I am very pleased that the Seanad has had the opportunity to debate the recent initiatives which have been taken in education. It has been one of the major objectives of my policies that there should be widespread debate among interested parties with regard to educational development. It is thus most appropriate that this House should participate in this debate.
The motion before the House refers both to the publication of the Action Programme for Education 1984-1987 and to the establishment of the Curriculum and Examinations Board. These two items are, of course, directly related to one another. The need for major curriculum reform is recognised as one of the central issues addressed in the action programme. I am glad to see the general welcome which these initiatives have received in this House and I have noted carefully the different points which have been made in the course of the debate so far. I am very grateful to all the Senators who have contributed.
The action programme does not purport to be a statement of educational philosophy. It recognises, however, the importance of the educational system as a means for the transmission of a system of values. Although it is not a philosophical treatise as such many important issues of principle are raised in the programme and there is general support for the maintenance of the key traditions which are inherent in the system. Through the general promotion of what may be termed the pastoral side of education, and through the strong emphasis on the need for education to be a broad preparation for life, the importance of these traditions and of the underlying value system is implicit in many of the proposals. The educational system has an essential role in fostering virtues such as honesty, integrity, tolerance, justice and love. The desire of the vast majority of our people that the education system will reflect a rich Christian ethos is fully respected in the programme. It was felt that these matters would be generally understood and, therefore, it was not necessary to have them spelled out explicitly.
The first of the programme's principles states that:
The education system should, as far as possible, enable all citizens to have access to an education which is relevant to their needs and which will assist them in seeking to fulfil the potential of their abilities and talents.
This principle recognises the unique worth of each individual and seeks to ensure that talent is fostered to the greatest possible degree. It also implies that stumbling blocks which may stand in the way of participation in education must be removed. Furthermore it raises the issue that access to education alone is not what is required. Rather there must be a serious questioning of the relevance of educational courses which are on offer.
Over recent years the very face and character of education has changed. Thankfully, education is no longer seen as the preserve of the privileged but the right of all. If I may digress for a moment I should like to mention one of the references made by Senator Hillery to third level education where he discussed the rise in fees in recent years and concluded that this would lead to fewer people from the lower socio-economic background going to university. It is necessary to point out that 35 per cent of all students in third level education have their fees paid by the State and any increase in fees for those who are getting grants or scholarships is paid automatically by the State so that a fee increase does not affect them.
I might also point out that it is a general experience in European countries that despite very high levels of grants in some other European countries there remains the problem of the lower socio-economic groups not participating at third level. I believe that one of the problems there is inherent in the experience of the disadvantaged child at primary level.
Ideally we want all our children to have the opportunity of staying within the educational system for as long as it is useful and meaningful for them to do so. For those who for one reason or another are forced to or choose to drop out early we want to have the opportunity of `second-chance' access at a later stage in their lives. Aspirations to achieve equality of opportunity in education can only be realised where there is positive discrimination in favour of those who are disadvantaged or for whom access to education is difficult.
The principle of special aid for the disadvantaged features prominently among the pillars of the action programme. I am pleased to note that so many speakers have already referred to this point of the plan. Senator Howlin last week emphasised how important it is that this should be picked out for special emphasis. I am afraid I cannot accept Senator Fallon's contention that our actions do not bear out our commitment to the disadvantaged. In our estimates this year we have made specific provision for primary education in disadvantaged areas and through decisions we took in modifying the Fianna Fáil expenditure cuts which they planned for 1983 we demonstrated this commitment quite clearly. The fact is that we have proved our commitments and the actions we have taken stand in stark contrast to the lack of commitment shown by Senator Fallon's party when in Government.
It is recognised, as a recent research study has confirmed, that educational disadvantage occurs in the earliest years at school and, therefore, it is at this point that major interventions must be made. Emphasis must be placed on laying firm foundations in the primary school in basic skills of language, literacy and numeracy.
Problems must be detected in time and appropriate remedial action taken as necessary. This is, therefore, the approach adopted in the programme as far as the establishment of priorities is concerned. This is why it is recognised that primary education and, particularly, the crucial early years, must receive special attention.
Educational disadvantage is not, of course, an isolated thing. It is related to social and economic disadvantage. It must, therefore, be recognised that although education has a role to play, its work must be complemented by other agencies — those coming under other Departments such as Health, Social Welfare and Labour, for instance.
Some communities have very particular difficulties to overcome, especially those in the major urban centres with high rates of unemployment and other social problems. A fund of £500,000 has been created this year to provide special help for schools and in aid of the services which they provide for children in such areas.
It is my intention that this programme should be extended as quickly as circumstances allow, and I accept the fact mentioned by Senators Howlin, Mullooly, and Fallon that disadvantaged pupils can be found in all parts of the country. However, as a first step we will make interventions in the major urban centres in Dublin, Cork and Limerick.
The second principle of the action programme states:
Education should be continuously updated to make it relevant to the modern world, to developments in technology, to changing employment opportunities and patterns as well as to increased leisure time.
This principle poses a major challenge to all involved in education. It stresses the need to adapt our educational programmes to ensure their relevance to an age of technology and to rapidly changing life styles and employment patterns. There are, of course, major implications here for the work of the Curriculum and Examinations Board, about which I will have more to say later.
There have been in recent times changes in approach to education and training adopted at EEC level, where as an expression of the social guarantee provisions, a new emphasis is being given to the 15-18 year old age group. The action programme indicates that proposals for new senior cycle courses are being presented for European Social Fund support which would give expression to the emphasis on courses linking the school more closely with the world of work, a concern which has been expressed by various Senators including Senator Bulbulia.
At third level, too, it is necessary to promote the development of technical and technological education. This will be crucial to our economic and industrial development and to increasing opportunities for our young people to gain employment. The programme also stresses the importance of links between education and industry, This is obvious in areas such as science and technology, but it is also important from the point of view of marketing Irish products abroad that the whole position of art and design education be strengthened.
Mention of third-level education brings me to one of the most complex and challenging areas of all: indeed the contribution of Senator Hillery illustrates some of those complexities and challenges. The scale of expansion in second-level education, which we witnessed throughout the seventies, has yet to make its full impact at third level. We can anticipate a very great increase in demand for third level places between now and the end of the decade. All of us who are Members of the Oireachtas, as indeed society at large, must face up to the major problems which this situation poses. We are talking of an area where the recurrent cost per student to the State is estimated to be of the order of £3,000 per annum. Thus, any expansion has major implications in cost terms. Yet it has been estimated that numbers could increase by 20,000 by the end of the decade, as mentioned by Senator Burke.
The action programme puts on record the Government's commitment to provide third level education for as many young people as possible. This is extremely important both from the point of view of the benefit to the community generally and also for the individuals concerned.
The extent of what is possible will be affected in large measure by the degree to which those engaged in third level education can find ways of increasing the throughput of students in existing facilities. I was glad to note Senator Howlin's comments in this regard. I would like to assure Senator Hillery that the research cost element and other factors which he mentioned will be taken into account.
This new look at third level may mean taking a radical look at some of the practices at present operated and demonstrating a willingness to be flexible in considering alternatives. For instance, the action programme suggests considering using third level facilities for four terms in each year. It has been suggested that one group of students might attend for one full term per year and supplement this by a combination of distance education and attendance for specific short-term periods throughout the year. I do not think that sort of idea is in conflict with what Senator Hillery was discussing.
Other suggestions in the action programme for meeting accommodation needs relate to various rationalisation proposals to achieve greater cost effectiveness. Such measures will be essential if the numbers are to be provided for, which provision will only be feasible if it can be achieved at less than full incremental cost. The scale of the problem can be appreciated when one realises that a capital programme to provide 20,000 additional places would cost in the region of £240 million at current price levels.
Clearly expenditure of this order is not feasible in present circumstances and thus there is is an onus on us all to face the alternatives of a restriction in numbers entering third level education or a means of achieving an increase in the use of existing facilities. This is the stark choice and one which must be faced up to. It is not a matter for me alone to decide. This is why it is particularly important that the debate be conducted on a wide plane. It must also be emphasised that we must be just as concerned about the qualitative aspects of education as about the quantitative.
Our situation of having such a young population makes us unique in Europe. We must not think of this situation as a problem although the financial implications pose difficulties. We should welcome the promise that it offers for the future and do all in our power to make our education system successful and relevant.
I have already mentioned two of the fundamental principles which underpin the programme for action. I would now like briefly to refer to a third. The programme states:
Responsibility and authority should be delegated as far as feasible, subject to necessary controls, with a view to achieving a full partnership between all the interests involved.
This principle is important because of its emphasis on partnership. In education we must always work to achieve consensus and the maximum degree of collaboration between the various agencies. There can be no place for a narrow protectionism of vested or sectional interests. There is a complex history of different school structures which have grown up over the years. In this lies one of the great virtues of our system — the richness of diversity.
The programme seeks to foster the harmonious and complementary development of the various school systems. This was emphasised by Senator Howlin. The aim is to draw on the best of experience from each. We do not aim to make all our schools the same any more than we want our children all to be the same. However, we must nurture trust and collaboration.
It is particularly important to give parents a full part in the formulation of policy. We must pay more than lip service to the constitutional guarantees of the primacy of the parents' role in the education of their children. There need be no conflict between the professional role of the teacher and the special role of the parent. They must combine for the ultimate benefit of the children. The proposal to facilitate the establishment of a parents' council is significant in that it aims to give a forum through which the voice of parents may be heard. Although there are some parent organisations already in existence, they each represent only a minority of parents. I am anxious that the new council to be established will represent parents as a whole.
The principle of delegated authority must go wider than just to give a greater role to parents, important as that is. A study will be undertaken of the extent to which decision-making can be delegated to the lowest institutional level at which it can be exercised effectively. Such delegation must of course be counterbalanced by appropriate procedures to ensure accountability.
Anyone concerned to improve the equality of education must look to the question of the professional development of teachers. This can be achieved in various ways. Principally, there is the very important matter of pre-service and in-service training. I consider that in the past there has been insufficient attention given to these aspects in educational policy making. However, any successful curriculum development or progressive change in schools will depend in large measure on the extent and quality of in-service training. In 1984, despite the major constraints on expenditure it has been possible to increase spending on in-service education by more than 100 per cent.
It is also recognised that practising teachers will benefit professionally from sharing more fully in the responsibilities of school management. To this end, the programme proposes a review of the system of posts of responsibility in schools. It also proposes that teacher representation be included on boards of management of comprehensive schools and in the membership of vocational education committees.
Another important dimension of enhancing the professional standing of teachers is seen in the establishment of the Curriculum and Examinations Board. One of the major aims in setting up the board is to allow a greater flexibility to teachers and schools in determining curricula which will be relevant to the needs of children. Teachers feature prominently in the board's membership and in the membership of the various committees which the board have set up.
I cannot accept Senator Mullooly's comments regarding the membership of the three sub-committees which the board have so far established. While the choice of members is a matter for the board, I am satisfied that they fully recognise the importance of having teachers prominently involved in their work.
An important debate was conducted in this House in November 1981 when Deputy John Boland, then Minister for Education, made a major speech suggesting the establishment of such a board. The dream became a reality in January last when 19 members of the board held their first meeting. The board have now embarked vigorously and enthusiastically on their work and are undertaking a major review of curricula and assessment systems. It spans both primary and post-primary education.
I was pleased to see such a wide degree of interest expressed in what the board are doing. Senator Burke and Senator Higgins in particular have addressed the subject in detail. Although Senator Mullooly and Senator Fallon have expressed anxieties about aspects of the board's operation I am glad that they, too, welcome their establishment in principle.
The members of the board have been appointed in their personal capacity and were selected on the basis of representation of a broad range of educational interests and expertise.
I have just announced a list of what are to be known as "designated bodies" who will work in close association with the board. Such bodies will be in a position to make a valuable input into the board's work. They will have a right of access to the board and will be consulted by the board on all major proposals which are being considered.
The recommendations which come from the board will of course be subject to the approval of the Minister for Education. However, it is intended that the board will have the greatest possible degree of operational freedom and be subject only to the ultimate authority of the Minister and Oireachtas. The Department of Education are represented on the board by two "advisers", who participate fully in the work of the board but do not have voting rights. The aim is to ensure that there is good communication between the board and my Department.
The intention is that the board, now established on an interim basis, will be set up statutorily in approximately two years time. Following that time the statutory board will assume responsibility for the operation of the State examinations at present conducted by the Department of Education's examinations branch. I can assure Senator Fallon that the staff of the examinations branch in Athlone need have no anxieties about their future working with the board and that they will be fully consulted about all developments.
In establishing the board one of the major aims in the long-term is to free the inspectorate from having to spend such a large proportion of their time on examination work. In this way inspectors will be enabled to spend more time in schools, acting as advisers to teachers and monitors of standards generally. They will also be able to provide information for the Curriculum and Examinations Board about what is actually going on at school level and in relation to the evaluation of curricular projects.
One important aspect of the Curriculum and Examinations Board's work is that the board will work in close association with other agencies such as curriculum development centres, the educational research centre at St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra, the university departments of education and the colleges of education. The aim is to complement the work of these agencies and not to duplicate it. In this way the board can play an important co-ordinating role in education.
The Curriculum and Examinations Board have been given terms of reference which assign to them tasks of fundamental significance. In particular they have been asked to devise a new unified assessment system for the junior cycle to replace the present group and intermediate certificate examinations. They have been asked also to examine the role of the leaving certificate as a measure of general education with a view to broadening the range of skills and qualities measured. In this latter connection they will also consider the desirability and feasibility of introducing a national matriculation examination separate from the leaving certificate, to be used as the principal selection instrument for entry to third level degree courses.
A further part of the board's brief is to formulate proposals for alternative senior-cycle programmes, including programmes geared to preparation for work and those incorporating work experience and/or work simulation.
It can be seen from these assignments that the board have a serious, urgent and major job to do of a very fundamental nature. Over the years there has been much background work carried out relating to new curricula, and major reports have appeared on the need for reform in assessment procedures. The board can now draw on this wealth of experience and ideas.
I can assure Senator Burke, Senator Howlin and Senator Higgins that the points they made concerning the limitations of existing examination systems will be very much to the fore in the board's deliberations. The board will also consider the experience that can be drawn from programmes such as the transition year to which Senator Burke referred and, indeed, other Senators, including Senator O'Brien.
In considering their major tasks the board have been asked to take special account of several important issues, and I would like to refer briefly to some of them. Perhaps the overriding one is the need to ensure that school curricula make adequate provision for the personal development of the individual student. I fully agree with what Senator Higgins had to say about this. Whatever other goals we set ourselves, we must never lose sight of this one. We must tap all the talents and draw out hidden strengths and gifts. Any educational system which seeks to achieve mere conformity among its students will fail most seriously to meet the terms of these criteria.
Another important issue, as recognised by Senator Mullooly, is the need to achieve curricular continuity and harmony between the first and second levels. There can be major problems here. The full potential of the primary curriculum cannot be realised if it does not dovetail neatly with the work of the early years in the post-primary school. The board, whose membership includes representatives of both the primary and post-primary sectors, is in a good position to look at this problem and to take account of the findings of a special committee which examined this matter a few years ago.
A further item urges the board to consider:
...the importance of combining the transmission of received values with the development of a capacity for critical thought on the part of students and within this context, the importance for young people of acquiring a critical understanding of the political, social and economic system.
We want our young people to understand and be able to play a full part in the democratic processes of this country. They should see democracy at work in schools and, in the course of their schooling, be made fully aware of the political and social institutions which will play such an important part in their lives.
Then there is the question of sexism and sex-stereotyping in education and the steps which need to be taken to eliminate this. The board have been particularly asked to take account of the findings of the Hannon Report and of the recommendations of the Employment Equality Agency in this regard. This was referred to by Senator Higgins.
Finally, there is the need to ensure that through the school curriculum the highest educational standards and the pursuit of excellence are encouraged. Contrary to what is sometimes feared, curriculum development should not lower but rather raise standards generally. The value of study and learning in their own right is even more important today than ever before and must feature prominently in any curricular proposals.
The board's assignment offers to the whole educational system an opportunity to take major steps forward in educational progress. I believe that, if the job is properly and thoroughly done, the outcome will be greatly to the advantage of our young people. There is a widespread feeling abroad that for too many of our children the courses today are no longer relevant and need substantial revision.
This is not to discard or ignore the traditions and successes of the past. Here again we must retain all that is best from those traditions, but we must recognise that life in Ireland has changed dramatically over the last two decades and that our education system must reflect this. We are glad that education is highly valued and sought after by increasing numbers of young people. We must respond to this challenge and ensure that our system, our structures and our programmes are truly appropriate to the needs of Ireland in the eighties and also to the subsequent decade which will bring us up to the threshold of the 21st century.
It is vital, therefore, that we review our educational system with these needs in mind, recognising that the decisions we make now must not only meet today's needs but anticipate those of tomorrow and beyond. I believe that with our Curriculum and Examinations Board in place and with our Action Programme setting out our priorities for progress, we are extremely well placed to meet these challenges. While I hold this office as Minister for Education I have a particular role to play. The success of these ventures depends, however, in large measure on the extent to which others respond to what is now being done. I am confident that, with the extensive range of talent available, Irish education and all our children will surely benefit from the initiatives which we have taken and will continue to take.