Address by Ruairi Quinn, TD, Minister for Education & Skills to the Annual JMB/AMCSS Conference
Thursday 3rd May 2012
Thank you for your invitation to address your Annual Conference.
We have a common interest - improving educational outcomes for all our pupils. In my first year as Minister for Education and Skills, I have been abundantly clear that this is my main objective.
It can be achieved only with your help and that of your teaching staff. I fully acknowledge that this strive for quality is against the background of severe economic difficulties.
You don't need me to remind you of those difficulties. I want to acknowledge and express my appreciation of how you have continued to ensure that your schools open their doors to over 180,000 students every day.
Throughout the school year.
Inevitably you encounter problems and challenges
But you have responded to them.
I salute you for the work that you do and the hope you inspire in your pupils, despite our present economic circumstances. You have displayed great leadership in responding to the difficult but necessary decisions the government has had to take.
An example was the manner in which you responded to the decision to bring guidance counsellors inside the quota. I commend the key role played by Ferdia Kelly and Gerry McCaul in drawing up the new Framework for Provision of Guidance in schools. They worked closely with the other management bodies, the IVEA and ACCS, as well as with the NAPD in preparing the very useful framework.
The resilience and leadership that you have shown will continue to be needed as, unfortunately, the budgetary position remains very challenging.
Your conference will understandably focus on the reductions and constraints in resources, which affect the work that you do each day.
But we cannot talk about the funding of the education system in isolation from the overall financial and budgetary context. Despite the good progress we have made in reducing spending, the gap between taxes and spending this year is still a staggering 18 thousand million euro.
It is precisely because our finances are in such a weak position that only the EU, ECB and IMF are willing to lend to us. No other lender is willing to take the risk with Ireland. That is what it means to lose the economic independence of the republic. That is why terms and conditions apply.
At Easter there was some adverse reaction when I expressed my worry that calls made at conferences or elsewhere for reversals of budget measures or for increased investment in education mean that the gravity of the fiscal crisis is still not fully understood.
Let me tell you my dilemma. The unallocated deficit in the education budget for 2013 is €77million and €147million for 2014. That's €77million I have to find by the time the next budget is published in December 2012. There are no easy solutions to this challenge.
Much as I would like to, it is simply inconceivable that we can increase spending. This Government has protected education as far as possible.
It is a fact that far greater reductions in the number of public servants are being made in other sectors relative to those in schools.
When I spoke at the teacher union conferences at Easter, I made the point that in Britain in the darkest days of World War 11, work began on planning significant reforms of both their health and education systems.
They drew up the Beveridge Plan which contained the blueprint for the National Health Service and the modern welfare state and most important of all, its education system.
The key message from that piece of history is that even in adversity it is important to hope for a better future and express that hope by pressing on with important reforms.
But some progress has been achieved. When this Government was elected just thirteen months ago, the country had seen no growth in 4 years. For the first time since 2007, 2011 saw modest growth in our economy.
Unemployment had also increased alarmingly - from 4.4% in December 2004, to 14.7% in December 2010. A lot of work remains to be done, but that figure has stabilised, and is down slightly to 14.3% as of the end of March.
The action plan on jobs, published by this Government, aims to build on that stability, and help ensure that more Irish people get back to work. All over the country, companies, large and small, are increasingly pledging to create more jobs in the coming months and years. Only this week we had news that planning permission has been granted for the first phase of an enormous Chinese trading hub on the edge of Athlone.
We are talking about real jobs that will allow people find stability and recovery in their own lives. Our exports remain strong, showing that both multi-national and indigenous companies are producing top quality products in Ireland. They can help us build our way towards recovery.
When Irish companies secure more contracts as part of trade missions to China, to the US, to India and to the rest Europe, each of these contracts feeds into our recovery.
And increases our tax revenues.
And helps get people back to work.
Step by step, stability is being achieved.
The job of work for the coming year is to build on that stability and build a real recovery.
Reform of Junior Cycle
Let me move on to Junior cycle reform and to the role you as school leaders are playing. The basic question we need to ask ourselves is what is it that we, as a society, want for our children as learners and as citizens.
I think that we can agree that learning is a process of growth; a process which should encourage students' natural instincts of engagement and exploration, and equip them to adapt to the needs of a changing world.
One of the criticisms of our second level system has been the emphasis on recall and rote learning, rather than real understanding and competence.
In November last the NCCA published "Towards a Framework for Junior Cycle". I have endorsed the thrust of these proposals on the future direction of the junior cycle.
The reforms proposed by the NCCA will make space for the embedding of active learning and a greater shift towards school based assessment, though the terminal exam will remain an important aspect of the Junior Certificate.
We need to be clear what we are talking about here. We are looking for a culture change in teaching and learning and an end to the dominance of the written final exam in a manner which will bring us into line with other countries.
We are looking to a situation where teachers use their professional training and judgement in the assessment of their students for exam purposes. This happens in other countries without any major problems or objections and at home in further and higher education where it is taken for granted.
The reforms are based on the belief that students and teachers should be in a dialogue about learning. It should be an interactive process. It should liberate students and teachers from the narrowness of the current system in which a low stakes exam is treated as if it were a high stakes exam.
Teachers, principals and boards of management are, I am glad to say, generally enthusiastic about the proposed changes. The NCCA was looking for 40 schools to work on the practicalities of implementing the reforms. It received three applications for every place in the scheme. All the applicant schools said they were ready for change.
These were schools which are facing the same challenges of retirements, redeployments and cuts as everybody else and yet their appetite for innovative reform remains steadfast.
I know that parents and teachers want reassurance that any curricular changes will be adequately resourced. I can assure you that I will prioritise this to the best of my ability and despite the crisis in our public finances.
For example my Department has fully resourced the cost of the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy for 2012. We have provided in-service hours for maths teachers as part of Project Maths. High speed broadband will be rolled out to all second level schools by 2014.
I intend to find sufficient resources for Junior Cycle reform.
Senior Cycle Reform
Different types of reforms are needed at the senior cycle level. Last year, for the first time ever, the NCCA and the Higher Education Authority held a joint conference.
It discussed the impact of transition to third level on the operation of the Leaving Certificate, and how students learn during the final years of their second level schooling.
This can and should inform our approach to Senior Cycle reform and I look forward to hearing the views of teachers and school leaders before progressing further.
Some of the suggestions arising from the conference make common sense, like a requirement on third level colleges to offer more general entry courses and to reduce the trend of points inflation required to enter college. I hope to be in a position within a few months to announce some far reaching changes which will benefit future generations of Leaving Certificate students who are planning to go to higher education.
No overview of reform is complete without a reference to what is happening in mathematics. Ireland has one major advantage over other countries in that mathematics is a compulsory subject at Senior Cycle.
Despite this, mathematics is an area where we have seen significant weakness and where there is justified concern about the low take-up by students at higher level. Project Maths has been introduced in order to transform teaching and learning of Mathematics at second level.
The decision to award bonus points to higher level maths from this year has been generally welcomed. Indeed, you may have seen figures recently which showed that already there has been a 20 per cent increase in the numbers of students applying to take higher level maths in the Leaving Cert exam in June.
The reforms to Junior and Senior Cycles represent two of the major reforms that I have initiated over the last twelve months. I would like to take a moment to briefly touch on some of the other changes which are currently underway across the education sector.
At second level, the process of decision-making in relation to the patronage of many of the new schools that are to be established in 2013 and 2014 is nearing conclusion. This process is a balanced one to allow for applications to be made from patrons for the patronage of new schools that are to be established.
The criteria to be used place a particular emphasis on parental demand for plurality and diversity of patronage. I plan to announce the patronage of the new schools within the next two months.
Literacy and Numeracy Strategy
We all know that literacy and numeracy skills are fundamental to a person’s life chances. Yet information on national assessments, school inspections and international studies has shown that many of our students are not developing these skills to the best of their abilities.
Last July, I published the National Literacy and Numeracy strategy to prioritise literacy and numeracy and to endeavour to improve our outcomes at early childhood, primary and post-primary levels.
It sets out a radical programme of change in areas such as teacher education and CPD, curriculum change, monitoring of student progress and evaluating the work of schools.
The Strategy acknowledges the central role of parents and how we need to support them as they help their children to learn. Implementation to date – with your support - has been encouraging.
We are also embarking on the implementation phase of an ambitious change agenda for higher education, a sector in which you clearly have a strong interest.
This follows on from the publication early last year of the National Strategy for Higher Education in Ireland. In implementing the new higher education strategy, all institutions have been asked to consider their future development and issues such as collaboration, amalgamation and regional clusters.
As part of this process some Institutes of Technology may see their future in amalgamating with others with a view to applying to become a Technological University.
These are the headline reforms underway in our education sector. We are also continuing to work on changes in many other areas. In order to succeed, a culture change must be encouraged to happen in every classroom.
I know there is always a temptation to cling to that which is familiar at times of crisis. We must make the most of this opportunity to build a reformed society and economy.
In conclusion, I want to thank you again for the manner in which you are managing through this crisis and your dedication to doing what is best for your students despite the constraints that exist.
I wish you well with the rest of your conference.