THE EXCITING FUTURE OF EDUCATION POSES MAJOR CHALLENGES
Ruairi Quinn TD, Minister for Education and Skills
Two years ago, here in Glenties, I spoke of the major challenges we face in seeking to build an education system fit for the future. In that paper I outlined a series of reforms which I was preparing to introduce during my time as Minister for Education and Skills. Many of those reforms are now underway. But in preparing for the MacGill Summer School this year, I wanted to take a different tack.
Today, I want to explore what the Irish education system might look like for the participants in the system – the children, young people, and adults, served by the education system each day, as well as the teachers, trainers and support staff who are employed in the system. I want to look forward 20 years, through four different lenses: I want to consider how Ireland will interact with the wider world in the 2030s, the impact of the curriculum on how the system performs, the key role of educators, and the infrastructure which needs to be put in place to support the system.
The education system here in Ireland will have changed enormously over the next 20 years – driven partly by global changes, but most importantly by the needs of students themselves and those of our society. This poses major challenges for us today – how we connect the various elements of the system to ensure that it provides educational pathways for all, how we manage successful transitions from one part of the system to another, and how to support the inclusion of marginalised groups. I hope my remarks will give an insight into what I believe the future will hold for our education system.
I’ll begin by touching upon the social and economic environment of the future that children entering pre-school this year will face when they leave full-time education around 2030. We can safely predict that at least 90% of those children will be leaving full-time education with further or higher education qualifications. The education system has to be flexible and adaptive enough to equip them with a range of skills and competencies. They will need them for the very different jobs market they will face. Our current system values certain categories of knowledge highly, and others very little indeed. But in equipping our young people for the future, we know that the acquisition of knowledge itself will no longer be a key skill. Instead, the vital skills will be the ability to find, use and reuse knowledge.
In 1994, as Minister for Enterprise and Employment, I initiated a project that came to be known as Strategy 2010, and led to the publication of a new enterprise strategy for Ireland known as “Shaping Our Future”. I have been reflecting on what a useful process that was, in setting targets that would improve our society over a period of time much longer than that afforded to any individual Government.
During the 1990s, we were discussing the need for investment in communications, the need to grow our indigenous enterprise sector, and the potential offered to Ireland by developments in the agri-business sector. We were also concerned primarily with the problem of unemployment – in 1996, more than 60% of those out of work were classified as long-term unemployed, and overall unemployment remained at 13.5%. These areas remain common threads in our current discourse.
The target we outlined in the 1990s, of halving unemployment by 2010, was comfortably achieved by the middle of the last decade. But those gains, as we are all too painfully aware, have been steadily eroded over the last 5 years. The rapid return of unemployment to the same levels as in 1996 is a devastating blow to our nation. Shockingly, over 60% of those out of work in 2013 are now classified as long-term unemployed – exactly the same percentage as in 1996.
So we must be even more ambitious than we have sought to be in the past. We believe in the benefits and dignity of work – not just for individuals but for society as a whole. This is a deeply held Labour Party conviction. Eamon Gilmore has set a target of getting back to full employment by the end of this decade. I fully agree with that. But we must go even further. We must strive to return to full employment by 2020, and then work to hold those gains instead of throwing them away once more. The dignity of work must be a sustainable offer made to each of our citizens.
There are many, many areas of our society that need to be reformed. But no single area is as important, to the very texture and fabric of our society, as ensuring that our people are able to find work and get paid a decent wage for it. My hope for the generation entering pre-school today is that they will have learned the lessons of the last ten years: that they appreciate the social damage caused by the politics of boom and bust; and that they know the only way to offer every member of the community a decent opportunity in life is to build an economy that is stable, prosperous, competitive and equal. A quality education and training system, accessible to all, is an essential tool in realising this goal.
It’s a truism that the hallmarks of the modern world are uncertainty and complexity. Markets, technology, politics, culture and life itself are in a constant state of flux. As a society and as a culture we must adapt or be left behind. And we must also provide the next generation with the skills and resilience necessary to excel in a society that is undergoing rapid transformation. Governments everywhere expect more from their education systems, to prepare young people for a future of constant change. So do we. Governments everywhere also aspire to having a world class education system. So do we. But Governments everywhere regularly fail to meet their own aspirations. Too often, it is assumed that pouring money into an education system will lead to improvements. Too often, that policy doesn’t work. We can learn from examining international trends.
Improving a system, and delivering better outcomes for students, doesn’t necessarily cost more. In a world of flux and fluidity certain constants survive. A sound curriculum, good teaching and school leadership are essential for educational success. I want to outline the steps we are taking to embed these into our system. We must begin with pre-schooling – an area of education which was shamefully neglected by successive Governments. That gap has been acknowledged, and is being addressed in part with a free pre-school year. Unfortunately, it remains the case that too often, that year is viewed solely as childcare, and not as early childhood education. We need to work to ensure that standards and quality in this area are of the highest quality, so that children begin their journey of learning in caring and happy environments. We have an internationally recognised curriculum framework – Aistear – which seeks to put learning through play and exploration, at the heart of learning for children under 6.
The future could see two years of pre-school, combined with the two existing infant classes, becoming a coherent early childhood educational experience for all children. The seeds of literacy and numeracy should be sown in the home, nurtured in pre-school, and cultivated in primary schools. Yet too many of our citizens have emerged from the schooling system unable to read or write properly. As many as one in four adults are in this space. Their lives are blighted. Their horizons limited. I make no apology for giving extra time for literacy and numeracy in primary schools. Nor do I apologise for putting an end to the high stakes State Examination in the middle of secondary school – that hang-over from a different era – the state run Junior Cert examination. Some of you may remember the Primary Certificate. When it was finally abolished in 1967, there were dire warnings of falling standards as students would no longer face a written exam.
Instead, the primary curriculum was liberated from the shackles of a narrow test, allowing teachers to do what they are good at – guiding their students in engaging, meaningful pathways to learning and education. I am convinced that the same will happen with the reforms being introduced at junior cycle level.
All change is uncomfortable for some, even if what is familiar is badly in need of reform. Increasingly I am hearing concerns about the future of various subjects, such as history, geography, physical education, languages, the arts, sciences, and so on. Each has advocates who call for their subject to be made compulsory ahead of all others. But all of human knowledge cannot be distilled into a handful of compulsory subjects. So choices need to be made. Or everything becomes compulsory because we fear the consequences of choice. My view is that, wherever possible, choices need to be made by students and by schools. Those choices should be supported by the state. Much of the discourse in this space is dominated by supporters of one particular subject – history.
There are many historians present here today. So, let me put a challenge to you. Historians owe a duty to the country to show why their domain of knowledge matters (and it does), and why 12 year olds and their parents should take heed. Historians must advocate, argue and defend. But the target of their discourse should not be the state. Their conversations should be with the students who matter, and their parents. They should seek to influence, not to coerce. They should rely on the lure of their subject, rather than compulsion. They should remember that compulsion doesn’t always work. And they should remember that, even though history is not compulsory in half our schools, nine out of ten students take it anyway. Perhaps our students actually like it – I certainly did. Choices are already being made. And history persists as a subject of choice for the vast majority of students. I am convinced it will into the future.
Just as the Junior Certificate is being abolished, the Leaving Cert must also be transformed. The pressures on our Leaving Cert students are immense. This is, in part, caused by the proliferation of CAO courses – not designed to give students greater choice, but to create greater competition between courses – to the benefit of the colleges, not the students. This trend unfortunately continues. In the year 2000, there were 44 higher education institutions in the CAO offering 387 level 8 honours degree courses. This had more than doubled to 877 choices last year in 43 colleges. For the coming year, that figure has risen further to 919 courses in 45 institutions. Put another way, the number of institutions in the CAO is only one greater than it was in 2000 but the number of CAO course honours degree options has increased by 532. Of course we want applicants to have choice but some of the divisions between courses are questionable to say the least. 17 or 18 year olds can readily distinguish between general arts and science courses, but can they really tell the difference between a course called Information Technology, and one called Computing in Information Technology? If you type in the word ‘digital’ into the CAO course search you get 35 options – type in ‘media’ and you get over 140 options. Some of us might be hard pressed to choose between a course in social media and web technologies, and one in creative digital media. But at the moment, we expect Leaving Certificate students to be able to do so.
The main stakeholders are already engaged in discussions about reducing the pressure of the points system, and preventing too much specialisation at first year in higher education. Those discussions must represent the start of a much more radical overhaul of the student experience – in post-primary schools, and beyond, in further and higher education.
If the curriculum must continue to adapt, to better prepare our young people to participate in the social, economic and cultural spheres of our society, then the same is true of those delivering the curriculum. This is another area where considerable reforms are underway at present. The existing 19 teacher training centres have moved to become 6 centres of education. The centres will have the size and capacity to ensure that all of our teachers are trained to the very highest standards. And to ensure that we are constantly exploring and researching our education system – prodding it and poking it to find ways to improve it. We have lengthened, by a year, the amount of time it takes to qualify as a school teacher – at primary and post-primary levels. That additional time will focus on developing the pedagogical skills of our teachers. Our educators must be instilled with the capacity to facilitate learning at all levels of our system. From this year, it will be compulsory for all teachers to be registered with the Teaching Council. This will allow increasing professional standards to be set, and regulated. Considerable reform is underway. So why are we making these changes? As with the curriculum, we must be more ambitious in looking further into the future. We know that the quality of a teacher, more than any other factor, transforms and improves the educational outcomes for our children. But developing methods of communications are changing the relationship between educators and learners. The experiences of all of our children, and particularly those with special needs, are being transformed by these changes. Just as mobile phones and computers have become ubiquitous over the last 20 years, the next 20 will see further transformations. Even looking back 5 years, who would have predicted the rapid shift from desktop and laptop computers, to mobile and tablet device domination. With Google glasses and Apple watches currently being talked about, it is safe to assume that we have little idea what the technologies of the 2030s will look like. It seems equally safe to assume that these technologies will certainly be used by us regularly, if not even embedded within us.
In such an exciting context, it frustrates me that we remain in patterns of the past, simply seeking to replicate in our classrooms what is already being disregarded in our workplaces. We must develop the abilities of our educators to adapt, to experiment, and to embrace all modes of communication to inspire and connect with our young people. Schools and colleges must be more accountable – to their communities, rather than to the Department. And a culture of self-reflection, and continuing improvement, must be fostered in each classroom. If continuously improving the quality of our educators is our aim, then we must also explore how to make the profession increasingly attractive.
In the past, a conservative system of promotions developed, where teachers were appointed to posts of responsibility. Some contained no additional responsibility; most were simply filled by the longest serving teachers in the schools. In 20 years’ time, we need to have developed a system where teachers are promoted to management positions that involve genuine responsibilities. Their promotion should be based on the quality of their work, and their capacity and ambition to become leaders. The creation last month of 16 local Education and Training Boards, to replace 33 VECs, allows us to develop better management and support structures than we currently have in place. Over time, I expect the Education and Training Boards will take on a greater role in areas like HR, technical support, or the management of capital projects. This will leave school leaders free to focus on the management of teaching and learning in their schools – becoming leaders of education instead of administrators.
I’ve spoken little of the future of further and higher education in Ireland. When considering the infrastructure of the future, both elements are essential. The creation of SOLAS, to oversee the 16 new Education and Training Boards, will be completed later this year – replacing FÁS and the 33 VECs and providing us with an opportunity to completely rebuild the further education and training sector. Reinventing apprenticeships that will give first-class opportunities to students and ensuring that further education and training is a realistic, relevant offering that will provide people with opportunities to learn throughout their lives.
The IrishUniversity and Technological sectors will also transform over the coming years. They have already begun to explore and embrace the reconfiguration of the third level landscape which I have published this year. The creation of college clusters will ensure that unnecessary duplication and inefficiencies can be driven out of the system. And the prospect of Technological Universities will help reinforce the structural links between enterprise and the technological sector. These structural changes in further and higher education will be firmly embedded, over the course of the next two decades. And more will need to be done to overhaul the student experience to make sure that these sectors, as well as delivering for our economy, deliver for their students. The trends towards part-time study, online courses, and life-long learning, will no doubt persist.
We are continuing to invest in the construction of new schools and colleges, despite our economic difficulties. During the lifetime of this Government, that investment will amount to considerably more than €2bn. All around the country, prefabs are being replaced with permanent classrooms – the rental bill for prefabs has been cut in half since I first raised concerns about this issue. And the quality of our new school buildings always amazes me. For those of you without young children, it is difficult to describe how different many of our schools are to those that we remember from our own time. Wide corridors where children’s artwork is proudly displayed, bright, airy classrooms with groups of young people working collaboratively, whiteboards, computers and tablets – these are all common features of the new schools we construct. Two years ago, we held a design competition for post-primary schools, and three of the winning designs will be constructed – new designs which completely reimagine how the physical building of a school can influence the learning inside that school.
Already, in our newer schools, I have seen wonderful examples of shared sporting facilities – used by children during that day, and by the whole community outside of school hours, throughout the week. And we are currently running an ideas competition for primary schools. So that, without having to design a complete school, we can access the ideas and the energy of Irish architects – harnessing their talents to explore how we can build schools that become centres of fun and learning in the lives of our children.
But the future could be even more exciting. Will we need, in 20 years’ time, children to gather in one physical building in order to receive their education? Even if we do, will they need to be separated into classrooms, or could new models emerge. We all now assume open plan offices to be the norm in workplaces, but as we speak, that model is changing in many companies. In offices such as Google’s, we can see the creation of discrete spaces for different purposes, stimulating the energies and the ideas of all those who work there. I have no doubt that even more interesting ‘spaces’ will exist in our schools and colleges in 20 years.
Regardless of the structure of the buildings, surely we can see a future where these facilities are genuine community resources. Spaces where parental involvement in education is encouraged, where all of the community gather for celebrations of sport, music and the arts, where parents and the wider community can educate, and be educated by, our children. Much more than buildings – beating hearts for our communities – filled with life, love and learning.
Children entering pre-school this year will mostly leave school in 2028. With reshaped opportunities in further and higher education, most of them will leave full-time education between 2029 and 2032. There is little time to prepare them for the dramatically changed environment into which they will enter. We can’t afford to waste any of it.