A Look at the Action Plan for Education

The Action Plan for Education was published today by Minister Richard Bruton. The government aims for Ireland to have the best education and training system in Europe by 2026. Given that the government has spent the last 10 years tearing the education system apart through budgetary cuts, I’m not entirely sure how they are going to manage to do this. However, I’ve decided to go through the 70-page document to see if there’s any chinks of light hidden in the waffle.

The summary of the document is contained on page 5 and 6 of the document (which can be downloaded here) and finally gets to a point at the end when it outlines its 5 goals for what they call a realistic goal of being Europe’s best education system. These are:

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

On page 7, there’s some meaty stuff. The government list some key objectives for achieving these goals. Those relevant to primary education include:

  • Significantly reducing the gap with the top European performers in areas of numeracy and science
  • Significantly reducing the gap between low achieving students in literacy and numeracy in DEIS and those in non-DEIS schools
  • … increasing opportunities for learning in the areas of coding and computer science
  • Enriching teaching and learning with new curricula, new assessment methods, and technology assisted learning
  • Promoting wellbeing in our school communities to support success in school and life
  • Broadening the choice of schools available each year in line with the target of 400 multi/nondenominational by 2030

I’m already a little bit worried that the word “coding” has been mentioned but I’ll let that slide until I delve further into the document. The last point also strikes me as odd. I don’t see how having more multi-denominational schools will actually improve educational standards. Having equality-based schools simply improves society. Church-run schools don’t have any more issues with educational standards than non-church run schools. The patronage of a school only has the effect of segregating not educating.

The document continues with some action plans, which pretty much repeat the above in a different way.

Next up is a message from Richard Bruton who focuses entirely on economics rather than education. However, he does note: “We are lucky of course to already have a world-class education system,” to which I reply that actually he’s lucky to have a world-class education system. Ireland isn’t lucky. We have teachers who work incredibly hard with pitiful resources. There is a joke that teachers are the only people who steal stuff from home to use at work. In Ireland, it isn’t a joke at all. We are also probably the only country in the world who funded their entire Interactive Whiteboard structure on Cake Sales.

The General Secretary of the Department of Education writes a short note, which effectively repeats page 5, 6 and 7, except succinctly.

Page 12 repeats the same information as before except with a lovely colour scheme to show the goals of the document.

goals

Before they tackle these goals, the document outlines the challenges and opportunities they feel they will face. The first one is the political landscape. It states that “the priorities for education as articulated by the Government in the ‘A Programme for a Partnership Government’ are to ensure that no child should be left behind in the economic recovery.” This is a lovely sentiment. However, considering over the last ten years they have cut Special Educational Needs so badly that bringing them back to previous levels will cost a fortune, I can’t see it happening. (all children receiving resource learning only get 85% of their hours, there was no replacement when resource teachers for Travellers and children with EAL were cut, psychological services were cut and never replaced, SNA access has been capped leaving many children without their basic needs met, etc.) The document carries on with headings around economic environment, labour market, demographic pressures and so on, which aren’t that interesting before they hit my bug-bear:

ensuringequity

Considering this government has failed to address the basic human rights of children, teachers and other staff in schools since it promised to do so in the last government, the above is laughable. Unless the government remove religious discrimination and even gender discrimination from the education system, it is impossible to achieve the above. I can’t see every single-sex school and every religious-run school changing in the next 10 years.

The document continues to list all the agencies that the Department of Education will work with in this plan. It includes every single department as far as I can see and given that none of these departments currently work together on anything, I can’t really see any of it happening.

We finally get to Goal 1 on page 18: Improve the learning experience and the success of learners

After a page of self-congratulations, we examine the objectives and actions of this goal. Those relevant to primary schools are:

NEPS will be expanded. I wonder if this is from current levels or from the levels they were before they were cut back. Maybe they’ll be brought back to previous levels, which were also pitiful. No child should need a private educational assessment if this is to be deemed successful.

Changes to the Curriculum. The document states: “Implementation of this Strategy will include further development and rollout of the national curriculum framework for Early Years, Aistear, redevelopment of the primary school curriculum, work on coding as part of the maths curriculum and the broader primary curriculum, and the introduction of Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics.”

  1. Early Years – fair enough
  2. Redevelopment of the curriculum – fair enough
  3. Coding as part of the Maths curriculum – oh dear. I have written much on why this is not only a bad idea, it is a stupid idea. Two points: We shouldn’t be teaching coding. Coding is not Maths.
  4. ERBE curriculum – completely pointless unless we tackle patronage properly. ERBE will simply be bastardised by patron bodies much like RSE has.

Increasing the use of ICT in learning. For once, I have nothing bad to say about this. The increase to broadband speeds at primary level is a no brainer and really needs to happen asap. With technologies such as SIRO and LTE, there is no reason why any school should not be able to receive speeds of less than 30Mb.

Improve the development of language competence. The government want to ensure we learn other languages. I think it’s a good idea to remind them that Ruairi Quinn cut the European Language scheme in 2011 and it hasn’t come back.

A table follows with some specific plans. DEIS schools seem to be forced into using the Incredible Years programme, which isn’t a terrible thing. I assume the Friends Programme extension is the Friends for Life Programme, rather than forcing kids to watch and wonder whether Ross and Rachel ever get it on. Down the end of the table, the bad news for primary schools is that only 1/3 of them will have fast broadband.

NEPS are to receive 65 more psychologists. I have no idea how many they lost in the last 10 years but I don’t think 65 is going to be anywhere near enough.

Moving on to Goal 2…. Improve the progress of learners at risk of educational disadvantage or learners with special educational needs

This section starts with the lie, “Inclusive education is a fundamental principle of our education and training system” because it isn’t. However, the document completely ignores this and focuses on two areas, both of course having huge merit: disadvantage and special educational needs.

Considering these two areas are where the majority of cuts were bestowed in the last ten years, the government’s plans need to restore these cuts to previous levels then increase them to a level where they fulfil the needs of students around the country. There is little of note in this set of goals except for a suspicious little section where a new model for allocating resources is mentioned. The last we heard of this was a dreadfully thought-out plan, which made things even more inequitable. However, there is a mention that supports such as speech therapy will be available in schools, which is good.

Goal 3 aims to help those delivering education services to continuously improve.

There isn’t much new in this section. That word “autonomy” comes up and this needs to be monitored carefully by education partners. There are a number of things that we already know. Increasing CPD opportunities for teachers, mentoring for newly appointed principals, SSE and new inspection models are all there. However, reducing Junior and Senior Infant class sizes appears, which will need to be well thought out before it’s simply lumped on us. For anything less than a two-streamed school, I don’t really see how this is going to be possible.

With goals 2 and 3 providing very short summaries compared to Goal 1, Goal 4 is another short looking one: Build stronger bridges between education and the wider community. The title probably says it all.

There are few surprises here. Richard Bruton still wants teachers to let their classrooms be used as after school care centres. Given that teachers rarely if ever leave their rooms when school ends, and how they usually set up their rooms for classes the next day, I don’t see how this is going to work. However, later in this section, it looks like bribing schools to do so is the strategy. Providing extra school choice is the same nonsense of the Pluralism and Patronage. There’s little point in repeating why this strategy is unworkable.

In an amazingly arrogant objective, the government plan to restore capitation grants back to normal so parents will no longer have to dip their hands in their pockets. Even at 100% of its levels, capitation grants do not cover schools’ costs. At primary level, capitation grants should match those at second level. We can talk then about the lovely ideas after that.

Finally we move to Goal 5: Improve national planning and support services

This goal appears to be infrastructural and includes ensuring that there are extra school places where they are needed. For example 19,000 extra places need to be available by 2019. Sadly, it looks like the government will be extending existing schools (who will be able to discriminate against children who do not share their ethos) rather than being proactive and linking extensions to divestment.

That’s about it. There follows a load of appendices. My favourite one is the second appendix, which lists a load of acronyms.

Overall, this document has a number of positives but there is little to get excited about, especially at primary level. There are also many things to be cross about. It would have been nice if the government had have acknowledged that they made cuts in the last number of years and admitted that what they are planning on doing is not going to bring things back to previous levels. Their overall vision of becoming the best education system in Europe within 10 years is indeed ambitious. However, if they don’t start valuing the people who work in the education system (I noted there was little mention of them in the document) it’s unlikely that this is going to happen.

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