It is good to be back in this House again. It is even better to be back in a House that debates rather than reads scripts to each other. I have an excellent script which was prepared for me and which I intend to circulate to Members but it repeats much of the information that has been given and I do not wish to insult the House by reading it. That is in no way a reflection on the quality of the work done on my behalf.
I want to praise the motion. It sets a tone at the start of this Seanad that I hope will continue in the next five extremely difficult years because this country has lost its economic sovereignty. Our room for manoeuvre is limited and we have growing problems in a host of areas.
I want to encapsulate and respond to three areas mentioned. There is a familiar and similar theme running through them and therefore I will not necessarily mention individuals. We must realise the need to act now, unlike the exercise Senator Clune referred to which was as long ago as 1996 when there were so many taboos around this area. I am not just talking about the sexuality aspect of it; that is the tabloid side of it although it is so important to all of us. It is the mental health, personal hygiene and other aspects that were taboo. We must recognise that we can no longer afford to have taboo subjects because the consequence of taboo subjects are all the tragedies that have been referred to.
The second point made is the absolute necessity to have good teachers in whatever the subject happens to be. I am not just referring to mathematics, as stated by Senator Barrett, but in all the topics that have to be taught because we have to teach people how to grow up. It is done informally in families. Good, working, functional families do it without even realising they are doing it. How does one learn to be a parent? Where is the text book on parenting? Dr. Spock did it for suburban American housewives who lived five hours away from their Mammy but if one had a dysfunctional parent, what was one's point of reference? Good teachers — informal, familial and structured formal teachers — are essential and to get good teachers on the agenda Members spoke about we need a new curriculum. I will briefly discuss those three areas.
This representative Seanad in the broadest sense of the word can knock down the taboos. Its Members do not need my help in that regard, although in reference to Senator Zappone's contribution, I hope the provision of a greater pluralistic choice of places of education at primary and secondary level will enable people to assert their own value system without apology and for others to be able to find a place where they feel comfortable. I see no conflict in that. Pluralism is not some alien philosophy built into this island imported from somewhere else. It is embodied in the Proclamation, cherishing all of the children equally, and it is embedded in our Constitution where we recognise the right of the parent as the primary educator. Pluralism is the enemy of no one and is the liberator of us all. My view is that we should just get on with it but in a democratic, transparent and open way. I hope the forum on pluralism will provide a mechanism people understand to ensure we can get the changes people want.
Good teachers are a key component of the literacy and numeracy strategy launched on 8 July. On the point about the good teaching aspect, currently we have five teacher training colleges. That is what they used to be — four Catholic and one Church of Ireland. We now have an on-line postgraduate teacher training course. I stated at a committee meeting earlier that they have in effect merged themselves into the university third level sector. There was an intellectual and professional snobbery between primary school teachers who did not have degrees and secondary school teachers who had degrees but who had no teaching skills because the H.Dip was not a teaching skill exercise; it was a right of passage or something else and got one the points to which the Senator referred.
The reform of the literacy and numeracy strategy will cost an extra €19 million a year when it is up and running, most of which will be to extend the three year B.Ed degree in primary school teaching to a four year B.Ed degree. The one year H.Dip, to give it a distinctive reference, will become a two year course. Most of that additional time will be spent on pedagogic teaching skills, therefore, somebody at second level will no longer say they are a history teacher but that they are a teacher at secondary level and their subject at the moment is history, biology or whatever. They are first and foremost a teaching graduate who specialised in history and if they are taught how to teach a difficult subject they will be comfortable teaching other subjects that might have been more difficult in the past. If we get rid of the taboos we might make it easier for people to equip themselves with all the teaching aids available. Reference was made to the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, GLEN, equipment in regard to teaching skills in areas that are uncomfortable for people and with which they find a difficulty.
The tyranny in all of this is not what some liberal commentators might say has been the legacy of the past, the ethos of particular schools. The tyranny does not come from hard-line individuals who have a certain religious point of view or a certain traditionalist ethos. The tyranny comes from the points system in the leaving certificate and the demand from parents that the school get down to the business of getting their child the necessary points to get into the course they want. Senator Moran referred to the idea of a 12 or 13 year old at the start of secondary school having to deal with the selection of subjects for points.
We have a competitive education system. Some right-wing educational economists - I am not referring to Senator Barrett - would say if we have a voucher system we allow a market mechanism to operate so that pupils will seek out the place where they want to go. We have that de facto. It is called the capitation grant. The critically important difference in the Republic’s education philosophy embedded in the Constitution, unlike many status systems, is that the Constitution states that the State must provide for education, not that the State must provide education. That three letter word is critically important because it recognises parental choice and the role of parents. I was in Chicago last week and if someone lives in a certain area and the school is not up to scratch they either move or pay through the nose to go to a private school. The same applies in Britain. In Ireland we do not tie geography and place of residency to the school where one can send one's child, whether it is a primary or secondary school. We have never fully realised - I say this from the left - the liberation that provides for parents and the onus it puts on schools to be better than they were last week because otherwise they will lose pupils and if schools have had the phenomenon where parents are bypassing their school and driving out the country road to a smaller, different school one must ask why they are doing that. There are professional teachers in this Chamber - I am not a professional educationist - and they both know that when a school starts to fail it starts to fail at leadership level. Schools are fixed by fixing the leadership. The strength of our system is that parents can exercise choice. This is built into our republican Constitution.
Most parents send their children to be educated in schools in order that they will have better chances in life than they had themselves. That was the nature of my upbringing and, I suspect, that of many others. If pupils do not get the kinds of results they require in examinations to do the courses they want to do, their schools are not delivering what their parents primarily want. We deal with this by changing the junior and senior cycle curricula.
By international standards, we have a wonderful, inclusive child-centred exploratory learning system that involves fun, play and games. Good primary schools in this country are a delight to see, they are happy places. Professor Tom Collins confirmed this when addressing an IPPN conference four years ago. He saluted the principals and the deputy principals. The Stanley letter launched primary education in this country 180 years ago in 1831, which means we have one of the oldest systems in the world. In this context, Professor Collins told the attendees they had achieved something nobody had thought possible for generations. Speaking much more eloquently than I can, he told them they had removed fear from the classroom of primary schools. No primary schoolchild is afraid of going to school nowadays. Most give out to their parents if they are kept back or are late. This is a transformation we take for granted.
The experience of secondary level, referred to by the Senator, is different. Pupils enter second level at 11 or 12 years of age having come from a small school in which they stayed in a single classroom while the teachers came to them. They may come from a tiny school. Of the 3,200 primary schools, 620 have fewer than 50 pupils. These are hardly schools and are more like extended homes, yet we expect their pupils, at 12 or 13 years of age, to make the transition into the equivalent of a shopping mall. Every hour, on the hour, a crowd comes down the corridor and the building is inhabited by adults — 18 and 17 year olds. Pupils entering second level from primary school enter at the very start of the cycle, as with a game of snakes and ladders. In such an environment, in which we are asking pupils to do all the tasks SPHE and RSE equip them to do, parents simply want their children to get a sufficient number of points in their examinations.
With regard to curricular reform, I am delighted by the work of the NCCA. This is not my achievement but work that has been on the boil for some time. There is now a receptive Minister in the Department to respond to the work of many others. In fairness to the civil servants, they have had four Ministers in six years. Any organisation with that kind of turnover cannot operate at full or optimum capacity.
The new junior cycle will have a number of taught subjects but pupils will only be able to do a written examination in eight of them. The cycle will involve the compilation of a portfolio of projects and other work from first year through to third year. We are examining the way in which a portfolio can be assessed continually and how one can respect the integrity of examination results without there being a sense that they have been interfered with. The integrity of examination results at both junior and leaving certificate levels has not been sullied in any way by what we have done to other institutions. We must respect this particular virtue no matter how defective it may be.
We have not yet finalised the balance between the percentages of marks that will be allocated for both written examinations and for portfolio work. The ratio will be 50:50 or close to that. The core of the junior cycle curriculum will involve six taught life skills. They very much concern the topics the Senator referred to. The skills should enable a young person to function at the threshold of adulthood. They encompass looking after oneself, being able to articulate one's concerns, engaging with others and expressing oneself in a non-confrontational way.
We will keep the transition year because, for some, it is a year of liberation. Those who are focusing on points see it as a year wasted but it is a year of liberation. The detail on the reform of the leaving certificate, which follows transition year, has not yet emerged but, as I said today to colleagues at the committee, I hope that in September 2012 the cohort of young people starting first year will be able to study many subjects but will be able to take an examination in only eight. As soon as possible thereafter, probably the following year although I do not want to make express commitments despite my trying to drive this reform as quickly as I can, we will strike a balance between portfolio work and examinations. We will achieve the mix between continual assessment of one kind and State examinations of another.
The reality is that people starting second level in 2012 will not be doing their junior certificate examinations until 2015. It will be 2018 before they do their leaving certificate examinations. Change takes time and the outcome will not be manifest until 2018 or 2019. Who knows?
One hits a wall in respect of the way in which leaving certificate results are measured and the way in which the registrars of colleges capture those results through the CAO system. Most people believe the CAO points system is part of a State system but it has nothing to do with it. The CAO is a private company owned by the third level institutions and its job is to capture the results of the leaving certificate examination and put them through a churning machine that assigns points. As Professor Tom Collins stated, it is the most effective and efficient form of crowd control the college registrars have ever had. They love it and it allows them to have their week of power.
It is for this reason that, only two weeks into the 150 days in which I have been in the Department of Education and Skills, I met the heads of all seven universities and said I would embark on a necessary programme of change but that I could not do so unless they were part of the solution. I said the same to the heads of the institutes of technology two weeks later. I said that if the colleges still use a CAO-type form at the end of the process, the curriculum change we want to introduce will not work. I argued that if there is still a residual points system, the emphasis of the parents, whose tyranny in this respect is understandable, will be on points and on providing grinds to their children so they will get those points in their examinations. People talk about fees paid to schools but nobody has a clue how much people spend on grinds in post-primary school education.