by the Department we have made it clear that this additional resource is to complement existing resources in order to best meet the guidance needs of the school in line with the school’s guidance plan

As guidance is a whole school activity it is important that schools develop a school guidance plan on a collaborative basis with all parties within the school community to ensure that guidance permeates all aspects of school life.

There is an opportunity at this juncture for Board of Managements in their oversight role to reflect in their deliberations how the provision of guidance is working in their school. This work should take a holistic approach to guidance provision. They can exercise an oversight role by having the guidance plan reviewed or redesigned to meet the needs of the school. Boards should consider the plan and how it is resourced before it adopts the plan and makes it available to all staff, parents and students.

It is also important to note that the Skills strategy also acknowledges the importance of guidance to its aims, and provides for a review of the full range of guidance services, tools and careers information available to students and adults. The review will map future priorities and make recommendations for improvements.

A major priority for the Department is to ensure that there is sufficient school accommodation so that our school system is in a position to cater for all pupils seeking school places. Post Primary school pupil enrolment numbers are projected to reach over 358,000 pupils in 2018, an increase of over 41,000 pupils since 2011, and will continue to rise until 2025.  To ensure that our school system can cater for this increase in pupil numbers is a continuing challenge. The new 6 Year school building Programme announced last November contains 124 large scale post primary construction projects including 12 in the Community & Comprehensive school sector as part of a €2.8 billion school investment programme. The new Programme will also assist in completing large scale projects that were announced and are progressing under the 5 year multi-annual Plan.  

Priorities for Investment

The Department is aware of the challenges created for you as school management as a result of the impact of the moratorium on recruitment.

While front-line services for teaching and SNA provision have been prioritised, the day to day operation of schools on a reduced level of secretarial, caretaker or cleaning resources is a significant challenge to be managed.

The current limited alleviation arrangements provide that all your schools have at least one secretary and caretaker.   The grants provided to schools through the School Services Support Fund also help to maintain essential services.  However, the fact that the alleviation arrangements apply the same irrespective of school size creates a particular pressure point in the larger schools.

The Department is aware of the need to make some improvement to the alleviation arrangements – particularly for the larger schools.  This will require funding and there are many competing priorities for our limited funding.  The scope for any improvements in the short-term is therefore very limited. 

In considering future investment, it will not be possible to satisfy all of the demands placed on the education system at the one time. It is therefore important for you to focus on what you believe the top priorities should be. It is my hope that funding, while limited in nature, will continue to be made available over the next few years to invest in our schools. The critical challenge for us all, will be to ensure that whatever additional resources are made available, that they are utilised in such a way as to maximise teaching and learning outcomes.

Conclusion

Mar fhocail scoir, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil as ucht an deis a thabhairt dom labhairt libh ag bhur gcomhdháil. Táim ag tnúth le breischainte libh anois.

[In conclusion, thank you again for the opportunity to speak at your conference.

I look forward to the opportunity for further dialogue now.]