30 April, 2015 - Minister O’Sullivan addresses JMB/AMCSS Conference

Introduction

Good afternoon.

It is a pleasure to join you here in Kerry for the JMB Conference.

I had been warned that Fr. Paul would be a tough act to follow – at least I was warned!

There are any number of issues that I could address at this Conference.

And so I’m particularly glad that I’ll have the opportunity to engage in a Q&A session after my remarks.

For now, there are three areas I want to address directly.

Firstly, I want to talk about the important reforms to the transition from school to higher education, which I announced yesterday.

Secondly, I want to touch upon Junior Cycle reform.

And finally, I want to talk about the importance of investing in education.

Transitions Reform

Yesterday, I announced some very important reforms that have emerged from the work of the Transition Reform Group. 

We began this journey some years ago.

In September 2011, the NCCA and the HEA came together to organise a joint conference.

That conference explored the use of the Leaving Certificate for selection and entry into higher education, as well as the impact that transition had on the student experience at both second and third level. 

There was widespread agreement that something had to be done to ease the stress faced by our young people as they left school and sought to enter higher education. 

More difficult was pinpointing where action needed to be taken, and by whom.

What was crystal clear, however, was that a whole of system approach was needed. 

But achieving system-wide and cross sectoral change is not a simple affair. 

The education system is not a centrally controlled hierarchy under my command.

It is made up of a vibrant web of institutions and sectors– each engaged with different purposes and missions – but with some very important shared objectives. 

Working closely with a group of key agencies and bodies, we have now reached agreement on some substantial changes.

Yesterday, I announced four changes that will impact on those students sitting the Leaving Certificate in 2017. 

I want to reassure all students that the impact of all of these changes have been considered and analysed with their best interests in mind.

These four measures build on the work of the Transition Reform Group over the last number of years.

They are changes that address:

·        Firstly, the extent of predictability in the Leaving Certificate examinations;

·        Secondly, new grading scale for the Leaving Certificate examinations;

·        Thirdly, proposals towards a revised common points scale for entry into higher education; and

·        Fourthly, broader undergraduate entry to higher education programmes.

Changes to our education system resonate right through Irish society and generate huge debate and public discourse. 

That engagement is hugely positive, and shows our cultural attachment to the importance of education.

But while such debate is welcome, when any change is proposed, we must be sure that our actions are not dictated by rumour or supposition. 

We must have all the facts at our disposal. 

We have heard from a whole range of stakeholders about their experience of this transition and about the proposals that we have been considering. 

We heard directly, from fifth and sixth year students who sat with us just over a year ago, and fully engaged with the issues at hand.

We have heard from practitioners at second and third level at the major conference held in Maynooth University just over a year ago.

And we have heard from each sectoral group through discussions by each of the agencies and bodies involved in the Transition Reform Group.

One area where more formal research was considered essential, was the area of predictability in the Leaving Certificate exams.

The Leaving Cert carries huge public trust.

We therefore made sure that we carried out a robust assessment of this issue before any action was considered.

The State Examinations Commission asked the leading international experts on assessment, at the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment, to work with Queens University Belfast.

Together, they carried out a significant study on the Leaving Certificate examinations.

The study, which will be published in full by the State Examinations Commission on Friday, is of unparalleled depth and breadth.

We believe it will attract widespread interest internationally.

Getting this right is important. 

Here in Ireland, the extent to which exam papers are perceived to be predictable, can dominate exam preparation by students and teachers.

That issue also dominates much public discussion.

The study found that despite the perception of many students and others, the Leaving Certificate examinations are not in fact very predictable.

It has also found that those who rely on the idea that exams are predictable often do not perform as well as those who prepare more fully for the examinations.   

I have asked the State Examinations Commission to now carefully consider the very important findings of the research study and come back to me with their advice of the actions to be taken. 

I hope that this research will provide a welcome evidence base around some of the more popular myths surrounding the Leaving Certificate.

I know that all of you here today will be particularly interested in the new grading structure for the Leaving Certificate, and the proposals for a revised common points scale.

These are big changes and I can assure you they are not being taken lightly. 

Since the early nineties, we have had a grading system where students’ results are categorised into a very high number of grades. 

Many of you of a certain age will remember when you got an A or a B or a C and so on. 

As the demand for higher education grew, however, higher education institutions found that they were having to allocate places by random selection.

We agreed to change the grading of the Leaving Certificate to help solve this problem. 

Unfortunately it has had unforeseen and unintended consequences for learners at second level. 

It has created a situation where a student is never more than 2.5% away from a grade higher or lower. 

This puts inordinate pressure on the student and every mark they earn. 

The NCCA has looked at the situation internationally, and considered the Irish context. 

The new grading scale emerged from our discussions and consultations with students and with teachers.

The eight grade bands reward achievement appropriately without overly emphasising tiny gains or losses of marks that happen on the day of the exam. 

We wanted to make sure that in making the change to grade bands, we did not create difficulties for the selection of students for higher education.

In particular, nobody wanted the return of widespread random selection.

And so, in parallel to the development of the new grading scale, the higher education institutions have been working hard to adapt their common points scale.

In developing their new points system, I know that the universities and institutes of technology are working hard to ensure that they establish a fair system that will:

·        minimise random selection;

·        preserve the relative levels of points received for ordinary and higher level results; and

·        Will encourage the take-up of higher level subjects by removing the risk for students aiming higher of not receiving any points for entry into higher education courses.

The proposals published yesterday are still under development and are subject to review by the academic councils. 

But we have agreed a set of underpinning principles.

Those principles are a real tribute to those in the higher education sector intent on fairly recognising scholastic achievement at all levels. 

The proposals mean that now points will be awarded for those achieving 30-40% in higher level subjects. 

In reducing the element of risk for students of getting no points if they opt for higher level, we will be encouraging its take-up. 

This approach supports wider education policy and I welcome it.

I hope that the changes proposed will not result in unhelpful and misplaced commentary about “rewarding failure” which does our students a real dis-service. 

All examination results are a measure of a level of achievement, whether at ordinary or higher level. 

We have created a situation where a student who achieves 39% on a higher level paper will get absolutely no CAO points for entry into higher education.

But a student with the same ability who is unwilling to take the risk, and who gets a C on an ordinary level paper, gets points for that result.

That’s despite the fact that we know that those two results represent a very similar level of achievement.

This anomaly is neither logical nor fair;

It discourages students from aiming higher;

And it is not a feature of other examination systems internationally.

I look forward to seeing the final points system later in the summer when it has been fully developed and agreed by the universities and institutes.

Finally on this topic, I want to say a few words about broader entry into undergraduate programmes.

I am very pleased with the progress that has been made to date on the commitment that was made to broaden entry into higher education, and to reduce entry routes into the sector.  

This is a very important area of reform for students. 

Too many entry routes into higher education programmes provide a bewildering array of choice for second level students in 6th year.

Many find this complexity very difficult to successfully navigate.

The consequences for students can be undesirable and unjustifiable, and can result in students making poor choices that can ultimately lead to drop-out.

This is inexcusable in situations where institutions are motivated to provide too many courses with an unnecessarily small number of places, purely to artificially inflate the points requirement and increase their own institution’s prestige. 

Such behaviour is cynical, and does our students a disservice.

That is why I want to recognise the work that has been done to date. 

I know that the restructuring and curricular reform that is being undertaken by institutions requires a lot of intensive work – but I think that the reward for the student experience is worth it. 

Giving students the chance to experience a much broader 1st year and allowing them to defer specialisation to later in their degrees will give us more rounded graduates in the long term.

Such an approach will allow the students to make an informed decision, and hopefully reduce drop-out rates

This is good for them and good for wider society as well.

In the university sector, we have managed to bring the number of level 8 options back to 2011 levels.

And we have a commitment to reduce the number of options by a further 20% by 2017.

This is solid progress, worth commending.  But together we will have to continue working to drive change in this area.

There is more work to be done on transitions.

This work includes issues around matriculation requirements into higher education. 

But, the changes I have announced this week are the changes that will impact on those sitting the Leaving Certificate in 2017. 

I know that Philip Nolan will give the closing address to your Conference.

Today, I would like to express my personal thanks to him for the leadership he has shown on this issue over recent years.

 

Junior Cycle Reform

Having spoken of an area where significant change has been introduced, I now want to turn to an area that is proving more challenging.

I mentioned that transition reform in many ways began with a joint conference hosted by the NCCA and the HEA in late 2011.

Another piece of work completed by the NCCA in late 2011 was the publication of ‘Towards a Framework for Junior Cycle’.

Unfortunately, three and a half years later, we have yet to reach agreement on how to implement necessary changes at this level.

I read with interest an article by your General Secretary yesterday.

In it, he made clear that when out walking, he has occasionally been struck by ideas of how this impasse can be surmounted.

Which reminded me a little of a plaque on the Royal Canal in Dublin – erected in memory of William Rowan Hamilton, who discovered a formula for quaternion multiplication while out for a stroll!

I want to thank Ferdia for continuing to work to find ways that agreement can be reached.

And indeed to thank the JMB for your continuing support of educational reform.

For many years, I have enjoyed walking on Sunday afternoons, all around the counties of Limerick and Clare.

Since my appointment to this role, I’ve had a lot more thinking to do while I walk!

Like Ferdia, and like Hamilton long before him, I have tried to think up solutions to difficult problems on such occasions.

I was appointed Minister for Education and Skills nine months ago.

During that time I have sought to reach agreement on this issue.

I have been willing to consider any compromise, provided that we can protect the changes to education that our students need.

Everyone has principles at stake in this debate.

But negotiation will always require some flexibility on both sides.

For my part, I have been very clear on a few points in particular.

We need to recognise a wider range of learning than is currently the case.

We need to considerably reduce the focus on one terminal exam as a means of assessing our students.

We need to give prominence and importance to classroom based assessment.

We need greater professional collaboration between our teachers.

And we need both parents and students to get a broader picture of each student's learning throughout the whole of junior cycle.

These principles are of such central importance, that I cannot countenance any compromise that would impinge upon them.

Some aspects of the reforms have been broadly agreed – the introduction of short courses, a cap on the number of subjects, and the need for different types of activity to be assessed.

Unfortunately, we still have industrial action preventing our teachers from engaging in professional learning.

And I know of considerable uncertainty in our schools.

That’s a challenge for you as school leaders and managers.

It is also a challenge for teachers and for parents.

But most significantly, it is a huge challenge to our students, who deserve some certainty about the education they will receive.

I don’t have a magic fix to this issue that I can announce today.

But I will say that I believe that agreement is within closer reach than at any point over the last few years.

With a little more walking on all our parts, I hope we’ll close the remaining gap in the near future.

 

Investing in Education

You know as well as anyone how important reform of the junior cycle, or of important transitions from school can be for our young people.

But I don’t need to tell you that reform alone is not enough if we are going to deliver top quality education for all students.

Education also requires investment.

Shortly after my appointment last year, I realised the extent of the challenge I faced in delivering such investment.

Despite the growing numbers of students in the school system, current spending on education was due to fall by €39 million in 2015.

After months of intensive discussions, I was pleased to be able to announce that the education budget will rise this year, for the first time in recent years.

With Brendan Howlin’s support, I secured an increase to current education funding of €60 million.

Over the next three years, 40,000 additional students will enrol in schools – over 13,000 of them next September alone.

We have now made sure that the additional teachers, resource teachers and SNAs who are needed to support the education of those students, will be provided to schools.

Since the Budget, I have tried to build further on this investment.

I have managed to make some improvements to the staffing schedule for some small schools at primary level.

I have also found the resources to better support children with Down Syndrome.

And last month, I was able to announce that I have secured a further €50m in capital funding – to complete the summer works projects which started last year, and to provide €36m in funding to a further 559 schools this year.

To replace their windows, or to fix their science labs or playgrounds.

These increases to the budget are welcome.

But I know that they are not enough.

We will never deliver all of the investment that education needs at one time.

But I will always be a passionate advocate for further investment in education.

We must have priorities, and we must focus first on the areas that will best deliver for young people.

Over the coming months, I want to work with all education partners, to devise a coherent strategy for investment in education.

I know that the strong view of the JMB is that middle-management must be the priority area for investment.

And I know that you have engaged very constructively with the Department, to examine how such supports could be improved;

Both in terms of additional funding and changed practices.

I have to tell you though, that this is not the priority chosen by many of the principal teachers that I meet around the country.

In some schools, it is clear that greater staffing levels would be the top priority.

In others, the need for additional capitation funding is causing real challenges.

And of course there are other areas, not least teacher salaries, where additional investment could be justified.

We may not be able to deliver all that is required in one year.

But I am determined to fight for greater investment in education.

I look forward to working with the JMB, to identify the priority areas for such investment in advance of the next Budget.

 

Conclusion

Improving the transition to higher education, reforming junior cycle, and investing in education.

These are three of my top priorities during my time as Minister.

You, of course, will have many other issues you want to see prioritised, and I look forward to discussing them with you shortly.

But before I conclude, I want to make a couple of brief remarks about someone who is dear to all of you.

This is the first time I have had the opportunity to address the JMB Conference.

Sadly, it is also Ferdia's last Conference as General Secretary.

For many years, he has led your organisation with determination, grace under pressure, and a good dollop of humour.

I know that he has thoroughly enjoyed being at the heart of educational change during that time.

And I know that many people - within the JMB, inside the Department, and right across the education sector, have enjoyed his company down through the years.

Of course, as with many people in education, I somehow doubt he is going to simply slip away to the golf course.

But for today, can I extend my thanks to him for the work he has done leading your organisation, and simply wish him the very best for whatever future adventures may lie ahead.

Thank you.