I want to thank the executive of the IPPN for your invitation to be here with you this evening.
This is the last major education Conference I will have the opportunity to address before the election.
And so this evening, I want to speak about choices.
I want to reflect on some of the roads we have taken, and those not taken.
To briefly reflect on the impact our choices have on the education system, and on our nation more generally.
It can be easier sometimes to focus on the issues that lie outside our control.
But every day, my job and your jobs ultimately come down to the decisions we make about the areas we control.
100 years ago, people made exceptionally difficult choices.
Choices I can barely imagine, but which we are commemorating throughout this year.
On TV, we watch Rebellion, and then chat over how accurate it is, or who is fairly portrayed.
Speaking for myself, I’m glad it has shown at least the influence of the labour movement, the impact of women, and the competing allegiances that people were faced with in 1916.
Ultimately, those people made choices, and this year we remember them.
I want to thank you all for investing the time and energy to celebrate ‘Proclamation Day’, and for engaging with the programme of Ireland 2016.
Whatever else happens this year, we will collectively ensure that our children have the opportunity and space to consider the choices made by their ancestors;
to understand the sacrifices that were made;
and to debate and challenge the values they passed on through the generations.
Yesterday saw the publication of the report of the banking inquiry.
Like yourselves, I haven’t yet had a chance to read through the many hundreds of pages it contains.
But I know it highlights the choices that were made.
And it will serve as an invaluable source for research into the crisis for years to come.
As a small island nation, we could never have controlled the global financial challenges that emerged in 2008.
The choices made to begin restoring our economic independence involved a significant diminution of the living standards of our people.
Pay cuts, increased taxes, new charges, reduced spending on public services – all of these hit hard.
But even during hard times, we still faced choices.
We largely protected core welfare payments after 2009. This led to a rapidly increasing social welfare budget, but it was the right choice.
It meant that those who lost their jobs could be supported by the state.
In other words, that we preserved some form of social floor.
That was the right choice, but of course it had impacts elsewhere.
The increased spending on social protection required to preserve some threshold of decency meant that other sectors, including education, have faced an immensely tough decade.
Many, many choices were made since this Government was elected in 2011.
Along the way, we made some mistakes – I won’t attempt to suggest otherwise.
But we also got things right. We can see a strong recovery now emerging, with unemployment falling rapidly, wages beginning to grow once more, and increased investment in public services becoming a reality.
Investment in education
Since my appointment as Minister, I have fought for additional investment in education.
I passionately believe in education as a liberating, progressive force in society.
And I believe that everyone should have equal access to education – regardless of their abilities, identities, backgrounds, or socio-economic status.
Making that a reality means providing education with additional and sustained investment.
Over the last two budgets, I have secured an additional €200m of investment in education.
With that funding, I have chosen to prioritise investment in schools.
That was a deliberate choice.
I know that our higher education system is under enormous pressure.
And I know that we need to invest in further education if we want our young people to have valuable and viable alternatives to third-level.
But I also know that the earlier we invest in children, the greater the impact on their life chances.
And so I have made investment in schools my priority, while all of Government has brought a renewed focus to prioritising investment in early years education.
In the last budget, I was able to secure a reduction in class sizes.
Some will argue that class sizes don’t matter, but I don’t agree.
Enormous work has been done over recent years to improve teacher quality.
Every teacher in our classrooms is now a qualified teacher.
We have extended the B.Ed. so that student teachers have more time to develop and reflect upon pedagogical practice.
And fitness to practice hearings will begin in the very near future.
But having the best quality teachers only works when those teachers have enough time to give each child the attention they deserve.
Smaller class sizes means teachers have a greater chance to change the way they teach and to give each child that individual attention.
And so I believe that reducing class sizes was the right choice.
Indeed, I believe that we need to go much further – to at least reduce class sizes to the EU average over the coming years.
That is not to say that reducing class sizes is some form of panacea.
Class sizes are not the be all and end all – they are just one measure of our commitment to investing in education.
There have been other positive choices over the last two budgets.
I established the Centre for School Leadership in partnership with IPPN and NAPD, and have provided the funding to let it begin making an impact.
I found the investment needed to focus on important reforms like the literacy and numeracy strategy of the reform of junior cycle.
I created a team of early-years education inspectors, to support pre-school providers to improve quality in that sector.
These are the choices that I made, and I am proud of them.
After all the difficulty of the last few years, we can now look to a future full of promise.
We have restored a sound economic footing, and can now look to the social recovery that is within our grasp.
I want to see education at the heart of that social recovery.
I want to see funding increase to schools, with voluntary contributions consigned to the dustbin.
I want to see school leaders provided with the time and space to become leaders of learning.
Yes, that includes providing additional release time for teaching principals which we started to do in the last budget.
But it also means more than that.
It means looking to invest in support services that reduce the burdens of administration, project management of buildings, technical support, and so on.
So that the teachers we have spent so much time training, and the school leaders we have invested so much in, can focus on what we want them doing – building better opportunities for every child in Ireland.
Patronage and pluralism in the primary sector
As we look ahead, of course, we face a lot more than economic choices.
Across a range of areas, we can choose between protecting the past, or looking to Ireland’s future.
It is now almost five years since the establishment of the forum on patronage and pluralism in the primary sector.
Our efforts over those five years to provide for greater school choice have engendered passionate and intense debate about patronage and diversity in our school system.
The intensity of that debate – the level of commitment to education that it displays – is hugely welcome.
But passionate debate does not always reflect the legal, constitutional or societal complexity of the issues to be addressed.
This is more than an esoteric debate on the development of our education system since the foundation of the State – it is a very real issue for the parents of school-going children.
Significant progress has been made on enhancing diversity in education over the lifetime of this Government.
Progress continues to be made on a number of fronts, albeit at a slower pace than some of us might like to see.
Over recent years, we recognised that there was significant demand for diversity in school provision.
We recognised that parents in a changing Ireland should have a say in the type of new school to be established to serve their communities.
The new school establishment procedures put in place in 2011 are designed to give parents that opportunity.
Parental preferences are at the heart of the process and school patron bodies must now demonstrate evidence of demand for their particular type of school.
Since 2011, forty-five new schools, both primary and post-primary, have been established in areas of demographic need.
All of these have involved consultation with parents as to their preferred type of school.
Following on from that consultation, over 90% of these new schools have a multi-denominational ethos.
These numbers represent a very significant increase in the availability of school choice in growing areas.
In areas of stable population growth where new schools were not required, the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism recommended a process of patronage divesting to provide for diversity.
Surveys of parental demand indicated support for change in 28 of these areas.
Since 2013 eight schools have opened under this process, and more will be confirmed over the next few weeks once negotiations conclude in relation to a couple of options.
We need to do more to deliver the change that parents in the remaining areas have demanded.
We also need to look to areas that were not surveyed in 2012, where emerging demand for multi-denominational education will also need to be met.
Over the last few weeks, I have been meeting with most of the patron bodies to see how a process leading to greater diversity of school choice can be reinvigorated.
Let me make clear this is not about forcing any one school from its existing patronage.
What I want to see is collaboration which creates agreement within communities on the best way forward.
Reconfigurations that involve school amalgamations can present important opportunities that will assist in relation to diversity.
Amalgamations have the potential to create “win wins” provided they are in the best interest of the merging schools and have the support of local communities.
I have decided to establish a working group in my Department to examine resources and arrangements that will support amalgamation and eliminate impediments.
This work will build on the draft protocol that has been agreed between the Department, the main patron bodies and the INTO in relation to amalgamations of very small schools.
Having met with most of the patron bodies at this point, I know that they share my commitment to achieving greater diversity, and I believe they are all willing to work with individual school communities to see how reconfiguration might create opportunities for all concerned.
The recommendations of the forum on patronage and pluralism were much broader than just reconfiguring our schools.
For example, the advisory group also recommended that the Rules for National Schools should be reviewed and updated, beginning with the deletion of rule 68, which is concerned with religious instruction in primary schools.
Earlier today I rescinded Rule 68. A circular has been published on the Department website accordingly.
The Education Act of course continues to provide for the patron to determine the ethos of a school.
But Rule 68 was a symbol. A symbol of our past, and not our future.
The language in the Rule was archaic. And I’m glad it’s gone.
I have also today directed Department officials to begin to identify other Rules for rescinding – it is anachronistic for us to still look to a set of rules drafted in 1965, many of which will have been superseded by curricular or legislative changes.
Of greater importance for our schools in many ways, will be the development of a new curriculum for all of our primary schools, which will provide education about religion, beliefs and ethics.
That curriculum will give every child a shared knowledge of the religions and beliefs held by people in Ireland and across the world.
And it will imbue in every child an ethical understanding of relationships between people, and how we connect to our world.
Consultation on that curriculum is underway.
When complete, it will trigger another necessary discussion - how much time should be spent on it?
And how much time should be spent on all religious education in our schools?
Indeed, that is the discussion you have helpfully started this week
Currently, 30 minutes of each school day is allocated to religious education.
Is that enough, or is it too much?
We know a few things.
We want our children to develop a strong, ethical spirit, and an understanding of their place in the world.
But we also want them to learn many other things.
We want them to be physically active and fit, but we devote less than half of the time to PE that is devoted to religion.
We understand that an early appreciation of science can engage and astound our children in wonderful ways.
But science education also gets less than half the time that religion does in our curriculum.
And of course there are many other calls, from philosophy to coding to modern languages and financial education, all of which it is argued should feature on the primary curriculum.
We also know that there is a limit to what can be squeezed into a curriculum.
And so we will have to make choices.
Your members have a clear view on this – 85% of those surveyed believe we should spend less time on religion than we currently do.
This year, the NCCA will begin a consultation on the new primary curriculum framework, exploring questions exactly like this one.
I look forward to the debate around this, and to seeing the choice that we will make, which will say a lot about our view of what our future school system should look like.
I wanted to keep my remarks reasonably short tonight.
I know we have some time for Q&A, and I look forward to that.
But before I finish, there’s just one more point I want to make.
I have said on many occasions that being appointed as Minister for Education & Skills was the honour of my career.
There is no job in the world I would take over the one I have now.
Who knows what the coming weeks will bring – that’s a choice that the people of Ireland will have to make together.
But the final point I want to make this evening is simply to pay tribute to everyone who works in education in Ireland.
It has been an immense privilege to spend the last 18 months meeting with education bodies, visiting schools and colleges across Ireland, and getting to see first-hand some of this work in action.
And so thank you. To all of you here in this room, but also to all those working across the various sectors of education.
You hold the future of our country in your hands, and every day, you guard it preciously.