Education and a culture of Life-long Learning
Education within the context of this Seanad election
The key to achieving educational excellence is the recognition that teaching, when done well, is more than just a job. Teaching is very much a vocation but it’s a career too and we should not as a society dump on teachers those tasks and responsibility that are more properly the task of parents or the rest of society. We have to be prepared to pay really good teachers, really good salaries, offer them opportunities to develop in their careers and provide our students with excellent facilities if we want to expect excellence from them.
I will be upfront and say that I find, as I suspect many others voting in this election do, the perennial schoolyard activity of comparing the relative size of their memberships that the teaching union leaderships engage in with regard to the Seanad elections to be a waste of everyone’s time and an embarrassment to a proud profession. I reckon the evidence is there that most teachers think this way as despite the numbers who would be graduates of the NUI and members of the 3 main teachers unions, these proxies garner votes equating to less than 20% of their likely eligible memberships. It is time to stop patronising teachers with the mantra that what the Oireachtas needs another former teaching union leader. Does anyone really believe that the Oireachtas has lacked for teachers over the past 20/30 years?
Support for the teaching profession
For all the talk about lifelong education we often forget that teachers in Ireland are expected to be the practitioners and exemplars themselves by go back to college during the course of their working life. Moreover they are expected to fund such courses themselves. In-service days are all well and good but we need to consider allowing the best of our teachers to receive dedicated time to facilitate further study.
It is standard practice in the private sector for employers to sponsor certain employees to undertake courses such as Masters, MBAs, or shorter term specialist training. Teachers as a profession deserve the chance to continually gain new skills throughout their careers. I would be supportive of sabbatical leave for teachers, with underwriting of day to day living expenses, as a means to ensure that lifelong learning isn’t just for those outside the teaching profession. I would however think that continuing to pay someone a full salary while undertaking a year long course is simply not feasible in the current climate though it may be a desirable goal at some future date.
Schools and technology
We live in a rapidly changing world and it is vital that all students are able to avail of the highest standard of training and exposure to the realm of Information, Communications Technology. In many cases the school may represent the only bridge of the digital divide available to our most disadvantaged students. This goal could on the surface appear to require a massive injection of cash to fund equipment and software; however we should grasp this opportunity to embrace wholeheartedly the possibilities represented by the Open Source movement. Open source software, distributed free, is more rewarding of investigative instincts of students, more adaptable and cheaper.
Real Learning in the area of Information and Communications Technology is not primarily about expensive equipment but about fostering a mentality of inquisitiveness. The monies allocated under the National Development Plan for ICT spending in schools should be significantly directed towards Open Source alternatives where this makes cost effective sense, which in many areas it does. School boards, management, teachers, students and parents working in partnership should be afforded considerable discretion by the department in determining which specific new technologies are used in their school. A one size fits all model is not appropriate.
The ambitious promises of the Celtic Tiger years of new buildings or funds for new science facilities and indoor gyms have yet to be delivered. When there is so much spare capacity in the local construction sector and with costs much reduced it should be the proverbial ‘no-brainer’ to invest funds in delivering the massive building and renovation programme that remains necessary after all the years of the boom.
While small schools will always continue in many places to be a part of the educational mix, we must look to foster closer community development by encouraging more of the traditional Irish style of clustered housing development over the longer term so that suitable facilities can be located close to centres of population. The need for extra funding for small schools over and above that for other schools is a direct consequence of the failures of the planning process to encourage people to live in reasonably closer proximity to one another. If people choose to build new houses and live many miles away both from their places of work and where their children attend school, it is unreasonable and unsustainable to expect that this lifestyle choice should be completely subsidised by the rest of the community.
Funding from the state should be distributed on an equitable basis per pupil irrespective of the nature of the school itself whether it is in the voluntary or state sector.
We should look to devolve more responsibility for decisions about school funding to a more local level in the context of broad based local government reform and the transfer of patronage to more democratic control.
Management of the 1st and 2nd Level sector
The bizarre Irish situation where individual members of boards of management can be held personally responsible by the courts for injuries or other problems on the premises of what we are told are state schools is just wrong. We should move towards a situation where the patronage for most schools in held by a reformed local government entity. Parents who are willing to serve on boards of management should not be opening themselves up to being sued for what happens on the schools grounds and for which they could not have been remotely expected to be able to act to prevent.
We need to consider if greater separation and specialisation in teacher training is required for those who will serve in management positions of Principals and Deputy Principals. Greater emphasis for the need for post graduate training in Education Administration as occurs in other countries should be investigated.
A minority of students are the cause of most problems in our schools. A teacher shouldn’t have to be an expert in criminal law to prevent bullies from intimidating other pupils and even staff in school. The National Behaviour Support Service needs to be fully supported throughout the entire school system.
Pupil-teacher ratios are in truth a poor measure of the reality at the chalk face when it comes to control of a class. International research shows that it is the actual individual larger classes that are associated with increased levels of disruption and poor behaviour in schools, not average sizes. We should be focused on reducing real maximum sizes not merely reducing the average sizes by having some very small classes to count balance the existence of very large classes.
Disruptive behaviour needs to be seen more in the context of problems that exist outside the school day and grounds. Parents, social and medical professionals need to be more involved in tackling the problems that manifest in the school. Teachers should never be seen as primarily responsible for raising other people’s children, or making up for the failure of parents to do their job. We need to be open to examining more radical approaches to schools discipline. All our children are owed an opportunity for an education, that opportunity must not be sacrificed on the altar of tolerating the disruptive behaviour of a very small minority.
We should not be churlish about the progress made over the past 20 years in the area of provisions for pupils with special needs. This does not mean we should be content with the progress to date, but rather that we should learn from what has worked and what has not. There yet remains a requirement for a psychological service that has been adequately staffed for schools to be rolled out as soon as possible. National Educational Psychological Service must continue to aim for availability to all primary and post primary school students.
The process of having double waiting lists for children emotional or behavioural difficulties to be assessed by NEPS and then to actually receive some assistance is a scandal. This area needs to be adequately resourced as it represents a cost saving to our society in the medium to longer term.
The issue of class sizes in education in particular average class sizes in second level has become a political play thing. It is somewhat remarkable to the lay person that class sizes would appear to not have changed at all despite the significant growth in overall teacher numbers and the comparative more steady growth in student numbers over the past 15 years. The fact is that average class sizes is a poor measure of the reality of the situation in schools.
This is an issue on which I would wish to offer a more jaundiced voice if elected to Seanad Éireann. The discussion in this area needs to be broadened beyond a simple number, we need to ensure that a reasonable maximum size are not exceeded, one teacher with a class of 8 and another with a class of 40 might lead to an average class size of 24 but I don’t think anyone would argue that this would be a reasonable situation. We should consider if the time has come for a more formal split in education between those who must work in a school as administrators and are no longer spending the bulk of their time in the classroom. Class sizes should be counted accurately by not including those who are not spending their time in the classroom.
We need to radically reassess the role of the community in the management of our schools. The religious have played a tremendous role down the decades educating Ireland’s youth when no one else would do so but now it is time for us as a mature population to take on the burden fully. We must be aware of the failings that existed and were allowed to propagate by ceding absolute power to individuals who were answerable to no one. We, as a society, are footing the bill of all levels of education, it is time we had direct control too. We should thank the religious with generosity for their contribution and dedication while acknowledging the failings of the past and we should put in place a local patronage model that is under democratic control.
The notion that parents as members of a board of management of their local school should be personally responsible for the actions of the staff of the school or incidents that occur on schools property is utterly wrong.
Religious instruction should take place outside of normal school hours though the school buildings should be available for this. An educational philosophy that seeks to mark out the different child as not one of us is not worthy of our history and traditions. Parents should have the right to choose schools which reflect their ethos and values but without seeking the rest of the community to entirely underwrite the cost of doing so.
We need to have a broader understanding of what a quality education really is. That it is one which prioritises more than merely individual achievement or attendance at third level, service to the wider community and produce rounded and upstanding citizens should be as highly prized.
I, like many thousands of others from my working class background, would not have been able to attend third level in the 1980s without the support of the grant maintenance system. Yet to suggest that the grant maintenance system alone enabled us to attend third level would be incorrect. The sum paid per college week was considerable less than that paid in unemployment assistance. As it was I, as did many tens of thousands of others, had to work or borrow (loans that I have never properly been able to repay) from my parents throughout that time simply to make ends met during the college year.
The situation has changed but necessarily as we might have expected. In the last decade one of the biggest issues on many Irish campuses has been the provision of car parking and this is not even for students who live many miles away from the campus. I believe that third level education should be free at the point of delivery so that no one is prevented from attending due to a lack of access to money. The real barrier for those of us from lower income backgrounds has always been the cost of daily life while in college, not the cost of fees which were met by the state in any case. The inconsistency that exists that we would give someone more money to sign on the dole and do nothing than we would give to someone to attend 3rd level is ludicrous and counter-productive in creating support for those where there is no family background of 3rd level attendance.
Funding for courses should be provided through a combination of a state subvention and also a direct contribution in later life from the graduate themselves. No one wants to have to pay this money but most of us know that nothing in life comes for free. Education costs money to provide and unless we are going to force staff and lecturers to work for nothing it cannot be ‘free’ as the chant goes. The bulk of the money from the graduate should go directly to the course or department they attended unless they wish to stipulate otherwise. This would ensure a positive feedback in that those courses that are most successful in producing contented graduates will in turn receive the money necessary to do so.
The success of Irish economic growth in the 90s was heavily underpinned by the committed in the face of the 80s recession to developing well-educated population. If elected to Seanad Éireann it would be one of my priorities will be to further this tradition as we face another prolonged recession.
Investment in Third-Level Education
Higher education in Ireland needs to take advantage of the changing global environment. While the more traditional academic cultures might be seen by some as under attack others would argue that existing relationships and assumptions are being challenged, bringing new social dynamics to higher education systems and increasing diversity and differentiation within and between institutions.
If elected to Seanad Éireann; I will act as an advocate for the interests of the entire 3rd level sector. It would be remiss of me to focus solely on any particular institution within the NUI, or even to confine myself to the NUI itself. Though I am a graduate of the University of Limerick, and proud of that fact I would not limit myself to the concerns of UL. Being a member of the Oireachtas is not about being a weapon in some fight between TCD, NUI, UL, DCU, the IT sector or anyone else.
The future growth and prosperity of the nation is dependent on increased investment now in Ireland’s knowledge, skills and innovation capacity. Yet we might involve the private sector significantly more in this effort with more appropriate mechanisms for sharing in the rewards of research that they might be interested in funding. We must take care that such arrangements do not mean that the direction or ethos of research comes to be undermined by outside organisations, whether or religious foundations, community associations, private industry, or private philanthropists.
While we should not be blind to the reality that the State will have to remain the primary funder of third-level education; institutions should be supported in exploring additional revenue streams that come with the benefit of more deeply embedding third level-learning in the community.
Too often the success of a third level course is determined by the points attained by those attending to enter them. This is not the primarily criteria by which a course or department should be judged. However, the third level sector cannot stand still, preserving forever in amber courses that there is no interest in. Let the students decide which courses will survive and let the departments convince the students of their value.