Education minister faces many tests in new role

The new education minister has worked in the classroom, but will rely on lessons learned in the political arena, writes Education Correspondent Niall Murray

ONE OF the biggest tests of Jan O’Sullivan’s political mettle will be how she decides to proceed on the roll out of a replacement for the Junior Certificate.

Her predecessor as education minister, Ruairi Quinn, failed to get across the line with the reform, ironically kick-started by Fianna Fáil’s Batt O’Keeffe in his short tenure in Marlborough Street.

With a new curriculum in English from September for first-year students, huge uncertainty remains over how, when, or by whom, the new course will be assessed.

The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) and Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) are already committed to non-co-operation with any training, meetings, or planning in connection with the Junior Cycle Student Award (JCSA), which was set to have been Mr Quinn’s biggest legacy to the education system, in which he tried to introduce reforms where many others had failed to even begin.

But timing meant that last-ditch efforts to get the unions on board for talks never materialised, the imminent reshuffle also coinciding with changes of the guard at the two unions whose members made clear last Easter — to the minister and to their own officers — that being required to mark their own students would be a step too far, despite the widespread recognition of a need to overhaul teaching and learning at junior cycle.

For the new minister, skills of diplomacy but also political nerve will be required if the timetable set for the first JCSA certificates to issue in 2017 can be kept.

Also failing to make it to the Dáil before Mr Quinn’s departure was the legislation which would allow the setting of stricter guidelines for schools on how they design admissions policies. While the bill may still be published by the Department of Education before the Dáil’s summer recess, the regulations which Ms O’Sullivan will subsequently be empowered to set on enrolment are likely to be more contentious.

A series of Oireachtas committee hearings prompted TDs and Senators to recommend in spring, for example, that schools be banned from setting aside any places for children of past-pupils. Mr Quinn’s draft regulations suggested a limit of up to one-in-four new entrant places being reserved for such children, but this was strongly opposed by many groups, and adopting the advice of the committee could cause tensions with Ms O’Sullivan’s Fine Gael partners in coalition.

These issues, although they are among the biggest facing Ms O’Sullivan, do not even go near the financial headaches facing her, being mostly expenditure-neutral to her annual budget of almost €9 billion.

Left with a legacy that includes his broken promise to students on third-level fees in the days before the 2011 general election, Ruairi Quinn managed to kick to touch on one of the biggest political footballs to haunt anyone in charge of the education portfolio over the past decade.

Despite report after report from a range of state bodies and other groups advising some radical changes, Mr Quinn announced just weeks before bowing out of Government that he would ask experts to examine the question of how to properly fund higher education. The group to be chaired by ex-head of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Peter Cassells will not report until the end of 2015 — months out from the scheduled date of the next general election.

Announcing its terms the day before declaring he would not seek a place in the reshuffled Cabinet, Ruairi Quinn spoke of short to medium-term risks from funding crisis to quality in our higher education, a crisis that national and international voices say is already taking place.

Much of this is to do with the continuing growth in numbers seeking to better their life chances with a college degree, something that makes it more difficult to avoid placing a bigger premium on those who benefit from higher education, even if it is only to be paid after they start to see a return in their income.

But that population growth is also placing increasing pressures on schools, which saw enrolments grow last year alone by almost 10,000 at primary level and by over 4,000 at second level.

Department of Education contributions to schools’ day-to-day running costs, when taken on a per-pupil basis, have been reduced repeatedly over the past few years and there is no prospect of any change, the Dáil heard last week from Minister of State Ciarán Cannon. The cuts to those capitation grants mean more pressure for contributions from families, something taken into account by many voters at polling stations.

Despite the maintenance of class sizes at levels to which they were reduced by the previous Government, meaning slight year-on-year increases in teacher numbers to match rising enrolments, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation will keep up pressure to ensure budgetary constraints do not force Ms O’Sullivan to further increase pupil-teacher ratios in 2015.

And they, along with all schools groups, will lobby hard for relief on restrictions to middle-management positions that have seen principals burdened with mounting legal and bureaucratic requirements to be undertaken with increasingly-reduced assistance.

For parents, things like the cost of uniforms and availability of book rental schemes — issues Mr Quinn tried to address but still left largely in the hands of schools to decide — are the big educational issues. Others will be keen to see more progress on the availability of wider choice in terms of primary schools, with over 95% still faith-based, and almost 90% managed on behalf of the local Catholic bishop.

While small steps have been taken in seeing handovers in communities with scope to cater to demand for choice, Ruairi Quinn acknowledged recently that the pace of progress in this area has been slower than he had anticipated.

Ms O’Sullivan will also have to continue fights within Cabinet on issues sensitive to Fine Gael backbenchers in rural constituencies. The larger party has already managed to suppress a Department of Education value-for-money report on small primary schools for the last 18 months, and analysis for Ruairi Quinn of how capital assets might be included in student grant assessments also managed to bite the political dust.

So, while many of her battles will be with interest groups, she will need to use her experience and insight as a non-voting member of Cabinet to good effect if she is to succeed at delivering some of the reforms already started in her new department.


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