I should like to congratulate Deputy Hussey for bringing this important Bill before the House. Deputy Hussey will go down as one of the most innovative Ministers the country has produced in this century. History will rank her among the great Ministers for Education and she will be placed on the same pedestal as John Marcus O'Sullivan and Donogh O'Malley. She will also be remembered as a great reformist.
Deputy Hussey opened the door for the debate on curriculum change and assessment and, without her efforts, the debate would not have reached this stage. We would still be back in the early eighties. As someone who has a professional background in education, I warmly welcome the Bill. It will have an historic impact on our educational system at primary and second levels.
The Bill is comprehensive and encompasses all aspects of curriculum reform and the means for its implementation. It is of crucial importance that the board proposed by Deputy Hussey be appointed on a statutory basis which will guarantee their independence from the Department of Education. The work of such a board can be measured against the highly professional and well-researched reports published by the now defunct Curriculum and Examinations Board. The board throught their system of committees provided invaluable service to our educational system. The main focus of their research dealt with curriculum content and assessment in post-primary schools. The advantages and shortcomings of the present system were clearly outlined and the need for change adequately stated.
The growth in numbers in post-primary schools has been quite staggering. Indeed, it has increased four-fold since 1961. In spite of this dramatic change, however, there has not been a corresponding change in the method of assessment of curriculum content in schools. The education process, by its very nature, is rather conservative and somewhat resistant to change. A statutory board, working with an innovative and progressive Minister for Education, would harness the expertise of educational interests and bring about the necessary reform which is so desirable.
I am particularly concerned with certian aspects of our education system. Thousands of students are currently being funnelled through a system which clearly is not meeting their needs. This is evident in the annual national frenzy during late August regarding entry to third level education and the dreaded points race. The whole focus of the leaving certificate is as an entry requirement for third level education; yet two-thirds of students do not go on to third level and have no aspirations to do so. These students enter the workforce, remain unemployed or, sadly, emigrate. They are probably badly prepared for all these outlets. The Department of Labour recently issued a pack for emigrants which is most informative. However, I cannot understand why this pack was not distributed to career guidance teachers in schools. Instead, copies were sent out to the various National Manpower Offices around the country with specific instructions not to give it to the schools. If people wanted it they had to go to their local Manpower office. This was very unfair to the unfortunate young people and it should have been given to the career guidance teachers to distribute.
The shortcomings of the leaving certificate as a preparation for the working world is evident in the huge demand for vocational preparation and training programmes. Recent rumours that funding for these programmes will be curtailed or withdrawn have caused great anxiety among students and teachers. If these courses are withdrawn, students would have to revert to the leaving certificate cycle which is clearly unsuitable to their needs.
Radical reform of the leaving certificate is urgently required. Due to the huge expansion in numbers there is now a great range of ability levels among students at second level and the leaving certificate programme should be adapted to cater for their increasingly diverse needs. A practical approach to the teaching of mathematics is necessary. There should also be a more linguistic orientation in regard to teaching English. The position regarding the competence achieved in Irish is very disturbing. I estimate that a student who sits his or her leaving certificate will have had approximately 2,000 hours instruction — at primary and second level — but the effort and investment is poorly rewarded. It is most disturbing that such a high percentage failed the leaving certificate pass paper in 1983. Over 20 per cent of boys and 80 per cent of girls failed. When one considers the amount of tuition given to students it puts a huge question mark on our system of teaching Irish. Future developments in the teaching of Irish should concentrate on oral work and fluency rather than on literature and the written language. This should apply particularly at primary level. I am pleased that the proposed board is to have regard to the status of the Irish language.
Our system must reflect the ongoing changes in society, whether social, cultural or economic. We are witnessing a significant change in the nature of jobs. Labour based industries are being replaced by skill based industries and these in turn will be replaced by knowledge based industries. Our commercial future lies in information, in the creation of knowledge, its application and its communication. This covers a wide range of activities from consultancy and financial services to research and development education, to tourism and the arts. The new curriculum board must confront these issues and introduce the appropriate changes to the curriculum. The school curriculum must reflect these times of rapid change. It should not be 20 years behind as it is at the moment. When I was going through college in the early seventies an effort was being made to widen the scope of the school curriculum but we have not made much progress since then. That reflects on our education system and on our emphasis on the points system. Professor Charles Handy in his book The Future of Work said that an education system is a mirror of society, that it adjusts this mirror quickly enough to reflect the world that is springing up around us rather than the world that used to be, that all the opportunities of the future of work depend upon a population with access to education, a people geared to think and act for themselves, and that if we do not get education right we will be faced with a scenario of lost opportunities and a generation of whom it might be said of one day that “they have a bright future behind them”.
I will now look more closely at the provisions contained in the Bill as we probably will not have an opportunity to discuss them on Committee Stage.
The Bill will fulfil a long felt need in second level education. All the parties interested in education have through the years called for this type of body. The Fianna Fáil manifesto for the last general election promised that if elected the Government would set up a statutory body. It is unfortunate that this promise has not been kept. Everyone involved in education agrees that a statutory body should be set up. This proposition would not diminish the role of the inspectorate who at present are the Minister's principal agency for advice. It would liberate the inspectorate to fulfil their role of visiting schools so as to give advice and to sample the quality of education. At the moment schools are not visited often enough by inspectors because they are too busy.
The Bill would preserve the independence and autonomy of the Minister for Education and it would strengthen the vital pivotal role of the Department. The Bill would also provide for new methods of assessment to be introduced into the examanations system so that credit could be given for skills and aptitudes not being tested in the present examinations system. Some of the most successful people in the country did not come through our examinations system. Many people who failed public examinations have come to the top in politics, in business and in other areas. That points to the fact that our examinations system does not adequately test the ability of the people going through it.
The constitution of the board shows an awareness of the need for partnership in education. All the major education interests will be represented. The concept of designated bodies is welcome as it ensures the widest possible type of free flowing communication. It will be possible to float new concepts and ideas to the interested parties and one hopes that the final decisions will have a broad degree of consensus.
The structures and committees which will be set up by the board would provide an opportunity for practising teachers to advance their views and ideas on curriculum development and to make a sizeable input into the future shape of education at post primary level. Many teachers have been frustrated by being totally tied down to an examination oriented curriculum. Such a curriculum allows neither teachers nor students to express their views. Whatever reform takes place will have to take the views of teachers and pupils into consideration. The proposed composition of the board shows that the Minister recognises this.
The computerisation of examination and assessment returns would lead to improved efficiency of the system. Schools constantly complain about late results. This year the intermediate certificate results were a week later than they were last year. This delay will continue until results are computerised. Computerisation would lead to huge savings in personnel and finance. Because of the lateness of intermediate certificate results this year a number of school principals had difficulty drawing up their curriculum and in slotting pupils into their appropriate subject areas. We should make an earnest effort next year to ensure that the results are out as soon as possible after the leaving certificate results. We should make it an objective to get the results out before students return to school so that they can decide on subjects with a view to their future aspirations.
The Bill would allow for a very orderly transfer of responsibilities and thereby eliminate any possibility of disruption to schools or to the Department of Education. It would also allow for a greater alignment of curricula between first and second level education and would remove much of the anxiety which exists at present in the transition from primary to post primary schools. The Bill would ensure greater relevance in the curriculum and that is very important. Through constant ongoing review it would ensure that what is taught is meaningful and relevant to the students and to their needs.
The Bill, as proposed by Deputy Hussey, would provide the Minister with a body or board in position at all times capable of being called on by her to undertake investigation into any area of first and second level curricula which the Minister recommends or demands. The Bill also recognises the constitutional and inalienable rights of parents and students and gives a unity and solidarity to the educational needs of the nation for students in first and second level education. I appeal to the Minister to change her attitude to the Bill on the lines proposed by Deputy Hussey. Unless the Curriculum and Examinations Board get statutory recognition they will lack the clout, status and political strength to influence change. The board proposed by the Minister is welcome but basically it will take over from the previous board. I am sure there will be many recommendations and proposals but very little action. Young people today deserve the kind of action we are proposing. For their sake the Minister should seriously consider changing her mind in regard to this Bill.
If the only reason the Minister will not accept this Bill is that it was brought forward by Deputy Hussey, that is wrong. In order to meet the needs of the present generation in several different ways we must have change as soon as possible. I would like to point out to the Minister that education must be seen as an investment and not as a cost. The question has been asked in this debate as to what this board will cost. Education is one area that never should be subject to cutbacks as it is at present. We should look on it in a very positive way as being a definite investment in the future of our country and in our young people and not from the point of view of cost or expenditure.