Education Reform in Ireland Part 2

So, following on from Part 1, here are some suggestions for educational reform.

Government Level

It is too much to expect in a parochial and insular society like much of Ireland that our Minister for Education would be more than a political party hack.  In an ideal world, they would actually be expert, not just in education, but in their understanding of the dynamics of classroom and school environments, the nature of academic discourse in Universities etc.

While there are experts at the head of the civil service, they tend to depend on academic level research for their views on how schools and teaching operates.

  1. I would argue that the Minister for Education should have an advisory board, renewed every year, composed of seconded teachers from pre-school, primary, secondary and tertiary education who could advise the minister on proposals affecting the delivery and outcomes of education.  There should be no involvement of teacher unions on this board. The remit of this board would be wider than the NCCA.
  2. There should be a Junior Minister for secondary education and a Junior minister for Universities.
  3. There should be a full Minister for Children (defined up to the age of 12/end of primary education).  This minister would have responsibility for Health and Education and other matters relating to children aged 0-12 years old.
  4. These ministers should be ‘advocates’ for their sector, not just politically motivated holders of an office.  In an ideal world, such ministers would be appointed by the government, similar perhaps to the way the Attorney General is appointed.

Agencies

At present, the schools syllabi are developed by one agency (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment) and tested by another (State Examinations Commission). This makes no sense.  The NCCA should be merged with the SEC so that there is a clear link between the intentions of the NCCA when designing a syllabus and the examination of that syllabus.

This is just one example of where merging agencies with complementary roles would lead to greater efficiency in the education system.

Schools

Ideally, schools should be divided into 4 types rather than the 2 at present.

  1. Pre-schools.  There should be a system for registering and recognising Pre-schools.  There should be government regulation of this sector.  Pre-schools meeting specific criteria would be awarded recognition.  Pre-schools that fail to meet minimum standards would lose recognition.
  2. Junior school for ages Junior Infants to 4th Class inclusively.
  3. Middle school for 5th class up to Junior certificate.  The Junior Certificate course of study would begin from the third year of Middle school.
  4. High School/Senior College (academic focus) and Technical Training Schools (skills focus).  VECs should be effectively abolished and become part of the mainstream school sector.

Schools should be properly resourced.  Every classroom should have a Computer, a data projector and interactive whiteboard.  The notion that Smart Schools=Smart Economy is inherently flawed.  Smart Teacher+Smart Students stands a much better chance fo producing a Smart Economy.  Simply putting a computer in a classroom will not a Smart Economy make. Teachers need to be able to work with technology outside the classroom so as to be able to bring their learning back into the classroom. Teachers should be given a tax-break to enable them purchase and have ownership of their own progression in becoming ICT literate.

It goes without saying that there needs to be comprehensive training provided to enable teachers to embed ICT in their teaching and not just use a computer for Death-by-PowerPoint or the odd video. Teachers need to be able to use the latest technologies.  All the more so because their students are using it.

There should of course be a new subject at Senior Cycle called ICT and this should be much, much more than ECDL. But ICT education needs to begin in primary school.

Schools should have a fully expensed photocopier. Sounds simple but most schools don’t have this. All schools should have a library budget. All schools should have well planned child-centred work and social environments.

Primary Curriculum

The first thing to mention here is that learning begins at birth.  A whole heap of things can be done between 0 and 4.5 years of age to encourage a love of learning.  For some socio-econoic groups, it is essential that there is a policy to encourage learning prior to the beginning of formal education.  When a child is born in a hospital, the mother usually receives a ‘gift bag’ of merchandise with sample creams and advice leaflets. One thing that tends to be missing from the bag is a book. If no one else will, the government should fund the gift of a book to a child at birth.

Any measure which assists a mother who might not ordinarily be able to do so, should be provided so that a child is encouraged to learn .  If this means State provided creche facilities in primary schools, then my thinking is it would be worth the extra tax. Already there are many parents paying through the nose for creche care.  How much better if this had a light programme that encouraged learning as well as play in a school setting.

While I have some familiarity with the Primary School Curriculum, I am not expert on it. In some regards, I’m a traditionalist.  I know the benefit to me of knowing my times-tables and learning spellings by rote (yes, I know there are typos!).  And while it is clear that some children have difficulty with these, I do not think that is a reason to throw the baby out with the bath water.

I think too rigid a curriculum at primary can stifle the love of learning. While there have to be targets and attainment, it should not be at the expense of instilling a love of learning in children.  The emphasis in primary school should of course be on literacy and numeracy.  The idea behind the USA’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy is laudable though it’s practice has been disastrous. Every effort should be made to ensure that a child at 10 years of age has developed the basic skills of independent learning.

What is absolutely vital for primary school children, and indeed all children, it that they have the opportunity to learn at their level. This includes exceptionally able children. And while even in the best of times money is an issue, there is much that can be done for exceptionally able children through improved teaching approaches.

Secondary Curriculum

The Junior Certificate Curriculum is a watered-down version of the former Intermediate Certificate.  It is tempting to see this as being societally and economically beneficial if more people went to Third Level.  The continual dumbing down of the second level curriculum necessitates going to third level. I have two problems with this.  Firstly, second level teachers are forced to teach mediocrity. Secondly, not everyone can afford, or is suited to, or can benefit from Third Level.

I think poor curricula and weak syllabi breed poor teaching or at least, a poor student experience of teaching.  It is extremely difficult to encourage a love of learning when one has to rush through a topic to complete the syllabus.  Teachers get caught in a bind here. If we rush to complete the syllabus, we are failing to promote a love of independent learning and enquiry that will develop a student’s talents and if you don’t complete the syllabus we are not capable teachers!

I would propose starting Junior Certificate reform by changing the qualification.  The JC Certificate should be composed of 50% an SAT-type assessment and 50% Grade Point Average (GPA).  The GPA would be determined in the 3rd year of the Junior Certificate programme. It would be based on teacher assessment determined by a mix of assessment methods. This mix could be determined externally and based on a mix of in-house exams, project work, demonstration of particular skills.  The GPA would be externally supervised to ensure an adequate standard and that teachers weren’t just handing out grades.

The Junior Certificate programme would be composed of courses of similar length to the present (same number of periods per year)  but with fewer topics per syllabus taught in more detail. Schools would have the flexibility to design their own Junior Certificate courses if so desired (this type of thing).  These would be approved externally before implementation.  But essentially, it would allow subject teachers to deliver the course they wanted to teach.  The benefits of this should be apparent.

The Leaving Certificate would be similar to the Junior Certificate but with a more detailed course of study.  LC qualification would be based on a GPA and a SAT examination. Access to particular Third Level courses would be based on this assessment rather than the current who-can-cram-the-best-the-night-before system.

Curriculum Delivery

Schools would be required to develop policies suitable to managing the learning of students whose ability to learn is different to the majority of a cohort.  Schools would have a Learning Difficulties Policy and an Exceptionally Able Policy.

Teacher Education

It isn’t necessarily the case that better qualified teachers are in fact better teachers. Teaching is primarily about communication.  To a certain extent the content of what is communicated is essentially secondary.  Clearly, all State recognised teachers (those paid from State funds) should have a degree in the subject they are teaching.  Ideally they would have an Honours primary degree and a higher degree, that is, a Masters level degree.  But again, holding a Master degree should not confer on an applicant to teacher training an automatic right to a place on the Post Graduate Diploma in Education.

But if we are going to demand a Masters degree of teachers, then we need to be prepared to reward that financially. Otherwise we could rapidly find ourselves with a shortage of teachers and that is bad for a whole lot of reasons.

And we need to ensure teachers are rewarded socially also. We can not afford the luxury of denigrating teachers or teaching in the media and still expect the best graduates to pursue it as a career. Teaching should not be seen as a second grade/second chance profession when one doesn’t cut it as a lawyer or accountant.

It is essential to ensure that those pursuing teaching are doing so for the right reasons. Teaching ought not to be a qualification one follows ‘just in case’ another career doesn’t work out. Though that is not to say such an applicant hasn’t got what it takes.

The point is that if we want to ensure those who become teachers are the best graduates, then we need to ensure that the progression to become a teacher is a robust process. Half baked teacher-trainee selection results in half-baked teachers.

Teacher training should be just that. At present there is a big emphasis in course work on themes such as the philosophy of education and educational psychology on teacher training courses.  These are necessary and important.  However, it is far more important that a teacher is equiped with a ‘tool-box’ of techniques and methodologies, not just for teaching but for classroom management and administration. To be fair, part of the qualification is composed of assessment by a supervisor of the quality of teaching by a trainee during their PGDE year.

We do not yet appear to have standards-based teacher training in Ireland, that is, training that ensures a teacher only qualifies once they have attained a specific standard. While there is a standard, it is based on assessment by a visiting supervisor of, usually, 5 visits in the PGDE year.  It should be based on the ability of the trainee to demonstrate good teaching using a range of methodologies, approaches to classroom and learning management and ability to differentiate for students of differing abilities.

Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) have to complete an induction year after their PGDE year.  An induction year is an excellent idea as it helps an NQT develop a higher degree of professionalism within the context of induction.  What is unfortunate is that participation in the available course work that goes along with this year is voluntary.  It should be compulsory.  If there is going to be a 2 year PGDE, it should be 2 years!

Failing teachers and such like

Before jumping on this oft-quoted bandwagon, it is useful to understand the nature of a teaching career. I would emphasise that there can be no hiding place for a poor teacher. The impact of a teacher on a child can last generations, literally. But at the same time, before we rush to judgement, we need to ensure the highest degree of fairness has been applied to a situation.

A teacher typically enters teaching at 22 years of age.  This could often be as a substitute teacher (subbing). It’s not unknown for a teacher to sub for years before getting an EPT (Part-time) or TWT (Temporary Whole Time) position.  A teacher waiting Department of Education approval for appointment could be on a Contract of Indefinite Duration for many, many years. With the economic downturn, it now may take upwards of 30 years teaching before any new PWT (Permanent Whole Time) posts are approved.

Once ‘in’ the profession, there were only two guarantees of promotion – Special Duties Teacher posts and Assistant Principal posts.  These were guaranteed because as teachers retired, those still in a school moved up the list.  The principal of a school could agree the specific job that a teacher did for their post and usually it worked out well.  This has now changed and by 2014 all posts will be awarded on a merit basis.  This sounds ok unless one believes that those in favour with school management are no more likely to get a post than those who don’t play golf.

It could be therefore, that a teacher, not for want of ability, spends 40 years teaching, never becomes permanent, is never entitled to the teacher pension (even though paying for it!) and never gets a promotion.  This is hardly the best advertisement to lure the best graduates into teaching.

To add insult to injury, despite what being a teacher says about ones management skills, interpersonal skills and other talents, it is very difficult to move into other areas of work. A banker can move into insurance, a lawyer can move into journalism or the civil service, but teachers can’t really move anywhere.

So when it comes to labeling a teacher ‘failing’, one has to bear in mind that they qualified as a professional and if such a label is unjustified, that teacher has been libeled.  This makes it very difficult for that teacher to remain with confidence in the job.

The best way to avoid having to address the issue of failing teachers is to ensure, as far as practically possible, that teachers don’t fail. So what is needed?

  1. Teacher’s receive an increment in their salary every year.  It acknowledges the fact that private sector goodies such as bonuses and promotions to better paid positions are rare in teaching.  But it’s automatic.  I would change this. I would make the increment dependent on a teacher having undertaken a certain number of Continuing Professional Development hours each year. At present, the Teaching Council has its draft Policy on the Continuum of Teacher Education out for public consultation. Unfortunately, the 3rd section, on Continuing Professional Development, is full of what CPD ‘could be’ rather than what it is ‘going to be’. There should be a broad definition of CPD that recognises a teachers effort to keep up to date and informed about good classroom practice.
  2. As there are only so many Inspectors available to monitor standards, it is rare that teachers are inspected. Ideally all teachers should be inspected at least once a year.  Part of this inspection would involve the teacher completing a self-appraisal form of their year as a teacher.  As yearly inspection is not possible due to costs, a second component should be used, namely, peer-evaluation. Each year a member of staff would evaluate another teacher in the school.  The evaluating teacher would rotate each year so that the same individual didn’t evaluate the same teacher every year. The evaluation would be confidential between teachers.
  3. Where an inspection results in a negative appraisal, inspectors could undertake a series of inspections of a teachers practice.  If the teacher still did not meet an adequate standard of teaching, the Inspectorate could arrange retraining.  Only after a further period of inspection should a process to investigate the continuation of a teacher in practice be implemented.
  4. To enable the adoption of a holistic inspection system, there should be a facility where a teacher can move into other education related work, for example, into the civil service or other edcuational administrative work.
  5. It goes without saying that particular behaviours by a teacher would warrant immediate dismissal.

Added extras!

Much has been made of Supervision and Substitution (S&S) in Irish schools.  It costs approximately €300 million a year to fund absent teachers (no, they don’t miss huge numbers of days despite media reports – the average is 3 per year) and to supervise children during recess. It used to be the case that teachers did this work for free. But no one appreciated it. And when the government, having given in to the nurses and gardai with generous inflation-busting pay increases decide to put its foot down in 2000, teachers reacted by throwing the pacifier out of the pram.  Fair enough.  Would among us would work for free?

But the fact remains.  The State has no money and teachers have €300 million of it sitting there.  There is a solution to this that would save the money and still get the job done.

At present a teacher can take up to 5 days personal leave.  This could be for any number of things.  But it is at the discretion of the principal of a school.  If these 5 days were an entitlement, subject to agreement (timing etc) they could be provided as a quid pro quo for substitution and supervision cover.  It would require that all teachers provide S&S but then all should in a spirit of collegiality.

Ok…there’s enough there to think about.  If you want I can expand. Send me an email. There is a lot that can be done at policy level with regard to the type of education we provide in out schools – promotion of mathematics and science, languages and so on.

But the key is this.  More has to be demanded of eveyone and everything that inputs in the system.  With the right inputs and rewards, we can have a better system.

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