Five more things the new Minister for Education should do…
Following on from Fintan O’Mahoney’s excellent article, “Ten things the new Minister for Education should do, straight away“, I’m going to add a few of my own thoughts, mainly relating to primary education. Ruairi Quinn’s resignation has been met with mixed reactions in the teaching world with many educators pointing out his achievements and failures, weighing them up and deciding as to whether he did a good job or not. One thing everyone should be able to agree with is Ruairi Quinn made a lot of changes to the education system. Many of these are in the midst of fruition so what should the next Minister for Education do with all these hot potatoes? Ruairi Quinn tackled a number of sacred cows and ignored (or cut) a number of other important areas. Here are my list of priorities for the new Minister:
It is critical that the new Education Minister doesn’t bottle it and park the patronage reform. While most people in Ireland are apathetic to this issue, there are thousands of children who have little choice but to attend schools where the patronage does not fit in with their own belief system. The current idea of making denominational schools more inclusive by adding lots of different religious symbols around the place is astounding in its lack of thought. However, aside from everything else, Ireland is violating the Human Rights of a large and growing population by not providing an education free from discrimination. This is an easy one for the new Minister to drop as there isn’t a huge amount of appetite for it, but it may be the most important thing that Ruairi Quinn ever started. The new minister, if he/she takes it on, will reap the benefits of keeping it going.
One of the minister’s biggest failings was not sorting out the growing issue of Special Education Needs. Since taking over a system that was already unmanageable and beginning to fail, the minister did nothing except cut resources. Unfortunately, through the NCSE, a load of spin was attempted to try and argue that there were no cuts to SEN. The current idea of reforming the NCSE is ridiculously bureaucratic and does not solve the root of the problem. The root is that the NCSE has grown too big and the way it worked in the past no longer works. The new minister needs to stop the NCSE becoming the educational equivalent that is the HSE. I would suggest he/she starts with making sure all children with SEN have the resources they require instead.
Modern Foreign Languages
This was a very odd cut in education when Ruairi Quinn started off. Languages have never been more important so cutting them was a bit strange. I would suggest that MFL might make a return with some decent planning to reduce the curriculum overload. As the NCCA are developing the new curriculum, perhaps certain more emotive subjects might take a back seat for subjects like French, Spanish or Mandarin.
Form filling has massively increased in schools. For example, if a child has been absent for 20 or more days, there is an 8 page form that schools need to fill in before someone from the NEWB (or Tusla as it’s now called) will do anything. Before that, we simply sent in the names and numbers of the offenders. Another example is POD, a new system for primary schools for recording their information. It’s big, bulky and takes ages to do anything. Most schools keep records on a variety of platforms but now we’ll have to duplicate this to please some statistics. I’ve also never seen such an abundance of circulars coming to my desk. The new minister really needs to simplify the administration process. A little bit of joining up things would help. I mean, do I really need to fill out the name, address, email, etc. every time I fill in the same form!
In School Management
School Management is becoming more and more complex. Yet the moratorium on posts of responsibility has made management of schools more and more of a burden for what’s left of any ISM team. The IPPN reported that levels of administration have passed breaking point for many school leaders with stress levels reaching points where the IPPN has been worried for members’ health. The next minister is going to have to restore ISM teams or come up with a different solution.
Review of Boards of Management
Boards of Management in Ireland are completely voluntary. Back in the day, when schools were less complicated places, this job didn’t involve too much and was probably similar to volunteering in the local church. However, today’s Boards of Management require expertise in law, accountancy, HR, health and safety and much more. Boards are also completely responsible for everything that goes on in a school and, ultimately can decide to run the school in any way they see fit, without much recourse. If, like me, you teach in a school with a great Board of Management, life can go on as nicely as possible. However, if you teach in a school with an ineffective Board of Management, it can spell disaster. Bringing both things to the table, Boards of Management need to be trained properly and they also need proper accountability from the Department of Education. Most importantly, in my opinion, is that there should be some form of reward for serving on a Board of Management. I’m not sure a financial reward is the correct thing but something that recognises the time and effort that is put in. The next minister really needs to do something before this issue explodes.
What’s the biggest obstacle to 21st century learning? Lack of decent broadband. While our friends at second level are all getting 100Mb shortly, the maximum speed a primary school is getting is 7Mb and that’s if they’re lucky. The next minister simply has to provide at least 100Mb Broadband in all schools, including primary.
There are plenty of other things for the new minister to do and I certainly don’t envy him/her the job. Education at primary level has been more or less neglected for the past few decades until Ruairi Quinn came along to try and reform it. It had been easier to put things on the long finger due to the goodwill of teachers, staff and parents but things have changed. Life has become much more complicated and early education is proving to be so important. There are thousands of primary schools in Ireland who are barely getting by and they need severe investment. A lot of this will have to come from simplifying the system as it’s becoming way too complicated in terms of bureaucracy. I’d love to see education becoming a very important ministerial portfolio and I’d also love to see much more investment in primary schools. Giving primary schools the same capitation grant as secondary schools would be a good first step.