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Joint Committee on Education and Skills debate -
Wednesday, 7 Sep 2016

Educational Research Centre: Discussion with Chairperson Designate

The purpose of this meeting is to engage with the chairperson designate of the Educational Research Centre and to discuss the approach he proposes to take if and when appointed to the role and his views on the challenges facing that body. Members are aware of the Government's decision of May 2011, which put arrangements in place for the appointment of persons to State boards and bodies. Reference to this arrangement is also made in the November 2014 Department of Public Expenditure and Reform guidelines on appointments to State boards. The 2016 programme for Government suggests that nominees for chairs of State boards will be required to have their nominations ratified by the relevant Oireachtas committee prior to their appointment. This committee welcomes the opportunity to meet the chairperson designate in public session to hear his views and we trust that this will provide greater transparency to the process of appointment by our State boards and bodies. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Dr. Pauric Travers.

I wish to draw Dr. Travers's attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if Dr. Travers is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and he continues to so do, he is entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of his evidence. The witness is directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and he is asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, he should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also advise the witness that any submission or opening statements he has made to the committee will be published on the committee's website this afternoon.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Dr. Pauric Travers

I thank the Chair and the members of the committee for inviting me to meet them today as chairperson designate of the board of the Educational Research Centre. The ERC has a long-established and well-deserved reputation nationally and internationally for excellence in the area of research, assessment and evaluation. I am honoured to have been nominated by the Minister for Education and Skills to chair its new board. I will begin by introducing myself and saying a little about the ERC before identifying some of the challenges facing the board in the period ahead.

I am an educationalist and historian by background. I am a graduate of UCD and the Australian National University. My career has largely been spent in the public service in Ireland. I have been successively lecturer and head of department at St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra; dean of the joint faculty of humanities in St Patrick’s College and DCU; and finally president of St. Patrick’s College for 13 years between 1999 and 2012. In the last capacity I played a leadership role, particularly in teacher education, and worked closely with primary schools, the Department of Education and Skills and relevant agencies. I have been involved in the promotion of blended learning and digital technologies in teaching inter alia through TeachNet, the online community for teachers, of which I served as chair for many years. An honorary life member of the Irish Association of Teachers in Special Education, I have had an ongoing interest in access and disability issues.

In the area of governance, I have wide experience as a member of boards and statutory bodies in the educational and cultural field. I have been a director of the Central Applications Office, CAO, a member of the Teaching Council, a founding director and vice chair of the Centre for Cross-Border Studies in Armagh and a founding member and chairman of the standing committee on teacher education, North and South. I was a member of the governing authority of Dublin City University for 14 years, and I am currently chairman of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

The ERC was established at St. Patrick’s College in the 1960s on the initiative of the then Department of Education and the college. It has a staff of 34, including researchers and support staff.

While the centre has been in existence for half a century its board is new, deriving as it does from the designation in 2015 of the centre as an independent statutory body under section 54 of the Education Act 1998. The members of the board, myself included, were chosen after selection and vetting through the Public Appointments Service, PAS, process and consideration by the Minister of qualified applicants. In addition to myself, the board comprises four members: Dr. Denise Burns, former principal of Sancta Maria College, Rathfarnham who has been designated deputy chairperson; Dr. Jude Cosgrove, senior statistical analyst at the Institute of Public Health and a former research associate at the Educational Research Centre, ERC, who is taking up the role in her personal capacity; Professor Michael Martin from the Lynch School of Education, Boston College; and Edward Murtagh, former assistant chief inspector at the Department of Education and Skills. I am confident that the board contains the appropriate balance of skills and experience to fulfil its mandate. The ERC has, of course, an able director in Dr. Peter Archer and experienced staff who have responsibility for operational matters. I look forward to working constructively with them and with the other members of the board.

The responsibilities of the ERC are laid down in the establishment order, S.I. No. 392 of 2015. In summary, these are to provide an assessment support service to schools and centres of education, including the development and provision of standardised tests and other assessment instruments, and to conduct independent research on all aspects of education, including research that will inform policy making and practice and the improvement of educational standards. The ERC undertakes research for and provides advice and support to the inspectorate and other sections of the Department. It also does work on behalf of a range of bodies, including the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, the State Examinations Commission and the National Council for Special Education. It has strong associations with the EU, the OECD and other international organisations.

The central challenge for any educational system is to achieve the best outcomes for individual students and wider society within the resources available. Well conceived educational research and evaluation can and should influence policy and practice relating to a myriad of issues including educational disadvantage, special education needs, gender equality, assessment, the Irish language and student attainment. For example, with finite resources, it is important that interventions which seek to address the continuing problem of educational disadvantage are targeted to achieve maximum impact. Policy and practice in this area, particularly the manner in which Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, the Department’s initiative for disadvantaged schools, has evolved has been significantly shaped by educational research conducted by the ERC which is the external evaluator for DEIS.

Another key challenge lies in the area of literacy and the minority of students who leave school with literacy and numeracy problems. The National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy 2011-2020, which addresses this issue, has been shaped by empirical data on literacy and numeracy levels as well as qualitative research on what is happening in classrooms and what is effective. Well focused quantitative and qualitative research and evaluation informs decisions on curriculum change and the mainstreaming of pilot programmes.

At a system level, large scale studies of achievement play an important role in monitoring and improving quality in educational provision. International studies such as the Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, PIRLS, and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, TIMSS, which are administered in Ireland by the ERC on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills, provide invaluable comparative data on achievement levels generally and, in particular, on performance in English reading, mathematics and science. Similarly, the National Assessments of English Reading and Mathematics, NAMER, provide valuable national data. The ERC works closely with the inspectorate of the Department on such studies which are helpful in identifying trends and informing approaches to improving standards.

While the headline results attract the most attention, often the more detailed analysis is more useful - for example, the PISA finding that although Irish pupils performed well otherwise, higher achievers lagged behind their counterparts in other countries. A criticism sometimes made of the Irish educational system is that is serves the average student well but those near the bottom or the top less well. Ensuring that every student reaches his or her full potential is an aspiration that can be realised with the assistance of good quality educational research.

The Educational Research Centre is an important part of our national educational infrastructure. Its establishment as a body corporate with a board strengthens its academic independence and secures its continued contribution to policy and practice in Irish education. Acting within the policy set by the Minister for Education and Skills, the board will set its strategic direction, approve the associated work programmes for the staff and the centre and, in due course, report on the outcomes. The work programme will continue to include participation in major international research studies, focused research and evaluation at national level, including research initiated by the centre, and services to schools and other educational centres.

One important strategic goal will be the building of capacity for educational assessment research by making provision for professional development of staff of the centre and by providing training in, and advice on, areas of its competence to others. To this end, the centre will seek to enhance its collaboration with the new institute of education at Dublin City University and other cognate institutions and agencies as appropriate. Another strategic goal will be to build on work already done in the centre on the development of computer-based platforms for the delivery of tests provided to schools - that is, the Drumcondra tests - and in the context of international studies.

Until now, the ERC operated as a functionally autonomous unit within St. Patrick's College. As such, its governance arrangements were somewhat anomalous. The appointment of a board rectifies that situation. An immediate priority will be to undertake a review of its existing codes and policies and to introduce new ones, as appropriate, to ensure that they are fit for purpose and in accordance with best practice. The board will be open, transparent and accountable in its operations and will of course abide by and implement the revised code of practice for the governance of State bodies.

In this year of anniversaries, we mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Educational Research Centre. We also mark an important transition and a new phase in its development with the creation of its first board. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the new board, the staff of the centre, the Minister, the Department, the members of this committee and all educational stakeholders to enhance the contribution the ERC makes to Irish education.

Thank you very much, Dr. Travers. There is no doubt that you have vast experience in the education sector in regard to both students and teachers. It was interesting to hear about the work of the Educational Research Centre and what it has achieved in the past 50 years, particularly the priorities you highlighted relating to educational disadvantage and access.

I will open the floor to members. Please indicate if you would like to ask Dr. Travers any questions either on his opening statement or on the work he proposes to carry out as chairman designate of the Educational Research Centre.

I do not know whether the questions are really appropriate, but some points jumped out at me in the contribution of Dr. Travers. I know Ireland does relatively well in the PISA scores. We are approximately 17th globally. However, we fall down elsewhere. Approximately 15% of Irish people have not reached a basic skill level in mathematics and science. Has the ERC done much research in this area? Perhaps it has and I simply need to find it. Is there a correlation between that and dyscalculia, as well as the fact that schools are slow in assessing children for mathematics disabilities? It is not recognised in the same way as being dyslexic at leaving certificate level.

The resources are not making their way into the schools and there is no national recognition. I believe this is having a knock-on effect on the PISA scores and educational attainment when students get to leaving certificate level.

Dr. Pauric Travers

As Senator Ruane has said, we tend to perform well in PISA, especially in reading. The most recent PISA was in 2012. We performed significantly above the OECD average in mathematics. We do well in mathematics generally but we performed significantly above the average in mathematics in 2013 as well as in reading. We have done well consistently in reading. This outcome correlates with the findings of the other reports, including the PIRLS and TIMSS reports. PIRLS looks at literacy and TIMSS looks at mathematics and science. Certainly we do well, but there is no room for complacency. I am not aware that the centre has done specific research on the relationship between early intervention and performance in PISA, but it has been working closely with the DEIS programme and the national numeracy and literacy strategy. The early indications on the numeracy and literacy strategy suggest it is beginning to have an impact overall, particularly on the areas Senator Ruane referred to.

Probably the most recent relevant findings are the national assessments done in 2014, which were carried out by the ERC in collaboration with the inspectorate. They have shown significant improvements in the areas of reading and mathematics. I think it augers well for the future. It is early days yet, but the view on the outcomes from the 2014 assessments is that there is no room for complacency and that there is room for improvement in the area of mathematics and the DEIS programme and disadvantaged schools. The view was that this area needed further attention. The centre is undertaking the main evaluation for the DEIS programme and it will be interesting to see the outcome.

Thank you for your response, Dr. Travers. I understand the ERC did a report for a previous committee, the Joint Committee on Education and Science, on early school leaving and that it was well received. There was considerable debate at the time on the question. We might have that report forwarded to our members.

Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh Dr. Travers. Guím gach rath air ina ról nua agus tá súil agam go n-éireoidh an t-ádh leis. I wish Dr. Travers the best in his role. The more clarity that can be brought to educational disadvantage and how we can counter it, the better. I am pleased to note the mention of the Irish language, which is a particular interest of mine. Are there any particular initiatives or research on the Irish language that Dr. Travers will seek to put forward in his role as chairman?

Dr. Pauric Travers

The centre has been involved in research relating to the Irish language and standards in Irish. I assume it will continue to do that. There have been positive developments in terms of our understanding of educational disadvantage. There was a time where there was an assumption that it was an urban phenomenon only. In fact, one of the developments in the past decade has been a greater appreciation of the need to address areas of rural disadvantage. The centre has done some work or research in this area. The centre has done work on the Irish language and will continue to work on standards and achievements in Irish.

I thank Dr. Travers for his presentation and I wish him the best of luck in his role. Dr. Travers mentioned that one of his immediate priorities was a review of existing codes and policies. It made me curious as to when they were last reviewed. Does Dr. Travers know?

Dr. Pauric Travers

The issue is that up to now the centre came under the codes and policies of the wider college. It is a matter of ensuring that it now has a new independent status. It cannot be assumed that the codes, practices and policies that were relevant for the wider college and its operations necessarily transfer to the Educational Research Centre. They have to be appropriate.

In some cases, the same policy will apply, while in other cases it is a matter of adopting new policies. It is not an area I have particular concern about, but in terms of prudent and cautious governance, the first task for a new board is to ensure the relevant policies are in place and are fit for purpose. As it is a slightly unusual transitional position, we do not want anything to fall between two stools.

What would Dr. Travers see as the stumbling blocks in implementing the goals he set out?

Dr. Pauric Travers

This is quite a specific issue, but the bread and butter of the ERC is assessment and evaluation. There has been an explosion in educational research over the last 25 years, but assessment testing and evaluation is quite a specialist area and one has to ensure one has the necessary expertise. It requires, for example, input from a number of different disciplines, including mathematics, statistics and so on. It is important to ensure there is a flow of people who are well qualified to ensure we can conduct high-level research at national and international levels. Ireland has been well served by the centre because not all countries have consistently participated in the PISA, TIMSS or PIRLS, but the ERC has been very consistent in its approach. That is a tribute to its founding director, Dr. Tom Kellaghan, who was the director for almost 40 years and his successor, Dr. Peter Archer. That is one specific challenge. Our business is assessment, testing and evaluation. What happens in the classroom or in practice is a matter for the Minister, the Oireachtas, the teacher and all the different groups.

One of the more interesting developments over the past ten years has been a strong emphasis on formative rather than summative assessment for learning, that is, evaluation that feeds into the learning process, rather than waiting until the end and then testing what one has achieved. This is about evaluating and assessing children at different points, such as at entry, and then see how they are progressing, so that one can change direction as appropriate. That is a challenge for teachers. All of the new teachers coming out from colleges over the past decade should be well versed and well trained in that area, but it presents challenges for teachers. It is quite demanding, but it is very rewarding in terms of the impact it has, because one is responding directly and in time to the problems that arise, rather than discovering five years later that we let something slip through, or that there is a major problem in a particular area. One of the assessment findings that came out of some of the international studies in relation to mathematics, for example, was that Irish students were very good on numbers, but not quite so good on shapes, or the geometry side of things. That is something that can be addressed on the ground, but the teacher needs to use those assessment tools for learning. That will give better outcomes in general, but specifically for target groups or individuals. Very often, when a child has a difficulty early on, if it is not addressed in a timely fashion, they will always have that difficulty, whereas if one intervenes early and effectively, the problem will be resolved and that student will have an equal chance of prospering within the education system.

Guím gach rath ar Dr. Travers ina ról nua. I have a ceist on the literacy and numeracy strategy. We have seen the success of that strategy, but the focus has been on English and maths. It is a worry for Irish-speakers, like myself, and other teachers who are passionate about the Irish language. Irish needs to be held in the same esteem as other subjects, but we need to do this in a way that will not increase the workload on teachers.

Is there a way of evaluating whether the strategy has had any impact on the Irish language and on the standards? Teachers now have to spend more time teaching English and maths and it could result in Irish being marginalised. It is a valid concern. Is there a way we could put it on the same level as English and maths in our schools without increasing the workload on teachers, who are already doing an excellent job?

Dr. Pauric Travers

The early indicators in the literacy and numeracy strategy seem to confirm what can be achieved if we have a focused, targeted strategy that identifies areas that need to be addressed. If it works on those areas, there is no reason it cannot work in respect of Irish or, indeed, other curriculum areas, if they are systematically addressed and if there is time on task in respect of the particular aspect Deputy Nolan wants to develop. The development of a similar strategy is a policy decision that would have to be taken. The evidence is that this kind of strategy does work if it is focused and informed. The ERC has done research in this area and is very open to continuing to do research on it. There are concerns about overall standards in Irish over a period of time. I am not that familiar with some of the more recent research in relation to Irish, but over a period of time there has been concern about the general standards. My anecdotal impression is that the good students are very good, but that there is an issue that needs to be addressed in terms of the bulk of students. I am talking about teacher education students. If that applies to them, then it will ultimately transfer to schools and outcomes for pupils.

I also welcome Dr. Travers and wish him well in his new role. It is a very onerous and very responsible role. From the point of view of resources, both financial and in terms of staff, is Dr. Travers satisfied that he has the necessary resources at hand in order to achieve his goals?

Dr. Pauric Travers

It remains to be seen. I have yet to take up the role. The board has not met. I am familiar with the overall budget. The centre gets a grant-in-aid from the Department, which, up to now, has come via the HEA, but will come directly in future. It also gets supplementary funding for particular projects. In other words, if there is a project that needs to be done, then the centre negotiates for additional funding to do that work. Then it generates its own income, both from independent research students and from testing. Assessment and testing for schools generates some income, which is then ploughed back into the work of the centre. I think the budget is roughly €2.5 million a year. That is the figure. It has had some small increase in staff recently, but I do not yet have a take on whether the resource allocation and staffing is sufficient to do the work required. It has certainly been operating very efficiently within the cloth it has been given and, no doubt, like many organisations, if it had enhanced resources with an expectation of enhanced results, I am sure we would deliver them.

I welcome Dr. Travers and wish him all the best in the future with his new role. In terms of the board and its delivery, I am aware that numeracy and literacy are very much to the forefront across all subjects, as it affects them. This is something I firmly believe in, but maybe Dr. Travers would like to pick out targets in two or three other areas that he would like to see his board achieving towards the end of his tenure.

Dr. Pauric Travers

There is an understandable emphasis on numeracy and literacy because they are essential life skills, but there are other wider holistic skills which affect the experience of children, students and adults. A criticism sometimes made of the international studies is they measure a very narrow range of skills. They are very important skills but it is important not to neglect other things. If parents are asked what they want for their children, of course they state they want them to be successful, literate and numerate, but they also state they want them to be happy. In other words, there are issues about well-being and resilience.

Interesting research has been done on well-being, efficacy, how children see themselves and how self-confident they are. The Educational Research Centre is doing research on resilience. We all get knocked down and we must get back up. Those who are successful are those who keep getting back up, but others are less resilient and fall through the system. Research must focus on these issues as well. In general, Irish schools are much happier places than they were 30 years ago. There are exceptions and events take place which are not necessarily terribly positive, but in general Irish schools are very happy places.

When I went to parent-teacher meetings, very often the teachers were very keen to tell me about how the children got on in their tests but generally the first thing I wanted to know was whether they were happy, were they getting on socially and how they were functioning because these will follow them through their lives. Research must focus on literacy, numeracy and particular targets such as the Irish language, but it should not neglect the central holistic view of education because the well-being of the system will suffer if we do not look at the overall experience of the child or student.

I have a suggestion, which is possibly something the Educational Research Centre is already examining. We look at what we need to provide for students in terms of resilience, numeracy and literacy, but I have been working on a programme and there is probably research I could tie in to it. It is with regard to the teacher training curriculum. Dr. Travers stated some of the research impacts on the school curriculum. Does any of the research impact on the teacher training curriculum, particularly regarding deprivation and DEIS schools? Teachers should be trained to understand the social context in which they work. When they are training in their colleges, their placements should reflect the area in which they will possibly work. For teachers going to DEIS schools, generally their introduction to inequality is what they have learnt in the classroom and what they have been told by other teachers in the DEIS schools. This is not adequate. Teacher training placements should include youth centres and trainee teachers should work with victims of domestic violence, Travellers and migrants in order that they understand the context of where they will work. Does the Educational Research Centre's research look at reforming teacher training in any shape or form or the policies in this regard?

Dr. Pauric Travers

In recent years there has been a major overhaul of teacher education at primary and secondary level. The duration of the training has been extended significantly. Of more significance, the content and focus of the training has changed. This reform has been informed by much research, including research done by the Educational Research Centre. I am familiar with the teacher education programmes in all the colleges, especially at primary level, and there are programmes which make a substantial input regarding diversity, educational disadvantage, early intervention and other such issues.

To go back to Senator Ruane's first question, which I do not believe I answered particularly well, on the relationship between early intervention and PISA, the Educational Research Centre has done substantial research on early intervention. One of the great insights that has come over the past decade is that if intervention is not done in early childhood education to solve many of the problems regarding deprivation and educational disadvantage, the problems will be replicated and will continue.

It is good to have an access programme for third level education but if we really want to address the issue, we must go right back to earlier education provision. In fairness, there has been significant developments in early childhood education. There is a need for more and consistent intervention at this level because the earlier the intervention comes, the less likely the issue is to continue.

Early intervention is crucial but there is a lack of acknowledgement of dyscalculia as being a learning disability in the same way as dyslexia is recognised. Early intervention happens but in DEIS schools resources and acknowledgement are not available to diagnose somebody with dyscalculia. My daughter has dyscalculia but I had to find funds to bring her to the Dyslexia Association of Ireland to find this out for myself and then fight for resources. There seems to be a lack of acknowledgement that dyscalculia is a thing and teachers believe the way mathematics is taught will fix it. Dyscalculia affects learning Irish, French and any other language because there is a correlation between dyscalculia and other subjects. Advocating through research and policy for the recognition of dyscalculia in the same way that we recognise dyslexia might mean better resources would be put into schools to aid early intervention.

Dr. Pauric Travers

I will be interested to see what comes out of the overall assessment of DEIS. I am not a particular expert in the area. A basic principle is that the teaching style should reflect the learning needs of the individual child rather than the other way around. Differentiated teaching is now the general expectation. One does not teach a class of X number of students and assume that one teaching style will meet their various learning needs. The teacher is expected to respond in a differentiated way. Where an individual student has an individual education programme, the teacher is expected to support it.

When I looked at Dr. Travers's record, I was delighted to see he had a huge personal interest in access, disability and empowering all students regardless of their situation and position. Listening to him speak about prioritising the development of transversal skills, resilience and early intervention gives me great hope for what we can expect to have from the Educational Research Centre.

I wish to ask Dr. Travers about his roles with the CAO, the Teaching Council and the governing authority of DCU. How will they inform him as chairperson designate? What characteristics will he bring to the role?

Dr. Pauric Travers

They were three very different experiences. I was a member of the governing body of DCU as president of St. Patrick's College and it provided a particular insight into higher education. It is somewhat less relevant perhaps to the current role. The centre has been part of St. Patrick's College or St. Patrick's College DCU but it will now be an independent body. Membership of the Teaching Council was a hugely valuable learning experience from my perspective. It is still relatively new and it is playing a significant role. I mentioned the reform of teacher education. One of the major pieces of work the Teaching Council facilitated and directed was reform of teacher education programmes and ensuring they were fit for purpose. This required significant changes on the part of the colleges.

The Teaching Council is representative of the different stakeholders, particularly of teachers but also of all the stakeholders, including parents and management bodies. Working with stakeholders was useful. The expectation is that the Educational Research Centre will work easily with different stakeholders and groups.

The CAO role was a specific one. The CAO manages intake into higher education. I found that useful because of the issue of the points race and the pressure there is on students at leaving certificate level arising from the ever increasing number of points that seem to be required to get into this or that programme. One of the areas on which the Educational Research Centre has done research is State examinations, the relative challenge posed by different subjects within the leaving certificate and whether it is easier to get an "A" in one subject than in another, and then looking at trends over time in regard to State examinations. One of the areas that the Education Research Centre is doing some research on - I am not sure at what stage it is and I look forward to hearing more about it - is the difference that schools make, in other words, taking the intake they have and then the outcomes they produce. Sometimes a lot of attention in the national media goes on what are seen as high achieving schools because they get X number of students into higher education or into some high-points course, whereas other schools may get much less attention but their achievement may be far greater because of the challenge they are faced with and the issues they have to deal with. The ERC is doing some work in that area which I am interested in hearing more about.

On behalf of the committee, I thank Dr. Travers for coming before us today and for this worthwhile and enjoyable engagement. I propose to forward the transcript of today's discussion to the Minister for Education and Skills for his information and consideration.

We wish Dr. Travers well in the future. No doubt his wide experience, particularly in the academic sphere, ensures that he is well qualified to take on the role as chair of the Educational Research Centre at this important time for that organisation.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.15 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Wednesday, 21 September 2016.