2016 has widely been acknowledged as being a very difficult year. Whatever angle one viewed the year, it was a worrying one. The headline grabbers, of course, were the British people voting to leave the EU and Donald Trump winning the American presidential election. In Europe, we saw countries closing their borders to people fleeing the war-savaged Middle East and a number of right-wing politicians making huge gains in the polls. Politically, in Ireland, we have a very fragile government and for the interests of this article, in education, we have a very worrying minister for education in Richard Bruton, who seems dead set on turning our education system into a production line machine for industry, all of course without funding it.
Every year, we review the year that has been in terms of primary education and one might be forgiven that this year’s review was set firmly in the grips of the recession. While there has been much talk of a recovery, primary schools have been forgotten. All the cuts that were imposed on schools still remain.
Last year I predicted that there would be money available and I guessed the government would have to splurge to buy votes. I predicted that they would throw a lot of money into secondary schools, for example pay equality for all teachers, educational technology and other vote-winning bonuses. I had hoped that there would be the reversal of cuts to SEN, Travellers, EAL and so on but my feeling was that money would be given to the voters instead, i.e. the teachers. Sadly, I seemed to be wrong on all fronts. Some money went to second level but the vast majority went to third level with nothing given to primary schools.
I also thought primary schools would start to see better broadband with the first 100Mb broadband connection being launched in a school. There is still no sign of this happening.
2016 started with a General Election looming and the education world was looking very hard at what was to come. All parties had outlined their promises including the inevitable lowering of class sizes, which never happens anyway. The big things on the agenda were school patronage, class sizes, the cuts to education, pay inequality and special education. The IPPN conference hosted a hustings where education spokespeople from the various parties spoke about what they would do in all these areas. It was a hugely disappointing affair. Every party, with the exception of Fianna Fáil, appeared to have done little to no research. In all areas, fluffy promises were made around reducing class sizes to a point where we wondered if we’d have any children in our classrooms to reversing every single cut that was ever made to anyone. However, it was in the area of school patronage that all the politicians disappointed the most and could be summed up by the spokesperson for ETBs and Labour party member Joanna Tuffy who gave a cringeworthy example of how allowing 3 Muslim girls take part as the 3 Wise Men in the school’s nativity was an excellent example of an inclusive Catholic school.
It was a shocking exhibition, worse yet that it was widely applauded by the audience, but this was only one example, albeit the most racist I have heard. The year could be marked as deeply disappointing for equality for people involved in all aspects of education. Teachers, parents and pupils from minority and no faith backgrounds were continually left frustrated as at every juncture, their human rights were simply ignored.Even my very conservative prediction that schools would no longer be allowed to discriminate against children on enrollment didn’t happen. However, I still believe that the ETB will continue to be a threat to the human rights of children in primary schools in 2017 as they strengthen their relationships with various church groups. However, having said this, many organisations representing the rights of minorities formed during the year and perhaps 2017 will be a more successful year as the inequalities become more and more visible. I’m not too optimistic though. Given that even DCU, which is supposed to be a secular institution gave preferential treatment to Protestants to enter Teacher Training College, and there wasn’t much of a fuss, I can’t see much changing in the near future.
In the background of all the politics, our own Teaching Council was continuing to steamroll Droichead into schools. This time last year, we had said that they had an “annus horribilis in 2015.” At the time, most schools were completely opposed to Droichead and there was a scandal emerging about fees. We predicted that the organisation would have a lot of work to do to gain any form of trust amongst its members. My prediction for 2016 was that Droichead would be shelved or scrapped pending yet more consultations with schools, and thankfully after a very weird course of events, a small group of teachers managed to get a motion through the INTO and Droichead was no longer allowed to happen. The directive still stands at this time of writing.
Technology-wise, I didn’t think much would happen in 2016. The Digital Strategy has still not delivered anything of merit. With regards to hardware, it was also a bit disappointing, with the only notable piece of kit coming in the form of touchscreen televisions, which are really just an update to Interactive Whiteboards. Chromebooks still haven’t really taken off in Irish primary schools in the same way as they have in other countries. However, with Camara now becoming agents selling these devices, perhaps this coming year will see them in more schools. From my own perspective, my schools has invested in a number of Chromebooks and they are a huge success. However, aside from a few little flurries of activity in Virtual Reality, there was little to get excited about in terms of edTech.
If there was anything to get excited about in terms of technology, it was Richard Bruton’s announcement that coding would become part of the primary school curriculum. It appears that it’s going to be part of a new mathematics curriculum. It has been met with a muted reception from those of us involved in educational technology. Many of us have argued that introducing coding into primary schools is a really silly idea for quite some time and that we should be teaching the kinds of skills that good coders need to succeed. Anyone can code but not anyone can think. To be a good coder, you need to be able to think and break down problems into tiny little bits. In any case, if Droichead is one steamroller, Richard Bruton’s coding plan seems to be another and before we know it, we’ll have children copying bits of code that they won’t understand into their copybooks because Richard Bruton won’t provide schools with funding to give them the technology they need to code.
Well-being was a bit of a buzzword in education last year and in 2016 it remained just a buzzword. For me, there is still a lot of talk about it but very little evidence of it in action. In fairness to the government, they attempted to make a document that addressed well-being but it was such a hotch potch of random bits of the curriculum, it was unreadable. The only organisation that seems to be doing anything worthwhile in well-being is the IPPN and I presume this will continue into 2017.
Another change in 2016 was the introduction of the new primary language curriculum, which was supposed to start in September in all schools. So far, there’s a lot of confusion and training has been reported to be poor. My school hasn’t received the training yet so I can’t comment. However, I’ve heard that the training consists of doing everything except showing teachers how to use the new curriculum books and trying to replace it with “fun” activities. Last year I predicted we might see some decent apps or software to support the new curriculum. Suffice to say, this didn’t happen but the curriculum website does have some nice videos.
Looking back at my predictions for 2016, it’s funny to see the amount of controversy that surrounded POD at the time. It seems to have been completely embraced by schools and one never hears anyone complaining about it. Last year I mentioned that 2017 or 2018 would see it being used for cuts. The new NCSE model is due to be unleashed in September 2017 and it will use POD data to allocate some resources. I expect POD will have a bigger showing in my review of 2017.
For me, this year has been one of the most disappointing years in primary education in Ireland. It was as if the government forgot that the sector existed. In previous years, one could forgive the lack of investment or even some of the cuts due to the country being broke, but this year, there was money there and none of it went to our sector. It means that the end of 2016 is very similar to the end of 2015, where children with special educational needs, children from minority and no faith backgrounds, children from non-English speaking families, in fact, all school-going children have been left in an underfunded, undervalued system.