Today's debate on education is historic not least because of the scope and depth of the issues involved but also for the reason that it is occurring simultaneously with a national debate on these same issues.
From the beginning I was determined to give the legislators the fullest possible opportunity to contribute to that debate.
I ensured that each Deputy and Senator was sent a copy of the Green Paper on its publication. Today's debate is as a result of my request that time be granted for a full day's discussion on the Green Paper by this House.
My priority today is to listen to the views of Deputies on the issues raised in the Green Paper and to take them away for further consideration in the process of preparing a White Paper.
I chose the title of the Green Paper, "Education for a Changing World", quite deliberately. I wanted it to convey a fundamental reality that has to be confronted by all of us. Ireland is undergoing some of the most rapid changes in its history and is doing so in a world of ever-accelerating change. The speed of change which will continue and even increase, is being caused largely by the creativity and enterprise of people in the developed countries.
In the industrialised countries, wealth is now mostly created from invention, innovation, brain power and knowledge. A nation's health is limited only by the imagination and enterprise of its people, and not by its natural resources.
In this context I make no apologies for wanting to provide balance and breadth in education by emphasising science, technology, enterprise and creative and critical thinking. I want the education system to play its full role in the development of the nation's people. I want the system to lead change into the next millennium, not simply to follow it. But I want to build on the education system's existing strengths and achievements. I have no desire whatever to narrow the focus of education to purely utilitarian aims. Education must continue to embrace the moral, spiritual, physical, aesthetic and intellectual development of students. If anybody has any doubt about my intentions all they need do is spend a few moments reading the educational aims set out in the Green Paper.
Let us glance for a moment at just what this education "system" is — almost a million students, over 40,000 teachers and lecturers, over 4,000 schools and colleges. It touches every home in the country. The current education budget is around £1,600 million, or £1 in every £5 of public spending. These few facts indicate the social and economic significance of the education system in the life of the country. The Irish people value education very highly and we will never have enough for education. However, we will continue to invest in our education system, a system that receives 50 per cent of our total take from income tax.
I want to acknowledge particularly today the investment made by the parents of Ireland and by the Churches in the education system. We could not have delivered such an excellent system without their marvellous contribution. I thank them.
I see the Green Paper as a first step in reforming the education system. But I am not interested in paper reform; I want to bring about real and tangible change where it matters. Unless what we do means improvement in quality and relevance of learning it will be pointless.
A key to achieving effective change has to be the involvement of all those concerned with education. They must play a part in determining the need for change, in agreeing the general thrust of the new directions and formulating the policies and plans to make reform a reality. The fact is that real change in education can only take place on the basis of the broadest possible consensus.
Since the publication of the Introduction to the Green Paper six months ago I have sought to establish the widest possible consultation process. I want this process to be a model of openness in action, a headline of how a mature society debates an issue with fundamental and far-reaching implications for its future.
To date I have been greatly heartened by the quality and quantity of the debate. It has been a debate rich in reason, devoid of rancour and low on rhetoric. May it so continue. The quality of the contributions reflects the sincerity and conviction of the participants — parents, teachers, school managers, Church leaders and politicians — in the debate and the significance they attach to it.
I emphasise that the Green Paper is a discussion document. Nothing in it is written on tablets of stone. I have set down what I and my Department consider to be the way forward in reforming the education system. I assure the House that if people think there are better ways they will not find anybody more open to good practical ideas. Consensus is the only path to real and enduring change. The achievement of consensus by definition requires a positive and dynamic contribution from all parties. It is not sufficient simply to knock proposals. All participants in education have a responsibility to propose positive alternative approaches. Consensus must be based on respect for, and recognition of the legitimate rights and responsibilities of all the partners. This is one of the reasons I am asking all those making submissions on the Green Paper to make them available to each other and to the public. In this way mutual understanding will be greatly enhanced. Furthermore, it will serve to deepen and broaden the multilateral nature of the debate. Discussions cannot simply be restricted to an exchange between me and my Department and the individual interests on a strictly bilateral basis.
I would like to address, briefly, a general concern about the time scale for submission of views and discussions on the Green Paper. I have to balance the need to allow the broadest possible debate of the issue in order to reach consensus, against the need to proceed as quickly as possible to the formulation of clear policy directions for change. All will not have to be decided before progress can be made. Consultation and consensus will also be needed when we get down to formulating detailed policies, after policy directions have been decided. We need to make progress in order to sustain the momentum and motivation for movement along the road to change.
The publication of a White Paper will be the next major signpost along that road. I want to avoid all unnecessary delay in reaching it. At the same time I assure everyone that I will allow adequate time to all parties to submit their views.
By way of introduction to our debate here today. I would like to touch on the six principles that underpin the approach to the Green Paper. Agreement on these will be fundamental to reaching consensus on reforms. Here I would like to acknowledge the widespread welcome on all sides for the six aims including, most recently, the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Desmond Connell. The first aim is to establish greater equity in education — particularly for those who are disadvantaged socially, economically, physically or mentally. For me, the overall national strategy for education is to provide the opportunity for all to develop their educational potential to the full. I am proposing that this aim be adopted as a main priority in allocating resources in education. This proposal seeks to confirm and build on recent educational initiatives such as home-school liaison projects. The second aim is to broaden Irish education in order to equip students more effectively for life, for work in an enterprise culture and for citizenship of Europe. I need to emphasise that what I am proposing is that we broaden education, not that we change from one direction to another. I want education provision that will meet the needs of all students. I want a range of programmes that will serve the needs of each individual, programmes that will motivate them and that will allow them achieve success in the system.
The third aim is to make the best use of education resources by radically devolving administration, introducing the best management practice and strengthening policy-making. The school is the basic block of the education system. The principle underlying this aim is that everything that can be administered effectively at the individual school level should be done there.
Some people have voiced the fear that empowering schools might in practice result in centralisation and increased dependency. That is why the Green Paper contains a parallel principle for the development of services to support the work of individual schools and to plan and co-ordinate a range of educational provision. The Green Paper is not prescriptive about the nature of these support services or a framework for their provision. I expect that the type of services needed and the appropriate means for delivering them will be hotly debated. My challenge to all interested parties is that they should suggest practical proposals on the services needed and on sensible structures for their delivery.
The fourth aim is to train and develop teachers so as to equip them for a constantly changing environment. I want the Green Paper to be seen as a vote of confidence in teachers. I have been greatly encouraged by indications from the teachers that they are ready and willing to take on the challenges of change. My firm purpose is that they should have the support to enable them to do so as progressive professionals. The increased emphasis on their pre-service and in-career training is part of an overall strategy to develop the professionalism of teachers and empower them as innovators and agents of change in meeting the learning needs of their students.
The fifth aim is to create a system of effective quality assurance. A simple principle underlying assessment is the right and the need to know. Pupils and their parents have a right to know how they are progressing in learning. Teachers need to know how well pupils are progressing in order to teach them. The State needs to know in aggregate terms how students are progressing, to formulate plans and policies on curriculum and on the allocation on resources. Assessment is a developmental not a negative or punitive process. It is essentially pupil centred. It is not about increasing competition between pupils and schools. There is no hidden agenda of league tables of pupils' achievements or of their schools.
The sixth aim is to create great openness and accountability throughout the system, and maximise parent involvement and choice. I want to open the doors of the education world to the public. I want a real partnership in education built on openness and transparency. I have no doubt that the prospective partners have the competence and confidence to take on board the various proposals I have made for parent involvement, boards of management and annual reports in a spirit of co-operation and trust.
I look forward with interest to hearing Deputies' views on this Green Paper and I wish to assure the House that I will take into account all constructive comments. I am in listening mode.