“To provide the best education system in Europe”. This is the ambition of the Department of Education’s Statement of Strategy and Action Plan 2016 – 2019. The seventy page report published in September 2016 by the Minister for Education, Richard Bruton lays out thirteen key objectives of the department, and how they propose to achieve them. In his forward Minister Bruton claims “too often in previous governments, ambitious plans like this were published but then little achieved.” Now entering into the final academic year of the Statement of Strategy we ask the question whether or not Minister Bruton’s administration has followed the same trend.

The report outlines five clear objectives: to improve both the learning experience and success of learners; to improve the progress of learners with special educational needs or at risk of educational disadvantage; to help those who deliver educational services to continue to improve; to bridge the gap between education and the wider community and to improve national planning and support services.

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“However according to a report by the Higher Education Authority, in some third level institutions, as many as 27% of 2016/2017 first year undergraduates did not continue their studies.”

The Statement of Strategy and Action Plan predicted that the number of students enrolling in full time third level education would be 176,000 in 2018, rising slowly every year. In actuality, the number of enrolments increased much more quickly than expected, reaching 180,500 students by 2016/2017, a 10% rise in the last five years. Yet, it begs the question if an increase in enrolment numbers is a true reflection of a better education system, given the drop-out rate is also rising? In the year 2012-2013, 84% of full-time undergraduate new entrants progress onto their second year in 2013-2014. However according to a report by the Higher Education Authority, in some third level institutions, as many as 27% of 2016/2017 first year undergraduates did not continue their studies. In a statement from a spokesperson for the Department to the University Observer stated:  We are building on our existing successes, for example, Ireland already has a top 5 position in Europe in several important spheres (including post-primary literacy, third level participation, take up of STEM at third level) and a top 10 position in others (educational attainment, innovation, low dropout from school).

In 2017, the first group of students completed the Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement, which replaced the Junior Certificate that had been in place since 1989. The results which came out on Wednesday September 12th show that the new Junior Cycle has achieved what it set out to do, with a huge jump in students achieving the top possible grades. Of the approximately 62,500 students who took the exam 47 of these students achieved the eleven top grades. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment explain that the goal of the new system was to bring in newly developed subjects, such as the new English curriculum, with a focus on key skills and shorter courses. The Junior Cycle continues to roll out more changes this year with business studies and science being examined under the old system for the last time. CSPE (Civic, Social and Political Education) is also no longer going to be available to students, with a new Wellbeing program being introduced in its place. The Government aims to have this Wellbeing Policy for schools finalised and published this year; as proposed in the last iteration of the Action Plan. “The changes taking place as part of the new Junior Cycle bring great positivity to our schools. Teachers are engaging collaboratively, participating in professional learning experiences with other teachers in their schools and at inservice training” commented Maighréad Mhic Dhomhnaill, Principal of Seamount College, Kinvara.

A main objective of the Action Plan is to increase the leadership structures in schools by providing 3,000 new management posts. The Department of Education has done this by introducing Assistant Principal I and Assistant Principal II posts (informally known as ‘A and B posts of responsibility’). They are designed with the intention to create a middle management. This middle management is a new interface for students and parents to deal with issues they have and also a point of contact to the school. With this additional responsibility, the teachers that are promoted to these posts also receive an increase in wages; €8,520 for AP1 and €3,769 for AP11 secondary school posts.

“Fianna Fáil leader, Michéal Martin raised the point in the Dáil previously, asking the Government to raise the capitation grant stating that ‘the existing capitation grant is wholly inadequate, particularly for DEIS schools, and priority must be made for an increased capitation grant in the forthcoming budget’.”

One of the Government’s key objectives stated in the Action Plan was to create a framework that reduces cost bearing on parents. A Fine Gael meeting heard this week that this budget would “not be a giveaway budget, but a broadly balancing one.” The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has previously come out to say that schools are being forced to use voluntary contributions to pay for the basest of amenities such as lighting and heating; voluntary contributions that are paid by parents and guardians. The charity reported an increase by 20% the number of parents contacting it for help to cover back-to-school costs. Fianna Fáil leader, Michéal Martin raised the point in the Dáil previously, asking the Government to raise the capitation grant and stating that “the existing capitation grant is wholly inadequate, particularly for DEIS schools, and priority must be made for an increased capitation grant in the forthcoming budget”. An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar responded that “an increase in capitation is absolutely something that is under consideration for this budget,” but he also reminded the Dáil of the investment in school and technological university building and the 5,000 teachers they had hired since the Action Plan was first published. Furthermore, the Action Plan for Education 2018 has committed to providing further support for DEIS schools in the form of programmes for teachers to “promote social and emotional competence, resilience and school connectedness in all learners”.

“Furthermore, the Action Plan for Education 2018 has committed to providing further support for DEIS schools in the form of programmes for teachers to “promote social and emotional competence, resilience and school connectedness in all learners”.

Going into the final academic year of the System of Strategies, the Government plans to complete and publish many of the reports they undertook and guidelines they have proposed as part of the Action Plan, such as the new primary language curriculum and research on impact in schools of changes to the Leaving Certificate Grading System. Their is also a major focus on the standard of competence in languages. Already there has been a drop in the uptake of traditional study of French with students opting for German and Spanish instead. The Government plans to build on this by increasing choice of languages available, such as the introduction of Lithuanian and Chinese, and an increase in students taking an Erasmus year (4100 students in higher education).

“Education improves our society, boosts our children’s potential and is integral to our economic success. Our approach to education is about giving every child an equal opportunity in life, and that’s why the Government is determined to build the best education and training system in Europe by 2026” comments An Taoiseach in the 2018 Action Plan for Education. All of this is true and although according to OECD Glance at Education 2017 report, we still have a significant way to go to being the best system in Europe, the Government is taking steps in the right direction.