08 April, 2015 - Minister O'Sullivan's address to TUI Congress

Introduction

Good afternoon.

A Uachtaráin, a Rúnaí Ghinearálta, a Thoscairí agus a chairde,

Is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil libh as an gcuireadh chugam le bheith in bhur dteannta ag an gcomhdháil bhliantúil agaibh, anseo i Loch Garman.

Tá a fhios agam mar a bhfuilimid ar fad, sibhse agus mé féin i bpáirt le chéile, tiomanta don todhchaí is fearr agus a thig linn a chur ar fáil don ghlúin óg againn.  

Is mór agam an deis a bheith agam le bheith ag obair go dlúth libhse ar mhaithe leis an gcuspóir sin a bhaint amach.

I want to thank you for the invitation to be here with you today.

It is the honour of my career to have been appointed Minister for Education and Skills.

I have devoted my life to education, to social change, and to tackling inequality.

There is no role other than the one I hold, which could better enable me to advance everything that I believe.

The TUI has a proud tradition of advocating for greater equality in education – a tradition I have always admired.

This afternoon, I want to talk about four simple ideas:

How we can deliver equality of opportunity in society through education;

How we can support teaching to remain a highly valued profession;

How we can provide better opportunities for all of our people, and;

The importance of investment in education.

Delivering equality of opportunity in education

My vision for Ireland has always been a more equal country.

Not one where cycles of boom and bust enrich an elite, and crush the dreams of the many.

But one where all of our people can have an education infused with passion and compassion; healthcare that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of what’s in your pocket or where you were born; and fulfilling employment that allows us to build decent lives.

At the heart of delivering real equality of opportunity, is education.

It is with that idea in mind that I published the Admission to Schools Bill 2015 this week.

Because equality of opportunity must begin with equality of access.

This Bill will enshrine in law a ban on schools charging parents to apply for a place in school.

It makes clear that every school must be welcoming of every young person –regardless of their colour, their abilities or disabilities, or indeed their sexual orientation or membership of the Traveller community.

I know very well, from visiting schools across the country, how the vast majority of our schools work to welcome every child in their communities;

To give them the care and attention that their young minds demand;

And to support the integration of all children, whatever their differences.

But I also know that some schools are oversubscribed.

They cannot be blamed for that.  But they can be expected to be fair and transparent in deciding how to prioritise children for admission to the school.

This Bill will make sure that is the case in all schools.

It will also allow the NCSE and TUSLA to designate a place for a child in a school.

Because we cannot continue to have any number of children who are unable to access any school place.

I have also stated my view that the regulations implementing the new admissions system should reserve no more than 10% for children of past pupils, unlike the 25% previously envisaged.

The TUI has expressed some concern about how the appeals mechanism envisaged in the draft scheme of this Bill might operate.

I accept that this is a point that needs further consideration, and so I haven’t included the abolition of section 29 appeals in the bill published.

I will develop my thinking on this point over the coming weeks, and bring forward an appropriate mechanism at committee stage of the bill.

I also intend bringing forward an amendment to require a Minister to get court approval before appointing an independent person to operate the admissions of a school – that is important to reassure schools that we intend to protect the autonomous nature of the school system.

And I will bring one further amendment to committee stage – to insert a new section 28 of the education act that will underpin a Parents and Students Charter.

Of course, access to education is only one component of delivering equality of opportunity.

The resources that are in place to support children have an equal role to play in this regard.

For the last 10 years, DEIS has seen increased investment targeted at schools which have concentrated levels of disadvantage, in both urban and rural areas.

The additional supports that DEIS schools receive, and the increased focus on planning in DEIS schools, have delivered better outcomes for students.

School attendance has improved and we have seen sustained improvement in children’s literacy and numeracy achievements.

Few educational interventions anywhere in the world have seen such sustained progress.

An important document relating to DEIS is being published tomorrow.

‘Learning from the evaluation of DEIS’ is a document that has been commissioned from the ESRI.

It consolidates all of the findings from the different evaluations of DEIS that have taken place and I see it as the starting point for a new discussion on the future of the programme.

The key lessons from the implementation of DEIS to date include:

-           The importance of the DEIS School Plan;

-           The importance of teacher supports, particularly CPD for teacher in Planning, Literacy and Numeracy, and pupil behaviour management; and

-           The importance of developing leadership capacity in school principals;

The work of the ESRI builds upon these lessons, and suggests that:

A change in approach within DEIS schools is evident, with a significant improvement in planning for teaching and learning and in setting targets for achievement;

There has been a significant increase over time in literacy test scores among students in designated disadvantaged schools;

Interestingly, greater impact is evident for younger cohorts of students, indicating that exposure to interventions over a sustained period of time is likely to yield greater dividends.

That last point is crucial as far as I’m concerned.

It makes it blindingly clear that continuing to invest in tackling education disadvantage, over a long and sustained period of time, is the very best way to deliver equality of opportunity in schools.

The ESRI have posed some challenging questions for all of us who support the DEIS programme.

They have asked whether the scale of additional DEIS funding is sufficient to bridge the gap in resources between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged settings.

And they challenge Government to really think about the need for joined-up thinking between education and broader social policy, such as housing and healthcare.

In thinking about this area, I keep finding myself drawn back to one important point.

When DEIS was launched in 2005, a commitment was given that it would be reviewed after 5 years.

That has not happened, and it’s about time it did.

We know that Ireland has changed significantly in the last 10 years. New schools have been established, and demographic changes mean that school populations have changed.

Yet, the schools identified in 2005 for participation in DEIS remain the only ones in the scheme.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will seek submissions from all educational stakeholders, including the TUI, on what the options for future interventions to tackle educational disadvantage should look like.

I will establish an interdepartmental group to consider the roles of different Government Departments in delivering DEIS in a joined up way.

And I will put together a technical group to establish what eligibility criteria are now appropriate to re-identify the level of need in schools.

During the next school year, I will complete a revised identification process for schools participating in DEIS.

This will form part of an overall proposal which I will produce for the delivery of future interventions to tackle educational disadvantage.

Of course, deepening our focus on equality of opportunity in education is not an issue at school level alone.

Equity of access to higher education for all citizens is another important policy priority.

We simply cannot afford to leave anyone behind.

One group of individuals who continue to face particular barriers in terms of access to higher education are asylum seekers.

People can spend more than ten years in the system before receiving a decision on their refugee status.

Although we have provided an entitlement to free primary and secondary school education, attendance at college requires the payment of the full international fee for these young people who, in addition, have no access to student supports. 

In most cases, this effectively excludes them for a future they have worked hard to achieve.

I am determined that this will change from September 2015 for students who have spent five years or more in the Irish education system.

I believe that such students should no longer have to pay any more to access third-level, than their Irish friends do, and that they should be have appropriate access to student supports.

Retired Judge Brian McMahon is currently chairing a working group exploring the broader issue of supports for asylum seekers.

I know that group will report in the coming weeks, and I hope that it will agree with the approach I have outlined today.

Supporting teachers

Enacting a new Admission to Schools Bill, delivering the long overdue review of DEIS, and providing additional supports for children with Down Syndrome, are three areas that will help deliver equality of opportunity in schools.

But I am determined that our ambitions must go beyond equality of opportunity – we must care about quality of the opportunities we are providing to young people, and also to our teachers.

Because the single factor that has the greatest impact on the quality of an education system, is the quality of teachers.

It is now over a year since section 30 of the Teaching Council Act was implemented.

I’m not sure the importance of that development, achieved with your support, has yet been grasped.

Every teacher – every single teacher in our schools, is now a qualified teacher.

Other countries are increasingly moving to let new graduates of any discipline work in their schools.

Often, such developments see students with the greatest level of need taught by those who are least qualified to do so.

That is not the path we have taken in Ireland.

We have recognised that only well qualified teachers can really deliver the improved outcomes from the second level curriculum that we strive for.

The quality of teaching is of course also linked to our treatment of teachers.

Tackling casualisation in the teaching profession is an issue I strongly believe must be grasped.

We cannot allow the current situation to continue, where 30% of all post-primary teachers are on fixed-term or part-time contracts.

That situation prevents teachers from having the security to build lives for themselves and their families.

If allowed to continue, this situation would detract from the attraction of teaching as a profession.

Two weeks ago, I published a circular to give full effect to the recommendations of the expert group on casualization in the teaching profession.

The new circular will make it easier for teachers to get contracts of indefinite duration.

And it will make it easier for part-time teachers to get full-time hours.

Because the least we can do is give teachers security and stability in your own lives.

Casualisation is one of the greatest risks to educational quality in Ireland, and to delivering real opportunities to teachers as well as to students.

I welcome the support of the TUI for the circular published last week.

And I look forward to making similar progress at third level, where the work of another expert group on casualisation is continuing.

But casualization is not the only challenge we face.

We also continue to see the threat of discrimination hanging over the heads of teachers because of section 37.1 of the Employment Equality Act.

I am disappointed and frustrated that we have not yet enacted an amendment to this legislation.

In the Programme for Government, we made a clear commitment to the removal of such discrimination.

This legislation is being advanced by my colleague, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, and I know that drafting is progressing in conjunction with the Attorney General.

I know this is a major issue for your members, and it is a major issue for me too.

We will get this dealt with, for once and for all, over the next couple of months.

There’s one final point I want to make in relation to the conditions of your members.

I know that issues have arisen in relation to the proposed incorporation of St. Angela’s College within NUI Galway.

I firmly believe that staff and their unions should have the right to be consulted and provided with information on any proposed changes to their employment.

So, without prejudice to any positions they may wish to take in relation to issues, my Department has written to St. Angela’s College and NUI Galway.

We have made clear that there should be direct engagement with TUI on industrial relations issues arising from the proposed incorporation.

I notice that the LRC have issued an invitation to both sides to engage in discussions, and I look forward to developments in this area.

Creating Opportunities

I believe that providing teachers with the right opportunities to thrive in environments free from discrimination is of central importance to our education system.

So too is providing the right opportunities to allow all young people to reach their full potential.

From Junior Cycle reform, to the creation of new forms of apprenticeships, to the establishment of Technological Universities, many reforms are focussed on this objective.

I want to use the opportunity today to outline the benefits that I believe each of these reforms can deliver.

The need for reform of Junior Cycle has been widely acknowledged for over a generation.

The TUI has long been an advocate of change at junior cycle.

I know that you share my frustration that the current model of learning and assessment at junior cycle is rooted in very different times. 

You have a proud tradition of being at the forefront of efforts to tackle disadvantage in schools, and to mitigate the social inequities perpetuated in the current school system.

You and I share a determination to reform the curriculum so that much more relevant learning will flourish for young people in school.

You and I both know, too, that unless we change the assessment arrangements, we won’t get the learning we want for young people.

That’s why I have welcomed the opportunity I have had over the last few months to engage directly with your President – together we have been seeking a way out of the impasse that has existed about junior cycle reform.

Since coming into office, I have sought to address the real concerns of teachers about the reforms.

I put forward compromise proposals last November. I appreciate that your President acknowledged these as a very significant step in resolving the issues.

I also agreed to your proposal to submit the unresolved issues to a process under an independent chairperson nominated by the unions.

Dr Pauric Travers undertook that role with rigour and fairness, as your own President noted publicly.

Dr Travers proposals don’t contain everything I would have wished for.

In the nature of these things, compromise is required.

For my part, I stated to Dr Travers that I would accept the further changes that he proposed as a way forward.

I also undertook to make available the resources that would be needed to advance implementation.

Teachers are now no longer being asked to assess their own students for State certification purposes. 

This addresses the unions’ stated core objection to the previous reform proposals.

The Travers’ proposal creates a clear distinction between the State certified terminal examination, which will continue to be run by the State Examinations Commission, and in-school assessment.

His proposals show how different forms of assessment can be integrated into teaching and learning. He has also recognised that teachers need to be supported in carrying out this assessment role.  I fully endorse that.

Teachers will be supported to ensure that their judgements are in line with national standards.

Firstly, there will be the formal Subject Learning and Assessment Review meetings in the school.

And secondly, there will be an independent Support Service for Assessment (SSA) under the umbrella of the JCT. 

This support for teachers, staffed by experienced teachers from beyond their school, will help teachers to use assessment and feedback in an effective, well-judged and fair way. 

I am convinced that a dual approach to assessment – a final State certified examination, and separate school based assessment - will give a more rounded evaluation of the skills and knowledge of young people.  

It will give students and their parents a more complete picture of their progress. 

It will support better learning and it will promote a culture of dialogue between teachers that will enhance their own professional development and satisfaction. 

It will begin to address the inequities in the current system that you and I want to see eliminated.

For the potential benefits of the new Junior Cycle programme to be realised, investment will be necessary.

I have already put in place a team of experienced teachers in the Junior Cycle for Teachers Service to deliver up to 16 days of professional development.

Irrespective of the differences between us, there’s a particular point I feel I must make on this issue.

I think that your decision to prevent your members accessing professional learning sits uneasily with the real commitment that I know you have to an openness to knowledge and learning.

I am ready and willing to engage with you on the range and extent of the resources needed to implement the Travers proposals.

We have an opportunity now to make a step-change in the quality of the future learning experience for students in Junior Cycle. 

I want teachers to be at the heart of implementing these changes - changes that will provide young people with the knowledge, skills and confidence to better prepare them for senior cycle and for their lives beyond school.  

I want to turn now to another area of significant interest to your members.

Renewing apprenticeship in Ireland is a key priority for this Government and this is a really positive time for apprenticeship. 

I strongly believe that a broadly based and well-functioning apprenticeship system will offer superb career opportunities for young people and will support the growth of our economy.

For TUI members, in both ETBs and Institutes of Technology, a significant growth in apprenticeships in Ireland offer enormous opportunities.

I am encouraged that overall registrations in the existing trades are on an upward curve after a number of years of decline. 

This is to be welcomed by TUI members in Institutes of Technology who have had to face a difficult period as provision in this area was reduced. 

I am also delighted to see the excellent work being undertaken by TUI members and others on updating the content of these programmes.

I established the Apprenticeship Council to issue a call for proposals for the development of apprenticeships in new sectors. 

I understand that there has been a strong response to the call and I look forward to receiving the report of the Apprenticeship Council in June.

This is also a time of great change in Irish higher education and those of you in the institute of technology sector are at the forefront of that change. 

The objectives of the technological sector reform are to raise standards, to deliver better quality outcomes for students, and to enhance the performance of institutes in their important regional missions.

This is the case whether they are seeking technological university status or remaining as stand-alone institutes.  

For those institutes around the country which are merging and seeking technological university status, the leadership, staff and students are working through a particularly complex process.

I want to take the opportunity here today to emphasise once again the importance of keeping open good channels of communication as we work.

I have emphasised this point with the leadership of each of the institutions concerned.

Because the end result will be worth all of our collective efforts. 

Our students will benefit enormously from large multi-campus institutions of scale and strength that are research active and fully engaged with enterprise.  

These new institutions can build on the institute of technology sector’s unparalleled achievements in promoting access and social development in all regions.  

I expect to publish the Technological Universities Bill in the coming weeks and I would like to thank you for your engagement to date on that Bill.  

Investing in Education

I make no apology for believing in the truly liberating potential of education.

Equality of opportunity is within our grasp – through legislation, and through the right supports to include all children, it can be achieved.

Equality of outcome requires much deeper work.

It requires that we retain and develop the excellent quality of teachers and school leaders.

It needs those teachers to have stable and secure employment free from discrimination.

And it demands that we empower teachers with the right curriculum and resources to improve outcomes for all children.

But delivering equality also requires something much more tangible – it requires investment in education.

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

Despite the growing numbers of students in the school system, 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 the education budget 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 bring 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 week, I was able to announce that I have secured a further €50m – 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.

That brings to €110m the increase in the education budget compared to 2014.

I think that this increase to the budget is welcome.

But I know that it’s not enough.

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

Capitation rates, middle management posts, pupil-teacher ratios, book rental schemes, investment in ICT, and of course teacher salaries are all worthy of greater funding.

But we will never deliver improvements to all of these areas in just one year.

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

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

I look forward to working with the TUI to deliver the investment that is needed to deliver equality through education.

Conclusion

Go raibh maith agaibh arís as an deis seo le bheith in bhur dteannta inniu.

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil libh as an obair a bhíonn ar siúl agaibh, lá i ndiaidh lae,  ar mhaithe leis an nglúin óg agus guím gach rath ar obair na comhdhála seo agaibh agus go mbaine sibh taitneamh as.

Go raibh maith agaibh go léir.