23 February, 2018 - Speech by Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General, Department of Education and Skills at the 2018 CPSMA AGM

Introduction

Good morning. 

Unfortunately, the Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, has a long standing commitment to be in Co. Donegal today and is unable to attend. 

He has asked me to pass on his apologies and to speak on his behalf this morning. 

I would also like to thank you for allowing an opportunity for dialogue with you today. For this, I will be joined by my colleague from the Department – Martin Hanevy. 

An agenda for improving education in Ireland 

In my speech today, I would like to highlight the programme of extensive change that we are implementing across all levels of the education system. 

We are bringing together in one place of actions from across the Department of Education and Skills and the sector and unifying them under key goals and objectives. This provides a comprehensive strategic overview and statement of direction. These are in the 2016-2019 Strategy and associated annual Action Plans for Education. The 2018 Plan was published earlier this month. 

As you all know the Minister has set an overall ambition to make Ireland’s education and training system the best in Europe by 2026. To achieve this, we are working on 5 main goals:

  • Improve the learning experience and the success of learners
  • Improve the progress of learners at risk of educational disadvantage or learners with special educational needs
  • Help those delivering education services to continually improve
  • Build stronger bridges between education and the wider community
  • Improve national planning and support services.

The 5 goals are supported by a framework which includes a range of important co-operative agendas with our sister Government Departments and which is underpinned by a number of significant strategies across education and training, including for example our literacy and numeracy strategy. Importantly there are also a number of indicators which allow us to track progress.

I would like to touch on a number of key developments and plans.

In relation to the first goal to improve the learning experience and the success of learners, it is crucial that learners experience learning environments which support them to reach their full potential. 

We are progressing well here. The latest results from PIRLS show that Ireland’s primary students are amongst some of the best internationally ranked students when it comes to primary reading. 

A number of key strategies and initiatives provide direction under this goal, they include:

The Literacy and Numeracy Strategy has been updated and ambitious targets for literacy and numeracy in schools identified in the interim review (2016), with a particular focus on numeracy. The NCCA is also currently working on the development of a new Primary Mathematics Curriculum. A public consultation on the draft specification from junior infants to second class is under way. The NCCA is working with a network of schools to try out aspects of the new specification.

The STEM Education Policy Statement 2017-2026 was launched late last year. Phase 1 of implementation will focus on establishing what is necessary to provide a quality STEM education experience. Also launched late last year was ‘Languages Connect 2017-2016’ the strategy for foreign languages in education, which sets out a roadmap to put Ireland in the top ten countries in Europe for the teaching and learning of foreign languages. 

The 2018 action plan for The Digital Strategy for Schools will be published soon. The rollout of a €210million capital investment is continuing. The first tranche of this funding, €30m, issued to schools during the 2016/2017 school year and the second tranche of this funding, another €30m, is issuing to schools now. A Digital Learning Framework is currently being trialled in 30 primary schools with a view to being rolled out nationally in September 2018. In addition, a scheme promoting collaboration between schools on the use of technology for teaching and learning is being rolled out this year. 

In 2018 we will take concrete actions to embed and support the new Wellbeing initiatives in schools, we will expand NEPS and deliver a coherent suite of supports to schools as well as publishing a Wellbeing Practice Framework to inform Planning and Evaluation in schools.

Last year there was an extensive consultation on the future redevelopment of the Primary School Curriculum. This was the first time, in almost twenty years, that those working in primary education had an opportunity to consider the structure of the curriculum, what it should comprise and how time should be allocated within it. In January the NCCA published its final report. The next phase of consultation will involve a consideration of a redeveloped primary curriculum.

The new Primary Language Curriculum for junior infants to second class was implemented in primary schools in September 2016 with a focus on oral language. In the current school year, the focus is on reading and writing. The draft specification for third class to sixth class will shortly be accessible for a period of public consultation via the NCCA website and a number of other consultation events will be held throughout the country. 

In relation to the second goal to improve the progress of learners at risk of educational disadvantage or learners with special educational needs, good progress is being made. 

You will be aware that the new model for allocating Special Education Teachers has been introduced for all mainstream schools with effect from September 2017.

Very extensive policy advice considerations and consultations with education partners preceded the model’s introduction. CPMSA played such a very constructive role in this process, both in the development of the model and the piloting phase. This allowed for many issues of concern for schools to be addressed and resolved before full implementation. 

I am pleased Government was in a position to ensure an additional 900 special education teaching posts were made available to support the introduction of the new model. This meant that, where the school profiles indicated additional need, this was provided. However, no school received a lower allocation of Special Needs Teacher posts than they had in the previous school year. Schools have been supportive of the new model and feedback from schools has been predominately very positive. 

The NCSE is currently undertaking a Comprehensive Assessment of the SNA Scheme to identify the most appropriate form of support options to provide better outcomes for students with Special Educational Needs, having regard to the significant amount of State investment in this area. The NCSE has also established a working group, comprising relevant stakeholders, to assist in proposing an alternate and improved model for providing care supports so as to provide better outcomes for students with special educational needs who have additional care needs. It is intended that the reports of the Working Group and of the Review will be completed soon. 

The revised DEIS Plan, published last year, updates the original 2005 Plan and sets out new goals for improved outcomes. These include narrowing the gap between DEIS and non-DEIS schools in attendance, achievement and retention, and developing better progression pathways for learners in DEIS schools. The School Excellence Fund initiative, targeted primarily at DEIS schools, was introduced in 2017 to support and reward innovative practice in schools. The fund aims to encourage schools to work in clusters to explore and apply new, innovative solutions to tackle educational disadvantage and to improve learning outcomes for students. 

In relation to the third goal of helping those delivering education services to continually improve, significant work is also being advanced. 

Significant investment is underway in CPD for teachers to support curricular change and the work of the Centre for School Leadership has advanced significantly. The Centre has focussed on three key priority areas since its establishment in 2015. These are the development of a Post Graduate Diploma in school leadership and the provision of coaching and mentoring support for principals. The Centre plans to develop a continuum of leadership support and establish how this can be supported. 

Enhanced middle management posts are now also in place in schools. New Droichead arrangements are being implemented and school self-evaluation is being recommenced. Of course, there is a further improvement in the pupil teacher ratio in September 2018.

While we have been creating more new teacher positions now than at any other time in the history of the state, concerns have been expressed about teacher supply issues. Primary schools have reported a difficulty in recruiting substitute teachers to cover for short term or temporary absences. We are now establishing a Teacher Supply Steering Group to develop a strategy for teacher supply. As part of its remit, the Group will consult with key stakeholders.  The Department has also issued a note to schools emphasising that a career break should not be granted unless the school is in a position to fill the temporary vacancy that would be created.

New child protection procedures for schools are also now being put in place.

Under the fourth goal to build stronger bridges between education and the wider community a legislative programme of change is being advanced, including the Education (Admissions to Schools) Bill and the Education (Parent and Student) Charter Bill. These will strengthen the role of parents and students and provide greater fairness and transparency to the admission process. These actions will also give parents and learners a greater voice in the education system and help to strengthen the partnership between schools and parents and learners. 

The Admissions Bill passed Committee Stage on 28th June 2017 and will shortly proceed to Report Stage. The provisions of the Bill should make it easier for parents to more easily access local schools and to enrol their children in a school that meets their needs. The Bill will require schools to be fair and transparent in deciding how to prioritise children for admission to the school. 

As most of you will be aware, early last year the Minister announced his intention to reform the school admissions system in relation to the role that religion can play in that process.   During Committee Stage debate, the Minister advised that his preference is to remove the capacity for state-funded denominational primary schools, where they are oversubscribed, to use religion as a criteria in the admissions process, except where it is either essential to protect the ethos of the school or where it is necessary to ensure that a child of a minority religion gets access to a school and religious institution of their ethos. Department officials are currently engaging with the Office of the Attorney General on the development of legislative proposals on this matter which the Minister hopes to publish shortly. 

The Department is also advancing the Schools Reconfiguration for Diversity process in order to make progress towards offering greater school choice for parents in line with the Programme for Government commitment to increase the number of non-denominational and multi-denominational schools with a view to reaching 400 by 2030.

The new process supports the transfer of schools to multi-denominational patrons in response to the wishes of local families. It is designed to build on the lessons learned from the patronage divesting process and deliver more multi-denominational and non-denominational schools.

Plans are being finalised for Education and Training Boards to commence the identification phase of the reconfiguration process, which includes surveys of pre-school parents. Where the surveys indicate a level of demand for multi-denominational schools sufficient to justify transfer of at least one school from denominational to multi-denominational patronage, a process will commence to give effect to that.

There will be a very substantial level of consultation with local communities in the process, both with the ETBs in the initial phase to establish evidence of demand by consulting pre-school parents and subsequently through the requirement for the existing patron to consult with local community and school interests in proposing to transfer patronage of an existing school to an alternative patron body. They will also take into account proposals from different prospective multi-denominational patrons.

The final goal relates to national planning and support services.

The Minister announced the payment of the Minor Works Grant in December. We know the importance of this grant for your schools. In the next school year, the payment will take place not later than January 2019. 

There has been further significant capital expenditure in the primary school system in 2017. 35 major school projects were completed whilst a further 130 primary school projects are advancing in the architectural planning process. This does not include the 177 primary schools which were approved funding under the Department’s additional accommodation scheme for needed classrooms. Separately, over 330 schools were approved funding under the Summer Works scheme. This brings the number of primary schools to over 465 who have benefited under the current scheme. Valid applications from schools in further categories that have not been reached will be retained to be assessed under future rounds subject to the overall availability of funding. 

This day last week, there was a very important Government announcement of infrastructural development stretching over the next decade. Project Ireland 2040, comprising the National Planning Framework and National Development Plan, seeks to secure a more balanced growth of population and jobs across Ireland’s regions. For the first time, it directly links long term capital investment to spatial planning priorities, as well as to social and environmental objectives. 

Under the priorities set out in the National Development Plan, capital investment in education will increase significantly over the coming decade, with more than €8.8 billion earmarked for the schools sector. In the immediately years ahead, our focus will continue on generating the necessary additional school places for our young population. Over time, however, this level of funding will allow us to also roll out a programme of refurbishment of our existing school stock, which will include a deep energy retrofit of schools built prior to 2008. This will be significant for those schools, including many rural schools, which have not benefited from investment in recent years as a result of demographics. 

This level of funding will also allow us to give to primary schools, in the coming years, the level of certainty and visibility that you have been seeking in relation to the Minor Works Grant. 

You will be aware of the roll out and operation of the Financial Support Services Unit (FSSU) at Primary level that commenced on a phased basis in September 2017. The FSSU will be an important source of advice and support for primary schools on financial governance matters including standardising arrangements for compliance with accounting requirements under Section 18 of the Education Act 1998. I wish to acknowledge the tremendous work carried out by the FSSU team to date. I also wish to thank the Primary School Management bodies, including the CPSMA for their advice and support during the preparation for the expansion of this service at primary level.

As well as advancing the separate but linked areas of the change agenda which I have updated you on today, there is also a need to effectively plan for the joined up implementation of these. The Department is establishing arrangements for how the education partners will be consulted more effectively on planning for the implementation of strategies and actions and such consultations will of course include the CPSMA.

There was a welcome increase in resources for schools announced in the Budget. In considering future investment, it will not be possible to satisfy all of the demands placed on the education system at the one time. It is therefore important for you to focus on what you believe the top priorities should be. It is my hope that funding, while limited in nature, will continue to be made available over the next few years to invest in our schools. The critical challenge for us all, will be to ensure that whatever additional resources are made available, that they are utilised in such a way as to maximise teaching and learning outcomes.

Conclusion 

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.]