13 March, 2015- Speech by Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General, at the 2015 CPSMA AGM

Introduction

Good afternoon. 

Unfortunately it is not possible for the Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan, T.D., to attend today as she is departing for Brazil where she is promoting Ireland as an attractive and quality destination for international education. However, she has agreed to meet with your chairperson Mrs. Maria Spring and your General Secretary Rev. Dr. Tom Deenihan to review relevant developments following this meeting, and is keen to continue to engage with the CPSMA. She has asked me to pass on her apologies and to speak on her behalf this afternoon.

In my speech today, I would like to update you on the implementation of the agenda for reform in Irish primary education.

I will try not to speak for too long,as I would also like to allow an opportunity for dialogue with you this afternoon. For the discussion,I will be joined by my colleagues from the Department –Mary Cregg, Gavan O’Leary and Hubert Loftus.

An agenda for improving education in Ireland

We are implementing a programme of extensive change to all levels of the education system in Ireland – reforms which can be categorised in a number of broad themes.  These themes are as follows:

  • learning for life;
  • improving quality and accountability;
  • supporting inclusion and diversity; and
  • building the right systems and infrastructure.

Learning for Life

On the first of these themes, I would like to update you on curriculum reform and the literacy and numeracy strategy.

Primary Curriculum

Our existing primary curriculum is still often referred to as the ‘new’ curriculum despite the fact that it was introduced in 1999. While it has served the education system well, in light of the many pedagogical and technological changes that have taken place over the past 16 years it is timely to reflect on whether the curriculum continues to meet the needs of children today.

In conjunction with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), the Department is now embarking on a major reform of the primary curriculum.

The NCCA will be launching a public consultation in early 2016 that will invite views from all interested parties on the entire curriculum. This will provide all stakeholders with an opportunity to outline their views on the existing curriculum and how it needs to change to meet current and future children’s needs.

In advance of the public consultation on the overall primary curriculum, the Department has prioritised the reform of particular curriculum areas, namely:

  • An integrated language curriculum (English and Gaeilge) - The curriculum for the first four years of primary school is currently being finalised and will be made available to all primary schools in Autumn 2015 with implementation commencing the following September
  • Mathematics - The NCCA has also started the process of developing a new mathematics curriculum following the publication of two research reports in November of last year. Work on revising the mathematics curriculum is now underway with a view to a curriculum for the first four years of primary school being available for teachers to engage with towards the end of 2016
  • Education about Religions and Beliefs and Ethics (‘ERB and Ethics’) – This development is in response to the recommendations in the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector which was published in 2012.

Literacy and Numeracy Strategy

The 2011 National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy drives the implementation of a programme of reform focused on curriculum, assessment and teaching practices to underpin a high quality, relevant learner experience and to enhance learning outcomes in early years settings, primary and post-primary schools.

Primary schools have had a significant role in implementing the Strategy and there have been significant improvements in literacy and numeracy standards demonstrated in the results of the national assessments published in January. These should be celebrated. We have seen the first meaningful improvements to literacy and numeracy levels for over 30 years, reaching the targets set for 2020 well ahead of time.

It is a tribute to the work that goes on week in week out in schools up and down the country and it shows what our schools can achieve. In short, I believe that, with your help, the coordinated initiatives in the Literacy and Numeracy Strategy are proving to be working.

The Minister has decided to bring forward the interim review of the Literacy and Numeracy Strategy – originally scheduled for 2016 to 2015. While the targets around national assessments in primary education have been met, there are of course areas for further development. It is important that we keep up the positive momentum regarding reading and mathematics standards - especiallyfor specific groups of pupils who are doing less well – so that we can increase our ambitions between now and 2020.

Supporting Inclusion and Diversity

Supporting inclusion and diversity incorporates the improved participation of parents in our schools, the regulation of school admissions, and re-examining how we can best support children and young people with special educational needs.

Children with Special Educational Needs

The Minister recently announced that she is not proposing to change the way that teachers are allocated to schools for children with Special Educational Needs for the coming school year.

Through consultations, there was a broad welcome for the proposed new model from Parents, disability groups, schools and stakeholders.

However, there has not been sufficient time to address all of the concerns which have been raised in advance of the 2015 school year. 

The Minister has asked the Department to design a pilot of the new model, which schools could opt into on a voluntary basis.

The Department of Education, in conjunction with the National Council for Special Education and the Educational Research Centre, is currently designing a pilot, which could consider the impact of the proposed new model on schools.

Following the completion of this work, consultation will take place with education partners and the number of schools involved and the timeframe for the establishment of the pilot will then be established.

The Minister announced on 10th February, the establishment within the National Council for Special Education of a new Inclusion Support Service to assist schools in supporting children with special educational needs.

This service will include the Special Education Support Service, the National Behaviour Support Service and the Visiting Teacher Service for children who are deaf/hard of hearing and for children who are blind/visually impaired which until now, have been managed by the Department.

This change will mean that schools will receive a better and more integrated service from this new Inclusion Support Service.

The Inclusion Support Service will build on the existing good work and support which the various services provide to children and their families as well as to teachers and schools.

It is intended that the services will continue as normal as the new arrangements are put in place, with as little disruption as possible to service users, as progress is made to transfer these services to the NCSE.

Inclusivity in schools

As we all know, Ireland has changed and the make-up of Irish society in terms of backgrounds and beliefs has changed and is continuing to change. The challenge of accommodating these changes is one that faces schools and their managers on a daily basis.  I would like to acknowledge the fact that many of our schools have been at the forefront of adapting successfully to change. There has been a very positive contribution by schools and teachers to welcoming pupils, including those from different cultural and belief backgrounds, into our schools in recent years.

You will all be aware of the work of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism. While much of the reaction to the Forum Report focused on its work in relation to diversity of patronage, the Report also addressed the need for existing schools to be inclusive and welcoming places for children of different cultural and belief backgrounds.  

Work has continued on implementing the Forum’s recommendations. A paper was published last July, which gives an update on the progress made to date on implementing those recommendations. 

The paper outlines good practice and options for promoting diversity in all schools, regardless of whether or not the school has a highly diverse student population.

In this context, I welcome the publication today by the Catholic Schools Partnership of Guidelines for schools on sharing good practice on inclusion of all pupils.

The guidelines are a welcome response to the work of the Forum and the July paper. They recognise the reality of modern Irish society, which is that many Irish Catholic schools are widely attended by children who do not come from a Catholic background. It is important that all children feel welcomed and included in their school, irrespective of their cultural or belief background. 

The guidelines published today provide practical advice on timetabling and sacramental preparation, facilitating ‘opt-outs’ from religious education, and deepening intercultural dialogue within our schools.

Ireland has changed and is continuing to change. The challenge for everyone involved in the education system is to ensure that we can respond appropriately, sensitively and in a timely manner to those changes. In this way, we can ensure that the system continues to serve the needs of society into the future. 

Patronage

The issue of divesting patronage of schools is also relevant in this regard.

The patronage divestment process being undertaken by the Department, with the co-operation of the Catholic Church, presents the best opportunity to address this need for diversity.

We have made good progress under the patronage divestment process since this time last year.

Between September 2014 and September 2015, nine new primary schools will have opened under this process.

All of the schools will be multi-denominational in ethos. Eight will teach through the medium of English and one will teach through the medium of Irish.

It is particularly pleasing that the Catholic Church has been able to offer school buildings for immediate use by an alternative Patron in two areas. The buildings in question arise on foot of school closures.

For parents who have indicated a desire to be able to access multi-denominational education in other parts of the country, the speed of progress in this area may be a source of some frustration. But overall, this is welcome progress made possible by the efforts of all of the Diocesan authorities involved and the Catholic Schools Partnership who have provided unstinting support since the process began. 

We look forward to making further progress in 2016 and beyond as we continue to work together to give parents the choices they want at primary level for their children.

School Admissions

In March last year the Government approved the drafting of the Admission to Schools Bill.

The Bill is currently at an advanced stage of drafting and is on the Government legislative programme for publication in the current Dáil session.

I know that many parents are happy with the schools their children attend and that the vast majority of schools are inclusive and welcoming places. But there are cases where there is disappointment and dissatisfaction, with limited means of dealing with this.  

It is with this in mind that the draft framework aims to strike an appropriate balance between school autonomy and the interests of parents in our education system.

Our aim is to see improved access to schools for all pupils and ensure that there is consistency, fairness and transparency in the admissions policies of all schools and in the service they provide to parents.

The Bill is the first step in putting this framework in place.

Minister O’Sullivan has made it clear that she will listen to all views while the draft legislation is being debated in the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Empowering Parents

As you know, we have been looking at enhancing the ways in which we can to become more active partners in the education of their children. The Education Act as it stands, while making provisions that can guide and influence the relationship between a school and its students and their parents, does not provide any cohesive approach or strategy to enhance how students and parents are served by schools. Section 28 of the Education Act 1998 provides for grievance and appeal procedures in schools.

The Minister now plans to revise section 28 in order to provide in law for a Parent and Student Charter. 

This involves creating a stronger culture of valuing parental involvement and increasing parental involvement in all aspects of their children’s education.

The Minister plans to include legislative amendments to support a Charter in the Admissions Bill.

The amendments will set out the principles that should apply in the relationship between a school and its parents and students.

It will create a power for the Minister to publish statutory guidelines that will be based on the principles, and these guidelines will set out detailed actions and standards that will apply in all schools. The guidelines will be developed following consultation with the education partners. I look forward to working and consulting with the CPSMA throughout this process.

Putting the right infrastructure in place

Today, I would also like to mention key developments to make sure the right infrastructure is in place to support our schools.

Sustainability of small schools

Many of you will of course have noted the Minister’s recent announcement that Government has agreed the implementation of two new policies to better support the sustainability of small schools, and particularly those in isolated areas.

This policy approach involves two key elements:

  • Improved changes to the staffing schedule for some small schools and
  • A voluntary protocol for future sustainability for 1 teacher schools with reducing enrolments

You will also be aware that Government approved the publication of the Value for Money and policy review of small schools, which was commissioned in 2010. Minister O’Sullivan has confirmed that the recommendations of that report have not been accepted.

The new policy approach recognises that in many parts of our country, small schools play a central part of local communities. It also recognises the importance of small schools as an essential part of social infrastructure to rural communities, and particularly the most isolated communities.

The Minister is also committed to preserving parental choice and recognises the need to sustain local communities, particularly dispersed and remote communities, who have close affinity to, and identity with, their local schools. 

The two new policies will provide some improvement to the staffing levels of some of our smallest schools. These improvements particularly recognise the challenges faced by very small schools that are more than 8km from the next nearest school of the same type of patronage and language of instruction.

It is also important to point out that we are developing a voluntary amalgamation protocol for the very smallest schools with reducing enrolments in consultation with representatives of teachers and school managers. The thrust of the protocol provides that where any school which is within 8km of the next nearest school of the same type of patronage and language of instruction sees their pupil enrolment drop below 25, there will now be a series of voluntary local conversations about whether amalgamation of local schools would create more sustainable school communities into the future.

I would like to thank the CPSMA for its engagement with us on these issues and there is still some work to finalise the amalgamations protocol.

Deed of Variation

The Minister recognises the concerns of Catholic patrons in relation to protecting the ethos of schools. 

You will all be aware that there has been ongoing dialogue over the past number of years in relation to the Deeds of Variation. As you know, the objective of the Deeds of Variation is to provide ultimate security for the ethos of denominational schools. I wish to assure you that the Minister is fully committed to achieving this objective.

It is the case that there are complex legal issues involved and the Department has been working with the Attorney General in relation to the matter. There have been some developments since the last CPSMA conference and in that regard we have recently issued further clarification to the Bishop’s Conference and the Catholic Schools Partnership on the position. This, we hope, will serve as a basis to progress discussions on the matter.

We look forward to working with the Bishops Conference and the Catholic Schools Partnership to reach a mutually acceptable solution which will both provide the security required and be sufficiently robust to withstand any potential challenge. 

Capital Developments

All schools are aware of the challenge that we have in ensuring that our school system is in a position to cope with increasing pupil numbers  and the need to ensure that every child will have access to a physical school place. To meet this challenge, almost €2 billion in funding is being invested by the Department under the current 5 Year capital plan, announced in 2012.

The 2015 construction programme represents the fourth phase of the five-year plan announced in March 2012.

The 2015 annual Plan details the 70 major school projects that are planned to proceed to construction in 2015.

In the context of the Government’s Medium Term Capital Investment Framework 2016-2020, a follow-on 5 Year Plan is currently being developed. As in the case of the current Plan, we expect that this new Plan will provide certainty to school communities and enhance transparency and openness in the school building system.

A nationwide demographic exercise is again being carried out to ascertain where additional primary and post-primary provision is required.

The payment of the Minor Works Grant 2014/2015 of €28 million, last December will assist primary schools in carrying out improvements to school buildings and grounds and the improvement or replacement of mechanical and electrical services.

For the first time last December the issue of the Minor Works Grant was extended to primary schools with provisional recognition.

Conclusion

There are many other areas where we are advancing with important developments. These include the establishment of a new Centre for School Leadership in partnershipwiththe IPPN and NAPD, the introduction of the Primary Online Database and the Teaching Council (Amendment) Bill 2015 and associated new vetting requirements. Unfortunately I don’t have time to outline these and other developments to you. Together with my colleagues I will be happy, of course, to discuss these further with you.

Mar fhocail scoir, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil as ucht an deis a thabhairt dom labhairt libh ag bhur gcomhdháil. Táim ag tnúth le breischainte libh anois.

[In conclusion, thank you again for the opportunity to speak at your conference. I look forward to the opportunity for further dialogue now.]