The Irish Federation of University Teachers, IFUT is the main trade union and professional body for academic research and professional staff in the universities, but it also has members in the colleges of education and some of the other higher education institutions. It might be assumed because of whom IFUT represents that the entire focus with regard to the curricular issues at first and second level would be only in so far as they impact upon the quality and preparedness of people coming to higher education. It is important that we have a much wider brief than that and take a much wider perspective because it is significant that IFUT represents those who teach in the colleges of education, those who teach students who become primary teachers and also in the departments in the universities, our members teach those who become secondary school teachers. We also represent people who engage in research in the entire field of education. We believe we are not speaking from the perspective of outsiders on first and second level education but have an intimate knowledge of the issues. It is very important and perhaps slightly surprising that I should say that we do not believe that the sole purpose of second level education is the preparation of students for higher education. That needs to be said in terms of evaluating the priorities and the resources allocation in primary and secondary schools. This may echo with what Senator Healy Eames said about the smart economy. I am trying to interpret what she said about exclusivity of ambition. We have had an encouraging increase in participation in higher education, and long may it continue. We hope to continue to drive that, notwithstanding the challenges we face. We will never get to the stage where every second level student goes on to higher education. It is important that we understand that the role and mission of secondary education must be inclusive. We must not leave this cohort behind. That might be a slightly surprising perspective coming from me, but it is important to set it out.
Like previous speakers, I will not go into detail. We have provided a written submission and an executive summary. I would like to take the committee through it in summary form. We have divided it into four areas: first, the inclusive curriculum issue; second, developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which has been touched upon almost universally this morning; third, adequate resourcing of the curriculum; and fourth, education for personal, economic and societal development.
On the first issue, the inclusive curriculum, we have strong views on the need to cater for students with special educational needs. State policy in this area is governed by a number of Acts and other legislative instruments, including the Education Act 1998, the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 and the Equal Status Act 2000. We have signed up to a number of international conventions, such as the Salamanca Agreement. The State is not delivering on what it has committed itself to. People with special educational needs can be excluded simply because different definitions are used in various Acts. If one falls outside one of the definitions, there is a danger that one will fall outside the focus of attention inspired by the spirit of the legislation.
The most blatant and obvious example of this problem is the number of students at primary level whose first language is not English. That creates challenges and disadvantages in terms of surviving and thriving in the education system. There is disturbing evidence, starting at second level, of a shallow appreciation of the effect on such people of withdrawing resources. The drastic cuts that were made to the programme of English as an additional language are barely credible at a time when there has been an obvious, notable and dramatic increase in the number of such students in our system.
We have failed to deliver on the special educational needs agenda. The previous Minister for Education and Science declined to implement the system of individual education plans, under which each student would be entitled to a guarantee that his or her needs would be provided for. We have to examine whether we are bringing all the children of the nation with us in the education system. We are not devoting the attention to those with special needs to which we have verbally committed ourselves. The Development and InterCultural Education project, DICE, which is funded by Irish Aid, is struggling to survive in the absence of support being provided to it.
Despite the success of programmes such as the junior certificate schools programme and the leaving certificate applied programme, and the obvious need for them, neither programme is available universally in all schools, which is incredible. It is now practically impossible to gain entry to the junior certificate schools programme. We must ask what the effect of that will be. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is working on an initiative, Innovation and Identity, which it hopes will have an effect on the junior cycle curriculum. The current curriculum does not address the needs of those with low-mild to high-moderate general learning disabilities. At the risk of sounding somewhat partisan, I hope the Department will be more responsive to the recommendations of agencies under its aegis in this regard. That is the point I wanted to make on the inclusive curriculum.
I could almost skip over the second issue, the need for the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, if it were not so important. There has been unanimous agreement on it this morning. Everybody has mentioned it. Preparing people for higher education is not the exclusive function of secondary education. We see evidence of the unpreparedness which arises primarily from the concentration on rote learning and terminal examinations and the overcrowding of the curriculum. There is not enough focus on basic learning and problem-solving skills.
Some of the students we welcome to university at the beginning of the academic year have achieved extraordinary points in their leaving certificate examinations. Their results may have been covered in the media. One would imagine they are guaranteed a bright future in higher education. It is absolutely heartbreaking to see many of them struggling, and possibly failing their first year university examinations, simply because they have not been given problem-solving skills. There is too much emphasis on taking in facts. As Senator Keaveney said, students are encouraged to believe they will get high marks if they regurgitate a single truth. That will get one so far, but it will not get one through life or through higher education.
It is appropriate that a large concentration of resources and staff time should be required in the universities, particularly for first-year students, as part of what we refer to as managing the tradition. It is crucially important that our colleagues, including Mr. Costello of the Irish Universities Association, are engaged in such initiatives. It is absolutely appropriate that we should do that. It would be better if it were more targeted, or if it were not required in the stark way it is. It is somewhat disappointing that the effort made in higher education to manage the transition is almost overlooked. The leaked version of the national strategy for higher education, which will be published soon, calls for such initiatives to be pursued. It seems oblivious to the fact that a great deal of work is already being done in that area. Perhaps people should pay more attention to it.
We live in a blame culture or environment, unfortunately. We are not saying the deficiencies that exist are the fault of the teachers. It is a structural thing. Teachers do not have enough time. They are doing what society expects them to do. They teach to the test because of things like the school ranking system and the league tables. It is all about the number of points that can be got by people in the leaving certificate. It is not a viable option for teachers to concentrate on the sort of delivery of the curriculum that is provided for in legislation.
On the third issue, adequate resourcing, I suggest it is pointless to talk about curriculum reform while ignoring the issue of access to the curriculum. The points I have made in our written submissions are self-evident and do not require any elaboration other than to note them. We still have overcrowded classrooms at all levels. It seems we will have even more of them. We have an overcrowded curriculum at all levels. We have substandard accommodation at all levels. I am including accessibility issues in that regard. We are reducing the number of special needs assistants. I again refer to my earlier comment and ask whether this is a credible strategy. Adequate training for special needs assistants is not being provided. The National Educational Psychological Service has never achieved its goal of having 200 psychologists within the system. There is a lack of speech and learning therapy and cuts are being applied to continuous professional development for teachers, particularly in the area of special educational needs. There have been cuts to the counselling service and cuts to the provision of additional supports for ICT.
In answer to the Senator's point, in education, probably more than in anything else, theory and practice are combined. There is no point in having a theory about education unless one recognises that this theory is reflected in what happens. There is a phrase that we are where we are, but in education, our policy is what our policy does. A small example of this is that although we talk about innovative ways of teaching, we refuse to recognise that the chances are that more innovation will require more resources. Unless we provide more resources, we should not use shibboleths such as "encouraging innovation" because we are not doing it. We must be honest about whether we are doing it or whether we will provide resources to it.
One issue that has been controversial recently is the question of mathematics and whether we are substandard or the reason we are substandard or at disappointing levels and so on. It is very important to state that such problems as we have in Ireland with regard to mathematical competence, as well as competence in the other STEM areas, do not suddenly develop out of the blue after the junior certificate but go right back to the primary curriculum. We must have a more systemic approach to it and I refer to initiatives such as the increased bonus points for mathematics, in which IFUT members in their professional capacity were deeply involved. Consequently, we share much of the input that was made by the university management, if I can put it that way, about coming to that decision. However, it is terribly important that we do not do what we so often do, namely, state that we have introduced a structural response to an ongoing problem which we consider to be a panacea and therefore we can ignore it. The additional bonus points for mathematics initiative will be useless unless it is backed up with all the other requisite inputs.
I will make a general point that again reflects the comments made previously to an extent. I was encouraged by the comments of Mr. Tony Donohoe from IBEC on preparing for education by personal development and how responsiveness must come into it. On phrases such as the smart economy, I agree with Mr. Ned Costello's statement that the smart economy does not necessarily confine itself to the technological sphere, as it requires an openness or smartness of mind and critical ability. I will provide two quick examples. When Albert Einstein published the theory of relativity, it was stated at the time that probably only three people in the world understood him. As the person who made that statement was drawing attention to the fact that he was one of them, it was somewhat self-serving but it is a fact. I am very fond of quoting another good example because it alludes to the idea of the damage that can be done if one adopts an overly structural or overly short or medium-term approach and may be relevant to the higher education curriculum. A famous statement was made by the most recent Dane to win the Nobel prize for science and physics who, when he was being lauded by his university rector about the credit he had brought upon his university through his efforts, stunned and embarrassed the entire university by stating that had the current university policy of only funding research that was targeted at the economy been in place at the time when he did the work that led to the Nobel prize, he would have been precluded and forbidden from doing it. Consequently, we must allow for such work. While no one will state that we can get into what often is referred to as ivory tower elitism, which is airy fairy and so on, there must be a balance. Space must be left there because ultimately, one can educate for the jobs that one sees but one must educate for the jobs one does not yet envisage.
I refer to a bullet point in my summary stating that the medium is the message. I mean by this that it is all very well to state that we want our children to grow up to be citizens who will understand teamwork, collaboration, collegiality, co-operation, sharing of ideas, sharing of talent and so on. However, we insist on resourcing the system at all levels in such a way that the idea of competition pertains to the cheapest and most cost effective in its own narrow terms. This results in an authority figure, sitting in rows or being told what to do because of the lack of resources for such as what was referred to by the USI delegation. In that sense, the medium is the message. There is no point in telling students that one values co-operation, or innovation, if one only funds an education system that must be conducted in a highly straitened, structured and narrow way.