Moira Leydon of the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland outlines her organisation’s perspective on what can be done to improve our education system.

THE Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation hosted a conference on the future of work last month.

In her address, Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor quoted research which forecast that 65% of children in primary school today will work in jobs which currently do not exist.

Not only is the economy changing, so too are the political and international institutions which have created, for better or for worse, the world as we currently know it.

The future is unknown and, therefore, uncertain. Education policy has to navigate this uncertainty. It has to prepare young people for their future lives as citizens, parents, workers and job creators — in a digital society.

At the same time, education must sustain young people’s wellbeing in the here-and-now as well as ensuring that culture, values and knowledge are passed on, shared and re-shaped between the generations.

In this context, we must ask deep questions: What is the purpose of education today? How can we ensure young people’s wellbeing and happiness? How do we prepare them for a world where exponential change is the norm? Such questions are not just the prerogative of educators. They concern all of society — especially those who set the public agenda. What happens in education today shapes the society and economy of tomorrow.

We have got the fundamentals right

Irish second-level education is internationally acknowledged as being of high quality. Successive OECD PISA reports (Programme for International Student Assessment) shows that Ireland’s 15-year olds achieve above average in literacy, maths and science. In 2015, Ireland ranked third out of 35 countries for literacy, including digital literacy, and 13th out of 35 countries for both science and maths.

PISA also found that Irish students feel a strong sense of belonging at school: this is vital for their wellbeing and their motivation to learn.

Second-level education is also ahead on other indicators in the EU 2020 Strategy. The latter aims to ensure that the school drop-out rate not exceed 10% by 2020: Ireland’s rate is currently 8.1%. The EU target that at least 40% of the population aged 30-34 years successfully complete third level education is already surpassed by Ireland: at 52.6%, Ireland currently has the highest rate in the EU.

Moving beyond quantitative evidence, there is also strong system evidence from Department inspection reports of public satisfaction with schools. Commissioned research by the Teaching Council similarly found high levels of trust and satisfaction with the teaching profession.

The work of the Teaching Council itself is focused on maintaining the quality of the teaching profession from initial teacher education, to professional standards and lifelong learning.

Another strength in our education system is the role of the statutory National Council for Curriculum and Assessment in ensuring an ongoing process of curriculum review and reform from early childhood to the end of second level education. Notwithstanding the ongoing ASTI objections to aspects of the new Junior Cycle Framework, the process of curriculum change is, in the main, dynamic and ongoing.

However, we need to look at systemic problems. Complacency has no place in our education system which is constantly charged with meeting new — and enduring — societal problems. From my perspective as Education and Research Officer with the ASTI, I would identify the following areas as priorities if our second level schools are to realise our aspirations for our young people.

Eliminate educational disadvantage

Bestsellers such as Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century, and The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always do Better, by Richard G Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, are part of a growing body of evidence on rising inequality. The proportion of children in Ireland (aged 0 to 17) at risk of poverty fell to 30.3 % in 2014 but remains higher than the EU average of 27.8%. The current policy for educational disadvantage — DEIS — focuses on schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students.

However, the majority of students at risk of educational disadvantage are not enrolled in DEIS schools. We need appropriate interventions in non-DEIS schools so that no child is left behind because of their family circumstances.

Invest in our school infrastructure Department projections indicate that from 2016 to 2025 second-level enrolments will grow by 19% — over 65,000 additional students in the system. We need new schools, but we also need to seriously look at existing schools; overcrowding in classrooms and corridors, and the lack of space for non-traditional classroom learning are quality issues. In particular, ASTI research by Millward Brown has underlined the inadequate facilities in science laboratories.

The latter will increasingly become apparent when new practical assessment tasks are introduced for Leaving Cert science subjects in the next school year.

Do ‘change’ better

The gap between policy development and policy implementation is increasingly acknowledged as one of the reasons why education systems are either slow to adopt new practices or adopt them in a piecemeal fashion.

There is a real need to examine this conundrum in the Irish context. If the ASTI dispute on the Junior Cycle teaches us anything, it is that we need to look for better ways to engage teachers in the dialogue on innovation.

Teachers do not want their students to be the guinea pigs for experimentation. We need to examine how schools can engage in curriculum innovation while not undermining students’ learning or classroom relationships.

Invest in teachers’ lifelong learning

A proper framework for teachers’ lifelong learning must be developed which is underpinned by concrete supports to (i) ensure that the courses available to teachers are relevant to their work and to their personal development needs, and (ii) that they are financially accessible. Recent research by RED C for ASTI found that the biggest barrier to further learning for recently qualified teachers was the abolition of qualification allowances.

A key area for teacher learning relates to the digital revolution in our children’s lives.

Ensure that teaching remains an attractive career

There is consistent international evidence as to the quality of the Irish teaching profession. That quality is underpinned by several factors: High standards of initial teacher education and induction; continuous professional development; working conditions and level of pay. Almost a decade of austerity has seriously eroded the latter and it is now the number one priority for new entrants to the profession.

A differential salary structure for new entrants to the profession is eating away at the attractiveness of teaching as a career for our best and brightest graduates. Coupled with pervasive job insecurity, it has the potential to damage the future quality of the teaching profession. It is the number one political priority for the ASTI.

Moira Leydon is education and research officer with the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI)

How we teach our children: We must prepare children for professions of the digital age

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