21 November, 2011 - Address by the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn TD, to IBEC members

Introduction

I’m delighted to be here today, with the opportunity to discuss the reform agenda that I am implementing for our students and young people in our schools.   

The changes centre around the need to improve learning outcomes and ensure our young people develop the skills they need to prepare for the many roles they will play in life.  

The young people in our schools now are the new business leaders, entrepreneurs, employers and employees of the future. 

As business leaders and employers of today you understand better than anyone the knowledge and skills these young people will need.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the important changes we are making and to listen to your views.   

Your support for the reforms we are implementing is vital.

As our topic for this evening is focussed on schools, I want to focus in particular on two of those reforms – the new literacy and numeracy strategy, and the overhaul of junior cycle.

But briefly, I think it’s important to outline the other reforms which are underway in education, in order to the context in which the entire education system is being reformed and modernised in a holistic manner.

Education Reform

The Action Plan I announced earlier this year in response to the Forum on Patronage is being implemented, to bring greater parental choice into our education system.

We have announced for the first time ever a transparent and honest five-year building programme – providing certainty to schools about their future, and to industry about our planned investment.

Investing €1.5 billion in major projects that will provide physical classroom places for our children.

Next year, I will introduce legislation that will ensure school enrolments are managed in a fair and transparent manner.

The creation of SOLAS will provide us with a body that can properly control the operation and funding of a consolidated further education and training sector.

This will replace the role filled by FÁS, and indeed ANCO, in the past.

The amalgamation of our Vocational Education Committees to create 16 local Education and Training Boards will see that policy and funding put into practice.

The new Education and Training Boards will take over the old FÁS training centres.

SOLAS, through the ETBs, will deliver the training and apprentice courses which industry needs.

If we genuinely want a new and vibrant economy, we must put an end to the idea that further education and training are only for those who miss out on higher education.

The SOLAS action plan is due to be published in the near future, while the legislation for both SOLAS and the Education and Training Boards will be introduced to the Oireachtas in this session.

Those structural changes must also be supported by active intervention by the education sector in the labour market and the economy. 

Employers will have an even greater role to play in this integrated further education and training sector in the future.

A re-evaluation of the transition from post-primary to higher education has begun, with a focus on ways of reforming the points system.

The number of colleges training our teachers is being reduced from 19 to 6, to ensure the teachers we train are of the highest possible quality.

Work is also underway to implement the new strategy for higher education.

This morning, I outlined to the higher education industry the approach that we will take in that implementation.

We are seeking to enhance the engagement with industry, and the responsiveness of the higher ed sector to enterprise needs at a local and regional level.

The Enterprise Engagement Forum was established last year, and is chaired by my Secretary General.

This Forum provides an opportunity for regular engagement between the Department and enterprise partners on all aspects of education policy.  

I very much welcome the contribution IBEC has made to this Forum and I look forward to attending its next meeting.

Literacy and Numeracy Strategy

But today I want to focus on two reforms – implementation of a new national literacy and numeracy strategy, and overhauling the existing Junior Certificate.

We all know, but do not take seriously enough, that literacy and numeracy skills are fundamental to a person’s life chances.

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.

In July 2011, I published the National Literacy and Numeracy strategy to prioritise literacy and numeracy and to improve outcomes at early childhood, primary and post-primary levels.

The strategy sets out a radical programme in areas such as teacher education and CPD, curriculum change, monitoring of student progress and evaluating the work of schools.

It acknowledges the central role of parents and the need to support them as they help their children to learn.

There has been significant progress on the implementation of the Literacy and Numeracy Strategy to date. 

A team of literacy and numeracy advisors to support teachers and schools in implementing the Strategy have been appointed. 

A national programme of professional development for primary and second level teachers is well underway.

In September 2012, a reconfigured and extended Bachelor of Education programme for primary teachers began, allowing more time for student teachers to learn about literacy and numeracy teaching.

The Teaching Council is in the process of reviewing reconfigured B.Ed programmes for the post-primary sector.

A circular issued to all primary schools in 2011 asking them to:

  • Increase the time spent on mathematics and literacy;
  • Extend standardised testing in English reading and Mathematics, so that pupils are tested at the end of 2nd, 4th and 6th class;
  • Report the results of the tests to parents, to the Department, and to their boards of management.
  • And provide data on 6th class pupils' progress to their second level school once enrolment has been accepted.

A website (www.helpmykidlearn.ie) has been developed to support the Strategy by the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA), particularly aimed at parents. 

I also published the School Self-Evaluation (SSE) Guidelines on Monday of this week. 

School self-evaluation is a way in which the process of reflection, improvement and development in schools can take place in a more systematic way.

The guidelines support on-going consultation with parents and reporting to them on students' progress in literacy and numeracy.

Junior Cycle Reform

There has been clear evidence for many years of the need for change to our current junior cycle.

A significant number of students do not make progress in English and Maths in first year when compared with their primary school achievements.

Many children become disengaged from learning in second year and in many instances do not reconnect.

The prospect of focusing on a formal state exam at the end of third year is often the final straw.

The necessity for intense study, and even cramming, is a real turn off for many.

In effect, it drives many students out of the school system.

It also damages the natural curiosity of a lot of students who do remain in school.

This constitutes a significant waste of our country’s intellectual and human capital.

Before the changes to junior cycle were recently announced, IBEC stated publicly that “overhaul of the current over-crowded, rigid and subject-based curriculum, with teachers taking on the responsibility of assessing their own pupils, is long overdue”.

As you will be aware, since his election last year, President Michael D. Higgins has led a series of consultations on what it means to be young and Irish.

A detailed report of those consultations was published last weekend, showing that the support which IBEC have provided for reform of the junior cycle, is echoed in the demands of our young people.

In assessing the current second-level system, one participant commented that it “suppresses creativity and independence and it does not educate young people for life”.

Students, and their future employers, agreed on the need to reform our junior cycle.

The current Junior Certificate examination is at variance with best practice in many countries with high-performing educational systems.

These countries, such as New Zealand and Finland, confine high-stakes, public examinations to the end of the senior cycle.

They also place much greater emphasis on school-based assessment approaches throughout the lower-secondary cycle.

Because of the high stakes nature of the current Junior Certificate, rote learning and rehearsal of questions for the examination dominates teaching and learning during third year.

The new junior cycle aims to ensure that our students develop the key skills that are necessary for later learning and for life.

It is designed to encourage innovation in schools and more creative teaching and learning in the classroom.

It offers exciting new possibilities to schools to plan learning programmes that are varied and interesting for students and meets their learning needs.

It will give students more opportunities to engage actively in their learning and to use their creative energies.

Partnering with Schools

The reform of the junior cycle is not just confined to the school community and the families of students.

The business community has a direct interest, and now, an even greater role to play.

We regularly see joint initiatives between multinational companies and groups of our schools.

These initiatives have been valuable, in particular in bringing improved ICT to our classrooms.

But I think an engagement between indigenous companies and their local schools could make as much, if not more, of a lasting impact.

The new junior cycle will create the space for new, locally designed short courses.

With industry partnering with teachers to develop short courses, we can dramatically improve the links between students and local employers.

Bringing education out of the classroom, and into the community that surrounds it.

Transition year can be used to build on this work, with opportunities for work experience with the same local companies for students.

In fishing towns like Killybegs or Dunmore East, students could learn about that industry in junior cycle short courses, and get first hand experience as part of transition year.

Similarly, tourism in Kerry, farming in the midlands, and pharmaceuticals in Cork, are all examples where a sector of industry could work together with schools, to capture the imaginations of our students.

And to instil in them the passion and knowledge of these industries they will need in the future.

Your members are located throughout the country.

The smaller indigenous companies as well as the larger Irish-owned firms, have the potential to play a constructive role.

So I would ask all Irish companies to consider partnering with at least one of their local schools.

Open your doors to your young neighbours.

Have an open day for the first year students.

Send your staff in to talk to the second and third years, telling them what you do, and how you do it.

And provide transition year students with the meaningful work experiences that can genuinely allow them to explore possible future careers.

Describe the skills that you use, and how you learned them in school – or perhaps didn’t.

What subjects did you do, and looking back, which ones should you have done?

How do you apply your knowledge?

How do you create your products, and where do you sell them?

Tell the students how you got the job you do, and what you look for in potential employees.

I could go on, but not as well as you could.

You know your business.

I do not.

Ultimately, I believe that we need to open a new kind of dialogue between local companies and local schools.

Either directly with schools, or through organisations such as the NAPD, why not begin that dialogue?

You never know where it might take you.

Conclusion

I have briefly set out the reforms which are underway in education, and we can expand on some of those themes during our discussion this afternoon.

I’ve also set out how I think a better dialogue can begin to exist between industry and our schools.

There are two primary reforms underway in the school system.

The literacy and numeracy strategy, and reform of the junior cycle, will fundamentally change our school system.

They involve refocusing the school system on the skills that you, as employers, have been demanding for years.

In implementing this reform agenda, we continue to require your support.