Primary Level Curriculum Reform: Discussion

I welcome our guests from the National Council for Curriculum Assessment, NCCA, the Teaching Council, the National Parents Council, the Irish Primary Principals Network and the Irish National Teachers Organisation. There is a large number of delegates. Normally, I would mention everybody by name but the names are evident to the members. I thank everybody for taking the time to attend and for their patience while the committee attended to private business. As the delegates have been informed, the format of the meeting will include brief presentations followed by questions and, one hopes, discourse. The adjudications will then be sent to the Minister.

I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not speak, comment, criticise or make charges against a person in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Witnesses are also now protected by absolute privilege but if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence and continue to do so they are subsequently entitled to qualified privilege only. They may have been briefed on this and it is self-evident.

I shall follow the lists provided and I invite the speaker from the NCCA to begin.

Ms Arlene Forster

I thank the committee for inviting the National Council for Curriculum Assessment, NCCA, to make a presentation on curriculum development priorities at primary level. I remind members about the remit of the NCCA, namely, to give advice to the Minister for Education and Skills on curriculum and assessment for early childhood education for primary and post-primary schools. This advice is developed through the partnership process.

I refer to the council's current priorities for curriculum development for primary schools. As members know, the primary school curriculum was introduced 11 years ago and much has changed since with many of the changes impacting directly on primary school classrooms. During those 11 years the NCCA carried out two reviews of the primary school curriculum, focusing on six subjects. Findings from those reviews, along with new research during the 11 years and evidence from schools, now raise questions about improving and changing the primary school curriculum through further developmental work with schools.

At this point I mention how the focus of the NCCA's work in curriculum review and development has changed in recent years from keeping an eye on the entire curriculum to targeting particular areas where key challenges and questions arise. In response to the review findings and new research and evidence from schools the council now has two priorities for curriculum development for primary schools in the near future. One is the infant level in the primary school curriculum; the other is language in the curriculum. I shall offer a brief background to each of these.

In the case of the infant curriculum, Aistear, the new early childhood curriculum framework, was published last year and draws on a huge body of research and evidence. The primary school curriculum also draws on a huge body of research and evidence, but research and evidence from a very different time.

The time gap between Aistear and the infant curriculum gives rise to a number of significant differences. For example, Aistear puts huge emphasis on play as a teaching and learning methodology. The primary school curriculum recognises the importance of play but gives limited practical support to teachers in using play as a methodology. Aistear also puts huge emphasis on supporting children to become competent and confident listeners, speakers, emergent readers and emergent writers. The primary school curriculum prioritises literacy but gives limited practical support the teaching of language and literacy. These and other differences pose questions about the infant part of the primary school curriculum, such as what should the experiences of our children look like in junior and senior infant classes in our primary schools.

Turning very briefly to language, as I mentioned there have been two reviews of the primary school curriculum both of which focused on language, that is, English in phase 1 and Gaeilge in phase 2. Collectively, the findings from the reviews have identified some difficulties with the language part of the primary school curriculum. For example, those review findings have illustrated a lack of clarity in supporting the curriculum for planning for the progression of children in language learning. There is also limited practical support in the curriculum for the teaching of certain aspects of reading, writing and children's oral language development.

In addition to this, in the area of language in 2008 the NCCA gave advice to the Minister on modern languages in the primary school curriculum. That advice included a recommendation to introduce a language awareness approach across all schools, largely because of the findings we had on English and Irish and also the diversity of languages we have in our primary school classrooms. That does not, however, preclude a competency model being used in primary schools where those schools can facilitate it.

To come back to the two priorities, given that the council is about to embark on a review of the infant level in the primary school curriculum, that review will have a very clear and strong starting point on language and the curriculum. A number of the council's current work commitments support this work and lay the foundation for it. Those work commitments include research on effective language teaching, working with infant teachers on supporting them in beginning to look at play as a methodology and infant classrooms and the transition from primary to post primary level through the development of bridging materials in the area of mathematics. All of these work commitments, together with more general discussions on the meaning and experience of childhood in the 21st century, lay a very strong foundation for the council's two priorities in looking at the infant curriculum with a clear focus on language.

I thank the committee and I am very happy to take questions.

I have been informed that Mr. Cottrell is making a presentation on behalf of IPPN. I was not aware of who was making presentations. I apologise.

Mr. Seán Cottrell

Will I make my presentation now or after members have asked questions?

We will take all the presentations first.

Mr. Seán Cottrell

I hope members have had the opportunity to read the document in advance. I draw the committee's attention to six points in the document because there will not be time for much more. I will start with the second point on page 1. We are very lucky to have a very high quality curriculum in primary schools in Ireland. It is described as a world-class curriculum by many and that is the view of most educators. There was a new curriculum in 1971 and a revised curriculum in 1999. It was a little unusual to see drama being taken from being a methodology for teaching and learning into a subject in its own right in the revised curriculum. That is something we perhaps need to examine the future. It is a very effective teaching methodology, but presenting it in a primary school as a subject in its own right is something that took some people by surprise.

On point 4 on the same page, the reference to the teaching of the Irish language, we have about 80 years of unparalleled failure in terms of teaching the language in our country. There are many views about how it could be changed but we need a radical review because we cannot continue much longer with the same level of failure, in terms of people aged 14 not being able to converse in the Irish language. There is a growing, almost subliminal, negative attitude towards the language amongst people. When Irish people go abroad it is often then that they wish they had more of their own language.

Subjects such as physical education in primary schools could be taught entirely through Gaeilge. We could mix something that children love doing with the methodology for learning a language. In the senior primary cycle or the early secondary cycle we should consider separating the Irish language as an academic subject from a cultural and heritage subject. Irish as a cultural and heritage subject could be a compulsory subject to the end of second level. The focus would be on drama, music, sport, poetry, song, jokes, humour and slang, in other words, the vernacular of any language.

The study of Irish literature and the language itself would be optional subjects in junior and senior cycles and there could be a separation of focus. These are just thoughts but we need a radical review. We are far away from that at the moment. There was a sense that if we worked hard at what we were doing we would get there, but in fact we were flogging a dead horse. It is now time to check whether the horse is alive.

To move on to social, personal and health education, SPHE, we have never had such a reality as we now have for young children today. Adolescents today are under peer pressure, the influence of the media, the early sexualisation of girls and boys by the media through the marketing of various products and so on. There are also problems such as alcohol, bullying, depression and drugs. If one talks to any parents, one will find that it is a huge concern to them. It is an area with which they want help because most parents find it very difficult to deal with their children. There is an allocation of 30 minutes per week for this subject in the curriculum. It is something that needs a radical re-examination in terms of the balancing of time allocations for subjects like SPHE which are so important.

Physical education has an allocation of one hour per week in the revised curriculum. We do not need to remind anybody about childhood obesity and the whole area of health, in particular the explosion in cases of diabetes type II which is a chronic disease and will affect children and adults in the future, and the impact that will have on health services. Schools are not the solution to this problem but they can play a part and we need to examine not just how we allocate time but also resources. We know it is very difficult to provide a state-of-the-art gymnasium for a small country school but we need to look at the issue more creatively and stop looking at it in terms of linear thinking about how services and facilities are provided.

There is no link in most communities between the different agencies, such as sporting organisations, community associations and schools about how resources are made available. On that point, the number of children, in particular girls, who stop playing sport once they leave primary school is quite alarming and is a major issue which sporting organisations need to examine because it is a huge loss to them as organisations. It is also a major issue in terms of children's fitness and their attitude to sport.

On information and communications technology, ICT, everybody knows what a disaster we have in the country in terms of ICT and how far behind we are. We are getting further and further behind our OECD counterparts. We are now in the second tier of nations in terms of educational capacity. We have to get away from the argument about cost because the cost of not doing it is far greater. To put hardware, software and connectivity into schools is not outrageous by any means. It has been done really well in the North of Ireland. We have to free principals and teachers from worrying about hardware, connectivity and supporting the system and put the focus on the curriculum.

The only way we will ever focus on this is to pick a subject — I suggest it should be mathematics because a huge amount of software is available for it — and decide that by a particular date we will teach mathematics to every primary and secondary school pupil through technology. That is the only way to get the focus of the experts and service providers. That must be a target and planning must bear that in mind, and should work backwards if needs be; if we are to start on 1 September 2011, what must be done by August, by July and by June? We cannot afford not to do this.

I would like to draw members attention to homework. As a teacher and as a parent, the impact of homework on family life must be examined. Anecdotally, we are all aware of the stress it can cause. The reasons for giving it, the impact on teaching time the following day and the impact on children leave a great deal to be desired. There is evidence that many parents expect it and that is sometimes why teachers give it. A lot of homework is targeted at the average child in the classroom so for the higher achievers there is not much in it for them while for the lower achievers it is a reminder on a daily basis of what they cannot do. Effective classroom teaching, which differentiates children's ability and recognises different learning styles, is always a better alternative to giving homework.

Ms Áine Lawlor

I am the CEO and director of the Teaching Council, the statutory body that was established to regulate the teaching profession. Its remit is set out in the Teaching Council Act 2001: to promote teaching as a profession and to promote the professional development of teachers.

The Teaching Council does not have a direct role in curriculum reform but there is a role for teacher education in so far as the Teaching Council must be satisfied that teacher education programmes enable teachers at primary and post-primary level to teach the curriculum at primary or their subjects at post-primary. The relevant sections of the Teaching Council Act are section 38, which has been commenced, and deals with the review and accreditation of teacher education programmes, and section 39, which has not yet been commenced but deals with the continuing professional development of teachers.

The review and accreditation process under section 38 has begun. Last year, the Teaching Council, with a strategy for review and accreditation, looked at four programmes of teacher education and this year we are looking at four more. Concurrent with the review and accreditation strategy, the council is designing a policy on the continuum of teacher education, looking at initial teacher education, induction, early professional development and continuing professional development as a seamless continuum of lifelong learning for every teacher.

We refer to the curriculum in the Teaching Council regulations for registration purposes. It states under regulation 2 for primary that the degree programme or qualification must, in the opinion of the council, be adequate to enable the holder to teach the primary school curriculum to all levels in a primary school. Under our codes of professional conduct for teachers, which the council published in 2007, there are three sections, the first of which deals with the values underpinning teaching, the second with the practice of teaching and the third with the conduct of teachers as professionals. Under the practice section, there is a section on the teacher and curriculum, looking at the teacher's knowledge of curriculum process, content, teaching approaches used, resources for teaching, assessment and curriculum change.

Ms Áine Lynch

I thank the committee for allowing me to make this presentation. The National Parents Council (Primary) is a representative organisation for parents in primary or early education. It was established as a charitable organisation in 1985 under the programme for Government as a representative organisation for parents of children attending primary school.

I would like to talk about parental involvement in the curriculum. In recent years, parental involvement in primary school education took on many different meanings but when we talk to parents, the key reason for their involvement is for fund-raising. There is research on the benefits of parental involvement in a child's education that suggests that it has more of an impact on a child's educational outcome than social class, level of parental education or income. Family participation in education was twice as predictive of students' academic success as family socioeconomic status. Some of the more intensive programmes had effects that were ten times greater than other factors.

Research previously suggested that socioeconomic factors had the greatest impact on academic achievement. If parental involvement, as it now seems, has a greater impact on academic achievement, there is greater hope for improvement for children. While a school cannot change the income, education or occupation of parents, it can have an impact on the engagement of parents in their children's education.

To date, despite vast quantities of supporting research, there is no significant mainstream strategy or resource to involve parents in their children's passage through the primary school curriculum. NPC believes any reform of the primary school curriculum must have parental involvement as a core component. There must be clear objectives, planning, methodology and resources regarding parental involvement in all strands of the curriculum. The National Parents Council has been trying to get involved in how that might take shape. We held a conference this year on literacy in the curriculum and with the support of the NCCA at that conference, we developed specific resources for parents, with clear practices for them to do at home with their children that directly support the implementation of the curriculum at school. That is the sort of parental involvement we would like to see included in any reform.

The quality of teaching must be looked at. All teachers must receive training and ongoing support to implement the various teaching strategies required in the primary school curriculum. Schools must be supported in having a strong leadership and staff development ethos so a whole school-community approach is taken to the implementation of the primary school curriculum. This approach should ensure all children have access to the full curriculum and teacher knowledge and competence is supported and coordinated to facilitate this. The curriculum implementation must be supported by an adequate school inspectorate service.

The curriculum from early, primary and post-primary education must be clearly linked an specific follow-on should exist from one stage to the next. The lack of joined up planning at these stages for children's transition causes stress for schools and children. There is clear educational disadvantage in one curriculum not following in a planned way its predecessor.

There is also potential further disadvantage to the child. The transition from primary to post-primary education is a vulnerable time for some children. Consistency at curriculum level may give children who are feeling disengaged or vulnerable at this time of significant change some reassurance and continuity in their school lives. We are trying to address the fact that when children move during that vulnerable transitional period, there are many things that change. When they enter the classroom and find what they have learned at the previous stage is not being followed on, it adds to that feeling of vulnerability.

The current distractions from the implementation of the primary curriculum associated with inadequate ICT or resources to implement particular curriculum strands must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Mr. Jim Higgins

Tá áthas orm go pearsanta a bheith san áit ghalánta seo. Bhí me 43 bliana os comhair ranga i gContae Shligigh agus mar sin is onóir mhór dom bheith anseo inniu. Gabhaim fíorbhuíochas don Chomhchoiste um Ghnóthaí Oideachas agus Scileanna an deis seo a thabhairt dúinn ár dtuairimí a chur os a chomhair inniu. Is trí comhrá agus atháireamh a thagtar ar na coincheapa is fearr chun ár n-aidhmeanna a chur chun cinn ar son leasa muintir na tíre go léir agus ar son ár bpáistí agus daoine óga ach go háirithe.

On behalf of the INTO I welcome the opportunity to make this submission to the Joint Committee on Education and Skills on potential revision of the primary school curriculum. This presentation is informed by in-depth research reviews of the curriculum undertaken by the INTO education committee every five years since the implementation of Curaclam na Bunscoile in 1971 as well as research into specific curriculum areas and curriculum related issues in the past decade. Copies of some of these documents are being made available today for the information of members of the committee.

I am accompanied by our general secretary, Ms Sheila Nunan, and our education officer, Ms Deirbhile NicCraith. Ms Sheila Nunan will make the presentation and Ms Deirbhile NicCraith will field the difficult questions and I will help her.

Ms Sheila Nunan

In the past, curriculum change at primary level has not been a regular feature of Irish education. To put this into perspective, curriculum change has often only coincided with a change of national currency despite demands for change and reform at every point in between.

The INTO reiterates its supports for the aims, principles and features underpinning the 1999 revised primary school curriculum. Our organisation also believes that curriculum should be evolutionary and developmental, never static, and continually readjusted to take account of the needs of children in the world in which they live. The INTO acknowledges and compliments the work of the NCCA to date in respect of curriculum review. In the context of the request of the committee to make a short presentation on potential curricular reform, the INTO makes some observations and recommendations reflecting the experience of our 32,000 members, since the implementation of the revised curriculum.

The current curriculum was developed by the NCCA and implemented by primary teachers on the clear understanding that it would be adequately resourced in terms of manageable class sizes, the provision of the necessary resources, modern school buildings, adequate staffing levels and on-going support for the teaching staff charged with its implementation.

Regrettably, class sizes remain the second highest in Europe. Funding of schools, particularly the provision of essential classroom resources, is inadequate and must be supplemented by school fund-raising. Too many school buildings are unsuitable to support the full implementation of the curriculum and professional development support for teachers has been severely curtailed in recent years. Recent cutbacks in staffing, particularly in the area of English as an additional language and in-school management, have had a significant impact on curriculum delivery. The role of the principal teacher as curriculum leader is increasingly compromised by ever demanding bureaucratic, managerial, administrative and fund-raising demands. These issues are not simply budget statistics but impact directly on curriculum delivery in classrooms every day.

In the context of a broad and balanced curriculum, high quality literacy and numeracy outcomes for pupils remain key objectives. The literacy levels of Irish pupils are among the highest in the world, as confirmed in the OECD:PISA report. However, particular challenges remain especially in areas of socio-economic disadvantage where a key challenge is to help schools and teachers to improve literacy standards. Supporting and resourcing all schools to maintain levels of literacy is essential.

In the area of mathematics the outcomes for Irish pupils are in the average range, again cited in the OECD:PISA report. Taking our very low investment levels into account this is a reasonably positive outcome. Many of our pupils excel in the area of numeracy but clearly many do not. Given the centrality of numeracy skills to modern living the INTO believes numeracy should be a priority for policymakers.

We wish to put forward six suggestions for reform in mathematics for the consideration of the committee: acknowledge that numeracy in primary schools is a priority area and ensure a level of resources to support the full implementation of the curriculum; reject simplistic calls for change which under estimate the complex task of teaching mathematics to young children; ensure the provision of substantial teacher professional development, especially during initial teacher education, which such a complex task demands; ensure there is a clear understanding among all education partners and others of what we want learners to do in mathematics which is to practise thinking and understanding as well as memorising; improve the quality of mathematics textbooks and develop digital content to support the curriculum; and review the recommendation on time allocated to the teaching of mathematics in the curriculum.

To stimulate discussion on this topic the INTO recently requested Seán Delaney of Coláiste Mhuire, Marino, an acknowledged expert in the area of mathematics education, to write a short paper to stimulate discussion on this issue within our profession. A copy of his paper is available for the information of members of the committee.

The INTO deplores the lack of investment in schools ICT at primary level, particularly the lack of a nationwide supply of adequate, reliable broadband connectivity, inadequate investment in hardware and digital content to support the curriculum, the lack of technical support to schools and failure to provide for ongoing teacher professional development.

The Government has committed to spend €150 million on schools ICT, significantly less than the €252 million promised in the national development plan which at the time was widely agreed was insufficient to meet the scale of the task. To date only €22 million has been given to primary schools to facilitate the purchase of minimum teaching hardware. This level of funding is less than half of what is required for a school to meet these demands. In 2007 the INTO made a submission to the strategy group on ICT established by the Department of Education and Skills, a copy of which is available for the information of the committee.

In primary schools teachers find themselves trying to implement a very ambitious physical education curriculum without the necessary resources. In addition, Irish primary school pupils spend less time on physical education than children in the EU. According to our research, because of poor facilities, gymnastics is seldom if ever taught in primary schools while six out of every ten pupils rarely if ever experience outdoor or adventure activities. Only 30% of pupils are taught dance on a regular basis while only one third of pupils get frequent swimming lessons.

These findings relate directly to a lack of investment in school facilities. All schools should have access to a general purpose room or PE hall where PE could be taught. In addition, all schools should have access to a suitable outdoor hard surface for outdoor PE activities. This will require a major investment in facilities, which could be shared with local communities outside of school time.

According to the Health Service Executive, one in four children in Ireland is overweight or obese. Children who watch TV for hours or play with computers, are at higher risk of obesity, which is a challenge for all policymakers.

All pupils should be able to take part in PE lessons and all schools should be able to provide an hour per week of PE. This will require a real commitment from the Department of Education and Skills to developing PE as a core subject in primary schools.

Curriculum implementation is the product of many factors including teacher professionalism, State investment and parental support. Central to the process is the teacher. There is a need for a fundamental examination of initial teacher education, induction into teaching and continuous professional development to ensure that all teachers are adequately prepared to teach all areas of the curriculum. At present, induction into teaching and continuous professional development are completely under developed, the result being that the pre-service education of the profession is overcrowded.

Given that increasing change will be a constant feature of education, it is essential that these areas of teacher education be redefined. High quality preparation for the job of teaching will remain a prerequisite and it is the belief of the INTO that a four year B.Ed is essential.

There is a real sense of overload among our members who have been implementing the revised curriculum in the past decade. They must deal with seven curriculum areas, which are further sub-divided into more subjects, multiple textbooks, and large numbers of children with a broad range of abilities. There is some evidence of disillusionment among teachers because of the excessive overload and some are reverting to traditional teaching methodologies to try to cover all the material. Teachers are concerned that in-depth knowledge of each subject is not being achieved. They also must contend with expectations that at the end of a year all areas will be covered despite the fact that the curriculum was designed as a "menu" curriculum. The INTO will research this area further and bring forward policy proposals.

On behalf of the INTO, I thank the joint committee for the opportunity to put these matters on the record. We will be happy to answer any questions.

We will now hear questions and comments from members. As is the norm, the two spokespersons for the Opposition parties go first. Given the time constraints involved, I will allocate four minutes to each and two minutes to the other members, and I intend to be strict about the time. I call Deputy O'Dowd.

This is an important discussion and it focuses our minds on the issues. I welcome the representatives and agree with much of what was said. Where do children learn today? They learn outside the home and the classroom and in many cases we are competing with talk and chalk against the digital era and the digital divide, which was referred to in some of the submissions. If we are to have radical change in education we must have high speed broadband in every school. That is the key requirement for me because it is only in 2% of schools.

I attended a presentation by Apple computers recently in Dundalk in which it put forward its vision of education and how it is changing it. We saw that in the Isle of Man, all national schools are interlinked by computers. Every student has his or her own laptop, the schools are networked and there are very few technology jobs lined up in this process. In other words, they have a system that does not require a large IT section. To compete internationally in the Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, we must change the way we do business. We must move into the digital age. If we do not do that, we will not succeed. I accept and acknowledge that in terms of the literacy issues we are high on the PISA scores but we are not high on those scores in mathematics and science.

My question to the representatives, particularly those in the teaching profession, is how we can drive this forward together. It requires a partnership involving everybody. Taking account of the limited resources we will have in education, we must identify what will bring about the most profound changes. I believe it will be through technology and the delivery of broadband to every school.

I have a few questions. I accept what Ms Nunan said about a four year B.Ed but we need a new way of looking at the way we teach mathematics. We all accept that talk and chalk is gone but looking at the Internet I came across a site in Australia — I do not know if anybody is aware of this — where they have a programme called Mathletics. Thousands of children in Australia, and around the world, link into this programme and compete with each other as if it was an athletics competition. The aim is to see who will be first in the programme. It is very competitive and a fantastic way of doing business.

We must reach outside the schools and the textbooks and look to all of the countries that are very successful in pushing forward new technology and new ways for children to learn, and get away from the old systems that no longer work.

One of the problems with our outcomes in education is that children from disadvantaged areas suffer disproportionately in class size, particularly children in large classes for whom English is not their first language. I was in a school recently where 35% of the children did not have English as a first language. As Ms Nunan outlined, there is a great deal of pressure on children in terms of the high class numbers and the numbers who cannot speak English properly because English is not their first language. There is also pressure on other children who are trying to get through the system. Would the representatives agree there is a need for new resources, particularly in primary schools, for disadvantaged children and children from homes where English is not the first language?

We should set a target that, say, by 2018 Ireland will be in the top ten of the PISA scores in mathematics and sciences. If we set those targets, put them into our policies, sign off on them and work towards that target we would bring about real change that would ensure our children will be ready to get the jobs they so badly need in the future to compete in the world market, which is where it is all happening.

My apologies to the representatives for the delay in starting with their presentation. I have five points or questions to put that I would like them to consider and respond to, if not today then later. What jumped out at me, so to speak, from the papers is the primacy of the role played by parents. The recognition of the role of the parent is really a return to the Constitution but practice does not seem to sustain that. The National Parents Council and the Irish Primary Principals Network, IPPN, in particular talk about bringing the parent meaningfully into the process of the primary school curriculum and, in any context of reform, enhancing the role of the parent. I would like a response on that.

The elephant in the room, to quote Mr. Cottrell's observation, is that after 14 years of teaching Gaeilge many people are not able to speak it, sadly, myself included. The suggestion, which is not anti-Gaeilge but pro-Irish culture, to separate the understanding of Irish culture in all of its richness on the one hand and learning a specific language on the other might be some way forward but there is a key phrase in the observation about people arriving in junior infants enthusiastic about the language and, within a few years, having a changed attitude to it.

The third question, which is mentioned in both the INTO and the IPPN submissions, and Deputy O'Dowd referred to it also, is that we are good in literacy terms but we are bad in numeracy terms. I put a suggestion specifically to the INTO. We all know that resources will be scarce but I ask that we use IT specifically in the area of mathematics to deal with that and that we get the support services for primary school teachers. Part of that support service would be to extend the B.Ed course to four years.

On the question of support services, can we also think outside the box in that regard? We have a VEC office in every town and county. There are an enormous amount of support services for those schools. Why can the existing IT support services not be used? I was speaking in Letterkenny two days ago on that particular point where there is an IT support service in the VEC yet the principals in the primary schools were looking for support from a different source. I would be interested to hear the representatives' reaction to that. In addition, by extension, the support services could be that a principal trying to do the summer works programme could avail of the technical expertise and the availability of personnel in the VEC to do some of the supervision to ensure that a principals get more than two weeks' holidays during the summer months when they are trying to supervise the work.

To come back to the point about the parents and the representatives' relationship with teachers who, to quote Ms Nunan's point, are feeling overloaded and perhaps a little disillusioned because of the responsibilities, it is clear that the area of reform is now the new relationship between parents and teachers and their children. Can we examine the role of homework in the context of what Mr. Cottrell said? The phrase that struck me was about a huge reminder on a daily basis of what they cannot do. That was his observation in terms of children who are below the median level to which homework has been pitched. That gets at the heart of the relationship in terms of committed parents who think their child is failing when they are not failing; they are just a little slow and will make their own way in the world.

On Deputy Quinn's last point regarding homework, Mr. Cottrell raises an interesting question for all of us. I should link it with what the National Parents Council representative said about the engagement of parents with the school. The homework might be the one area where the parents can at least see what the child is doing in the school and yet I am mindful of the representatives' concerns about the impact it has on certain families. It would be worthwhile if we can connect what both of the representatives are saying with what we will be talking about, namely, the parents who engage with the school will be involved with the homework, will assist their child and that child will be helped. The concern is about the parent who is not engaging, the child who is struggling in the classroom and subsequently in the home. Rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water and abandoning the principle of homework for children, if more could be done to engage such parents, as was said by the representative of the National Parents Council, their children might be helped in some format to do their homework.

I am mindful of the benefits of parents' involvement. As Ms Áine Lynch said, their involvement should not be only related to fund-raising. Where parents engage with schools, be it through a parents' association in whatever format or in some other way, benefits are gained in that the parents will have a greater knowledge of what is happening, the family will benefit and, most importantly, the child will benefit, which is what we are all trying to achieve.

Mr. Seán Cottrell spoke about 30 minutes being allocated for SPHE tuition and an hour being allocated for PE. I am interested in the issue of childhood obesity and the importance of the participation of children in activities during the school day, whether during class time, break-time or any time. When we examined this issue in great detail, I had a concern that if an extra half hour was allocated for PE, would that result in a reduction in the time allocated for the teaching of mathematics, languages or other subjects? Where will the time be found in the school day for the allocation of such additional time for PE? Will it be achieved by lengthening the school day or would PE be fitted in during the lunch break? Everybody in the room would say that children should be more active, that they should walk to school and so no to avoid becoming obese in the future, but from what areas will the time to be allocated for such activities come? Will it be taken from the maximum time frame for the school week?

I noted that other people were enthusiastic about what Mr. Cottrellsaid about learning mathematics via IT. Looking forward in terms of the smart economy, where we want to go in that respect and how that can be done through the school system, that will be achieved by changing the curriculum to make the difference for the benefit of the children.

I have five questions and I beg the Chairman's indulgence in raising them. It was good to hear from all the delegates. I have one or two observations.

The Senator should put her questions.

I started out my working life as a primary teacher and at that point I thought education was very much about what the teacher could give and do with the children. I am now a parent and I often find I am very much in the dark as a parent. Having listened to all the issues the delegates have put before us around language, ICT, numeracy, literacy challenges, transition from primary to secondary, parental involvement is key to everything that has been said here.

To ensure that parents are more involved and, as Deputy Quinn said, that their constitutional right is met, should we consider the provision of some form of a structured course for parents, perhaps at intervals, on primary education? There are many forms of family now. For example, in the case of a two-parent families where one parent works away from home, the other parent might not be as able. There are also lone parents. There is also the area of socio-economic disadvantage. I acknowledge that involving some parents is difficult. The report the joint committee prepared on early school leaving showed how difficult it is to get some parents involved. However, I am keen to know how can we get parents involved in very real ways? Will the delegates consider the structured course I suggested?

The second issue I wish to raise is that of numeracy. Although, gains have been made in literacy levels, as the INTO said, the problem is not solved. If literacy levels were stronger, mathematics and science learning would be stronger because mathematics is a language. However, there is a key difference. Approximately, 20% of children at six to seven years of age now get support in literacy in our schools. The Educational Research Centre told me this a while back. However, what percentage of children get support in mathematics at that level? The percentage is far lower than for literacy. That is a critical factor. That need for support in numeracy is not be picked up at that level. I ask the Chairman to indulge me on this point. All research in this area shows that the key to strong learning outcomes for our children is the quality of teaching. The question is how can we improve that.

I direct my next question to Ms Áine Lawlor in the Teaching Council. Can the Teaching Council make recommendations to teacher education colleges for the inclusion of new components or items? For example, it was brought to my attention recently that colleges of education are not teaching teachers about how to recognise fatal allergies in children in classes? That is a significant issue.

My final question is how would Mr. Jim Higgins suggest that time can be found for PE and SPHE? This point was also made by Mr. Seán Cottrell.

Cuirim fáilte roimh na daoine go léir a tháinig anseo inniu. An important issue is the overloading in terms of the curriculum and its delivery. Given the degree of overloading, teachers have had to return to old methodologies. Unfortunately, that is regressive but I can fully understand the reasons it has happened. It is due to the lack of resources, huge class sizes, the demands on teaching a class of 30, the various ranges of the children and the level at which a teacher must teach to treat all the children equally.

Allied to that is the failure of the Department to recognise the need for in-service training for teachers. It is a major issue at all levels in education. Ms Sheila Nunan mentioned that nothing remains static in education but it has at this level. The desire of teachers at the coalface to deliver every possible opportunity to the children by being progressive, modern and finding easier and better ways for the children to understand and develop is important.

With regard to the recently introduced preschool year initiated by the Department, although it has not been available to all the children in question, is there any indication that it has linked the home with the school in a better way than pertained heretofore? Most of the activity in the preschool year revolves around play, drama and such activities. Surely this links into the what Ms Áine Lynch said.

I find it extremely baffling why the Minister for Education and Skills would introduce legislation to sanction and approve the integration of unqualified teachers into the system——

——at a time when there are so many fully qualified and recently educated teachers at primary level. Many of those teachers would love to get the experience of standing in front of a class, but they have been denied that opportunity. I hope that the unions, the partners present and everybody involved will address that.

I very much welcome the incorporation of the greater involvement of parents at all levels. Their involvement supports children, teachers and school management. As a former teacher——

I am cutting the Deputy off. I call Senator Ryan.

Can I highlight——

The Deputy has gone over the time.

Can I highlight other further issue?

The Chair is speaking.

It is the transition——

I call Senator Ryan.

I hope somebody will speak about that.

I am adjourning the meeting for 30 seconds.

The Chairman is at his best again today.

The meeting is adjourned for 30 seconds.

Sitting suspended at 11.19 a.m. and resumed at 11.20 a.m.

I call Senator Ryan.

I thank the delegations for their presentations which I found very enlightening. As somebody who worked in industry for a number of years, certainly longer than in public life, I equate the idea of a curriculum to the idea of a business plan expecting certain outcomes. In the business world, we would never contemplate the possibility of putting together a business plan without putting a resource behind it.

A point permeating the contributions after Ms Foster's was a lack of resource behind the curriculum. Does she have role in saying here is the curriculum and here is the minimum resource required to deliver it? If that does not happen, we are dealing with a nonsensical aspiration. It will not deliver the outcomes we would like the education system to deliver.

I would like to address my next question to the INTO. Mr. Higgins and Ms Nunan talked about the idea of the curriculum being in evolutionary mode and never static. It is an interesting idea and attractive in its own way. In practical terms, how do they see that working?

I refer to curriculum. Ms Forster mentioned the role of play in the 2009 report. Many of the delegates talked about the importance of transition from primary school to secondary school. Does the fact there is a big role for play in the primary school curriculum not put more pressure on support for the transition into secondary, because there is not as great a role for play in secondary school?

Many people mentioned physical education, including Mr. Cottrell, and the lack of resources. I agree totally with the importance of physical education, and the lack of facilities is one thing. I refer to the importance of getting everybody involved, including the local GAA, rugby and soccer clubs, coaches and so on, although that brings a competitive element to it. In terms of coping with the wider group, is that a question of facilities or professional development? There may not be a gymnastics club or a dance expert available to come in from outside. How can that be dealt with in order to get everybody in the school involved?

Somebody mentioned sharing facilities. Is it possible that primary schools would use the facilities of secondary schools? The idea of building a number of schools on one campus is being proposed. Could that be a solution?

Mr. Cottrell said there was a perception that a good teacher gives a lot of homework and a poor teacher does not give much. What is the view of the National Parents Council view on that? As a former teacher, I know from where we are coming.

As per last week's meeting, I will waive my speaking time in order to conduct the business in a timely fashion. We have five delegations and I will give them a little more leeway to answer the questions because they are of interests to members. Members will have an opportunity to ask follow up questions. Will Ms NicCraith or Ms Nunan respond to some of the question of relevance to the INTO?

Ms Sheila Nunan

I would like to make an overall comment on the discussion so far. There is clearly a consensus that the content of the current revised 1999 curriculum is of a high standard. It is important to acknowledge that. What we are debating is our capacity to implement it. It is important that the State recognises that we have a really high quality content curriculum. That is important in terms of confidence in the system and parents and teachers asking what must be taught. We are not disputing that. Therefore, the deliberation is very much on the capacity of the system to implement that and what has been thrown up in the past number of years and again there seems to be a broad consensus in that regard.

Ms NicCraith will deal with some of the more specific areas but I will go back to some the key issues jumping out around the role of IT. To go back to Senator Ryan's point about the business model, we made the point in our submission that there was a commitment but that it is down. Ms Lynch said we fall back on parents and their after tax income to support us in the provision of IT in our schools. A huge incremental leap needs to be made in that regard.

I would say to Deputy Quinn that there is much to be gained from utilising the capacity of IT in terms of CPD for teachers, children's learning in the classroom and what that can deliver in schools. We should avoid being simplistic about it. We need it to be done at a high quality level. We do not need commercial interests coming into it too much. It is very important it is integrated. Sometimes we can overemphasise the glamour of the potential of IT. Fundamentally, we need it to be very much bedded into the system.

I agree with Deputy Quinn about the frustration of schools in terms of a model to deliver the technical support. That is a huge frustration for principals, 75% of whom are teaching principals.

Could the NCCA help in principle?

Ms Sheila Nunan

I would hope a structure like that could possibly help. We would be open to anybody taking over that role of technical support to schools, which is considerable.

The second point I wish to make outside the specific content curriculum area is on everybody's agreement on the role of parents in the primary school. It goes without saying that is something of which the INTO is very supportive. The structure provided by the NCCA around the enablement of the partners in education is a very good.

In terms of the curriculum being evolutionary, etc., we should continue to enhance the structure of the NCCA to allow all of the partners to continue to have that discussion because that structure is in place and like all agencies, it is suffering the effects of the impact on education. In regard to disadvantaged areas and the huge demands on parents, and where we see some of the legs of the stool being removed by stealth cuts, we have a huge concern that the gaps already there would be further exacerbated post the budget. That will be hugely tragic for those communities.

Ms Deirbhile NicCraith

We are looking for the same priority to be given to numeracy as has been given to numeracy over the years. Teachers spend more time on mathematics and numeracy in primary school than the recommended guidance. There is a certain amount of discretionary time in the primary school curriculum and we know some of this is spent on numeracy in addition to literacy. From the research we have done, we know that some of that also goes on SPHE.

In terms of prioritising numeracy, we need to look at the learning support structure. Given that literacy got so much attention in the past number of years, the learning support teachers are inclined to emphasise literacy and that is given the priority in schools. Where there is a high level of literacy needs, numeracy just happens not get such an important emphasis. That is not intentional; it is just that the resources may need to be looked at again.

In terms of numeracy and mathematics, we need to look at the pre-service professional development available for teachers as part of building up their own competency but also the knowledge required as teachers of mathematics. This needs to be built on further in professional development. We had a good programme of professional development which coincided with the implementation of the curriculum but it needs to be built on if we want to enhance our work in the area of mathematics and numeracy.

Somebody also mentioned science. Science has been well received by primary school teachers as a new area in the curriculum. The issue is to do with resources for science, but science has been well received, by both teachers and pupils. The methodologies are very much linked to the classroom environment in which teachers find themselves, and they have been alluded to by everybody. Class size is a major issue, as are equipment and the materials required. Materials for the mathematics class are not available. This is particularly so for the older children because that would have been a newer dimension of the primary school curriculum.

On Gaeilge, the curriculum is a combination of the actual curriculum content and the teaching methodologies. The teachers have welcomed the revised programme in Gaeilge, particularly because of its emphasis on oral language. It is probably a bit early to see the results of that but the reviews the NCCA carried out highlighted some of the challenges for teachers, particularly with developing oral language among children, in the progress in oral language through the years, from infants right up to sixth class. What we have looked for here is a programme to support the teaching of Irish in the schools teaching through the medium of English. The schools teaching through the medium of Irish, the T1 schools, have now been given a good programme, known as Séideán Sí, to support language learning. What we need is an equivalent programme for the schools teaching through the medium of English. The need for it is recognised. It now needs to be resourced and put into place now. We also cannot ignore the socio-cultural context in which language is learnt and that is a much broader issue than curriculum and teaching in the primary schools.

The issue of time arose. There is a certain amount of discretionary time in the primary school curriculum. As I stated, much of that goes on literacy and numeracy, but also on SPHE. Perhaps as part of the future reviews, because we have not looked at all curriculum subjects in terms of review through the NCCA process, these issues will emerge again and will need to be looked at as part of that evolutionary process that started since 1999. There have been minor changes to the curriculum, and how we approach it in schools, based on feedback on how it is being implemented.

Ms Áine Lynch

The questions on my presentation fell into three main areas. The first one was the parenting course idea. That looks into how parents become engaged in the curriculum and what supports they need to become engaged in it. It also crosses over to the issue of how they can support children with their homework. The research clearly indicated that one of the key factors around parental involvement is the atmosphere in the home. That needs to be the starting point for any progress on the curriculum and parental involvement. That means that all parents can be involved. Whatever their own educational background or whatever their literacy capabilities, it is the atmosphere in the home. It is whether they encourage and put value on education. It is whether they have reading materials in the home. It is whether they themselves encourage the children's education and put value on their schooling.

How does Ms Lynch propose that the atmosphere in the home be improved in terms of education?

Ms Áine Lynch

That might be the starting point in the parenting courses. That is the fundamental aspect that will make the initial jump in that regard.

It is something that is important for everybody. Sometimes we look at the parents and we engage regularly. They have equal difficulties around homework and the curriculum. I was in a school last week discussing homework and there was excitement in the group of parents around the fact that given their children now did long division and subtraction differently to how they did it they had an inability in terms of support for their child. When the discussion opened up to the question of whether parents will always be able to have the answers for their children through their education and whether it is about helping their children find solutions and ways forward, and valuing the fact of the input that parents and the school have in their education, there was a change in approach and some of the frustration about the subtraction and division dissipated. It is about creating that kind of atmosphere in the home and then further developing it.

Has the Department of Education and Science a duty to provide that type of support so that the home better understands how to support the child in the classroom?

Ms Áine Lynch

All the partners in education — the Department being one of them — have a duty. Equally, the National Parents Council has a duty, and so do teacher and principals.

Who should lead it? That is where things fall down, when we say all of the partners and nobody really does it. Who should be the lead agency?

Ms Áine Lynch

The legislation leads it, but there is a difference between having the legislation and something happening in a particular school in Kells or Naas, for instance, which is where the two schools I have visited most recently were located. The Department cannot lead it at that individual level of a school.

Ms Áine Lynch

Principals and parents. Parents have a role, as does the parent organisation. Clearly, the NCCA has a role in terms of the curriculum and parental involvement. It is a joint, committee approach. There have been many examples in education where that joint approach has been able to lead change.

I agree with the joint approach. I am wonder which should be the lead agency, and I heard Ms Lynch say, "Principals and parents".

Ms Áine Lynch

Yes.

Ms Áine Lynch

That looks at the homework and the parenting course issue together.

One final point would be how the pre-school year has linked with home. The pre-school sector has shown some good examples of how parental involvement has started to take shape in pre-school. A good example that have been passed on to us from our members is that many pre-schools write to parents, through e-mail or text, each week giving a rough outline of what they will cover the next week, for example, that they will look at the colour red or the colour orange. It allows parents to supplement that learning at home. It is a simple effective mechanism, for parents to feel involved but also to be able to support at the level of what is going on in the preschool, and for the children to see that continuity in their learning, in the home and in the school. Good examples have come from that sector recently.

I invite Ms Lawlor to comment on the issues raised.

Ms Áine Lawlor

There were a few issues of relevance to the Teaching Council. Senator Healy Eames raised the issue of the quality of teaching. That can be improved through the council's review and accreditation of the programmes of teacher education where the council can make recommendations or stipulations, or, indeed, can withdraw accreditation from a programme if it thinks that the programme is not producing quality teachers.

Has it ever withdrawn accreditation?

Ms Áine Lawlor

There was not an accreditation system as such for professional purposes. There was academic accreditation prior to the existence of the council. As I stated, we have reviewed four programmes. My understanding is that all of them will be accredited. If in future something does not merit accreditation,the council will not credit it.

Senator Healy Eames then asked could the council recommend a component of programmes to colleges, and in that regard she mentioned the recognition of fatal allergies in class. The council is looking at programmes in the context of learning outcomes for the students who graduate from those programmes. It aims not to be too prescriptive because the colleges and universities must design their programmes and ensure the learning outcomes. Matters as specific as the recognition of fatal allergies in class would come under where student teachers must be cognisant of the health and safety of students. It would be at school level that there would be directives on the recognition of fatal allergies in class.

Deputy Ulick Burke asked about the unqualified teachers in the system. That is an employment matter. It is a matter for the Minister. Where that has come into the media in recent times is under section 30 of the Teaching Council Act, which requires that teachers teaching in State schools and paid from Oireachtas funds must be registered with the Teaching Council. Post 2006, when the council was established on a statutory basis, admission to the register required compliance with what are now the registration regulations. Only qualified teachers are admitted to the register under primary, post-primary and FE qualifications but there is an amendment currently going through the House, as the committee will be aware, which was published last week.

The Bill has just been published. We have not taken Second Stage and any submissions Ms Lawlor has would be very valuable to us.

Ms Áine Lawlor

As I stated, it is an employment matter. When there is an adequate supply of teachers in the system, it is incumbent on schools — through the boards of management, although it is the principals who employ substitute teachers — to ensure that only qualified persons are employed.

When the legislation was originally introduced, it was suggested that there were some areas — these were not identified — where there was no option but to employ such teachers on a full-time basis. That is the worrying aspect and it is not acceptable under the guidelines.

I do not want to expand the debate but I am aware that the representatives from the INTO wish to comment on this matter.

Ms Sheila Nunan

In respect of Deputy Quinn's suggestion, the INTO would certainly be interested in making a submission to the committee.

I suggested that submissions be made to individual members. The House will soon debate the Education (Amendment) Bill 2010, the primary purpose of which is to extend the functions performed by vocational education committees to primary schools. However, there are a couple of additional passengers on the train and we would appreciate the INTO's views on the matter.

It would be useful if the INTO could circulate its submission to all Members of the Oireachtas. Does Ms Lawlor wish to comment?

Ms Áine Lawlor

Some 69,446 teachers are currently registered with the Teaching Council. This is despite the fact that section 30 has not yet been commenced. There may be a few thousand teachers who have not registered but who are qualified. When section 30 is commenced, they will be obliged to register if they wish to continue to be paid from State funds.

Is Ms Lawlor referring to both primary and post-primary teachers?

Ms Áine Lawlor

Yes. In the context of teacher education, between primary and post-primary level some 45 programmes — concurrent and consecutive — are being run by 21 providers throughout the State.

Did Ms Lawlor state that 69,446 teachers are registered with the council?

Ms Áine Lawlor

That was the figure as of Monday last. These teachers work at primary and post-primary level and in the area of further education.

Why would qualified teachers not be registered?

Ms Áine Lawlor

This is due to the fact that registration is not yet mandatory under law. Once section 30 is commenced, it will be mandatory. The Department requires that newly appointed teachers be registered in order that they can be placed on the payroll. However, registration is not yet compulsory.

Do our guests from the IPPN wish to comment?

Mr. Pat Goff

I wish to make two brief points. The first of these follows on from what Ms Lawlor stated in respect of who would take the lead in the context of encouraging parents to become more involved. Even though I am president of the IPPN, my day job is as principal of a band 1 DEIS school. In the context of involving parents, my greatest resource is my home-school liaison teacher. I will not state that the home-school liaison scheme has been under threat but the teacher to whom I refer would be the greatest asset I could lose in the context of parental involvement. If we are discussing delivery of the curriculum — irrespective of the nature of that curriculum — for us to change the lives of those parents, it is essential to get them involved. I will not become sidetracked by discussing respect of the DEIS programme, which is up for review this year. However, that programme is crucial to our school and many hundreds of other schools in the context of implementing the curriculum.

Deputy Quinn referred to VEC support. As a school principal, I accept support from wherever it is offered. When I was chairperson of the Wexford school completion programme, the VEC sought 12% in order to administer the scheme we were seeking to establish. We were in a position to have the scheme administered locally for 3%. If the VEC is going to be given funding to provide support, we would be delighted. However, schools would not be in a position to pay huge amounts. If an integrated approach was adopted, we would be extremely pleased but there would also be a need to achieve value for money.

Mr. Seán Cottrell

Members raised a number of points. On improving the teaching of numeracy in schools, the quality of teacher pre-service and in-service training is critical. Members may not be aware that there is a programme called Maths Recovery, which follows on from the Reading Recovery programme that originated in New Zealand. This is an extremely specific and successful programme which requires resources. Where it is implemented, it works really well. The status of numeracy and literacy must be more equalised in the context of learning support.

The need to teach English as an additional language has had a major effect on schools. Schools are staffed on the basis of the concept of a maximum class average. At present, this average stands at 28. Children with special educational and special language needs must be factored in as multiples of units. In other words, a child with autism or one who does not speak English must be considered as being the equivalent of three or five other children. A formula-based approach must be adopted in respect of this matter. It is conceivable that in a school in one part of a suburb, there could be a class with several children who do not speak English and several more with various special educational needs and that in a school nearby the position would be different. Both of these schools could have DEIS status.

A national children's database — which still appears to be a long way off — could be used to capture the relevant data and subsequently allocate resources in respect of individual children. It is children — not the schools they attend — who are disadvantaged. Children should carry advantage into their classrooms through the provision of additional teaching and other resources.

Parental involvement is essential. The fact that parents are aware of what happens in school by means of being involved with their children's homework is critical. I am not stating that we should get rid of homework. However, we should change the nature of it and how it is done. Homework is a wonderful way to keep parents involved. However, we can keep them involved without, as someone noted earlier, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

With regard to Gaeilge and other subjects, there is universal agreement that the content of the primary curriculum is outstanding. The difficulty is that there continues to be massive downward pressure from the ogres that come into play afterwards, namely, the second level system and the junior and leaving certificates. Those who teach maths and science in fifth and sixth class at primary level will inform one that they know what is required of them in the context of the curriculum. However, they will also state that they cannot ignore the fact that the children they are teaching will soon enter first year in secondary school and will be obliged to contend with the famous "murder machine" — that is, preparing for State examinations. If half of the methodologies that are used in primary schools were available to children in second level schools, the rates for those who drop out of education would be far lower. The rates relating to children who are having problems succeeding would also decrease.

There is a section in our submission — to which I did not refer earlier — which deals with continuity. There are massive gaps — the position is changing slightly with regard to mathematics — between what happens at primary and second level. In many cases, children find themselves going backwards in the context of their work during the first few months at second level. There are also issues relating to pastoral care.

There is a need for a conversation among those responsible for the second level curriculum and those who are in charge of the primary level curriculum. Until the issue of how children should be assessed before the enter the worlds of work or third level education, progress will not be made. As long there is a test-based system in place at second level, the downward pressure to which I refer will continue to exist. This will always impact on how teach children who are approaching the end of their time in primary school.

It is stated in the submission that SPHE is not taught in 10% of schools. I calculate that if one takes an average of 40 pupils per class in respect of the 320 regular schools to which that figure of 10% equates, then it is obvious that almost 13,000 children are not being taught this subject. Is it possible to identify those schools and indicate where they are located? Is the decision not to teach SPHE taken by boards of management?

Mr. Seán Cottrell

Is the Deputy referring specifically to the Stay Safe programme?

Mr. Seán Cottrell

I understand that the most recent survey carried out in respect of the Stay Safe programme, under the auspices of the child abuse prevention programme, indicated that in the region of 10% of schools were not implementing it. I do not know if data is available in respect of the specific schools involved. The previous Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, indicated that the subject should be compulsory. To my knowledge, however, that has never been stated in a departmental circular. I do not believe the teaching of this subject has been formally made mandatory. I agree with the Deputy that it is unacceptable it is not being taught in schools.

Yes, particularly in light of what we have learned in recent years.

Mr. Seán Cottrell

Exactly.

I apologise for interrupting but that would be an important issue for the committee to raise.

Absolutely. Do our guests from the INTO know whether a circular making the teaching of this subject — particularly the elements of it which relate to the Stay Safe programme — compulsory was issued?

Ms Sheila Nunan

Such a circular has not been issued. However, in the context of the requirement, when the inspectorate conducts whole-school evaluations or makes incidental visits, the matter is certainly high on its agenda. As an organisation which represents teachers, the INTO fully supports the demand that all schools should take the maximum level of action possible in respect of child protection, be it through the Stay Safe programme, the broader subject of SPHE or whatever.

Mr. Seán Cottrell

Deputy O'Mahony referred to competition in sport and the impact this can have on children. The GAA is currently developing a programme called Go Games. It aims to introduce all children to sport in a way whereby the competitive element is postponed until they are aged 14. Many clubs are against it because they feed on the idea of competition among children as young as five or six to get families in. That is an example of a national organisation taking on an issue. It will not be easy, but if the GAA persists with it, there will be huge benefits.

Is Mr. Cottrell happy with the national organisations? Sometimes they are refused entry to schools.

Mr. Seán Cottrell

Many schools specialise in one sport, depending on the local tradition, and some schools invite all sports. There is a limit to the amount of external input into a school in terms of coaching and so on. That is a political issue locally. It is not one on which we have a hard and fast view.

Certainly not in Cork.

Mr. Seán Cottrell

On the issue of finding time, where do teachers get the time to give extra time to SPHE? They will stop and give time as a linear option. It is a two-dimensional concept in schools. We need to look at more creative and innovative ways of integrating subjects. For example, a subject could be taught through a language which means that one could kill two birds with one stone. I visited a second level school in Australia which experimented with breaking down subject headings and the concept of studying a subject and being examined on it based on a strict curriculum whereby students prepare and regurgitate everything they learn. The Australians looked at, for example, combining mathematics and biology and science and history and looking at traditional subjects through different lenses. It is the only way we can deal with a crowded curriculum because while historically many teachers felt obliged to teach everything on a menu-based curriculum, even in doing so they had limited time because the school day cannot be lengthened for many reasons. However, time can be used more wisely and we need to put our heads together to do that. At the moment there are so many conflicting demands for time that unless we use the time more cleverly, we will always play catch up.

ICT is not a subject in primary school but it is a method of learning. It should not be timetabled but, going back to the mathematics and science issue, there is so much software available for these subjects that this ought to be the starting point. A starting date should be set to work towards and those responsible for putting this together should be accountable for putting the plan in place. It is a national issue that covers more than education. It is core to providing an ICT framework behind everything that happens in school.

I refer to the evidence I saw relating the schools on the Isle of Man and an exceptional school in the UK and it is all about IT. If we have nationally agreed principles and we work towards them, that is how we will do it. At the end of the day, children will learn in the most enlightened and forward looking environment that we can place them in. If we do not have that in the digital age, we are not going anywhere. I have examined a number of programmes. They are interesting to follow and much more exciting than the traditional textbook with extensive pupil and teacher interaction and home interaction. In the short time I looked at the Isle of Man system, I noted that little IT support was needed. The system works itself and everything is uploaded to the Internet with access gained through a "wikipage". A total of 5,000 students were linked into this programme and there are only two full-time IT support staff for them. It is easy to access. Once one has the Internet, one is in business.

We had discussions about ICT previously and the new cloud computing technology exists once one has a good broadband connection. One does not need services. In that context, the IT support required relates only to the software because one is not accessing it on a local server.

Mr. Seán Cottrell

As adults, we are coming to the land of digital technology as digital immigrants while the children of today are digital natives. It is their first experience. There will always be a place for books, as they will never be replaced. I agree with the Chairman that we must move towards a system that is self-sustaining and not heavy on support.

Members will have an opportunity shortly to follow up on the responses but I will invite Ms Foster from the NCCA to contribute. This is timely because she has heard everything. She is at the coal face and because she is precluded from commenting on policy issues, I will not ask her to comment on the INTO's assertion about trying to sort out an under-resourced system and a good curriculum. Will she comment on how the curriculum is working? She mentioned the issue of the review at infant level and language. Language seemed to focus on English but the earlier presentations seem to have focused on the Irish language and mathematics. Is there scope within current resources for the NCCA to work on improvements or tweaking the system? For example, integrating ICT as a methodology ties into the questions raised.

Ms Arlene Foster

I refer to the idea of the overloaded or overcrowded curriculum. There were a number of references to the time allocations that currently exist and the suggested weekly timetable that sits as part of the primary school curriculum. There were many findings in two reviews carried out on this curriculum by the NCCA since it was introduced 11 years ago. I reiterate that it was well received by teachers but a number of challenges have been identified. One is the sense that there is too much content in the curriculum. One of the short-term strategies the council took was to re-present the content. This did not involve changing it but to re-present it in different formats in the hope that it would make it easier to access for primary school teachers and this, in turn, would make it a little easier to identify opportunities for integration across subjects but also to see some of the similarities across subjects. It is a short-term strategy and in addressing it in the medium to longer term, it could well mean we need to go back to questions about what we want for primary schoolchildren and what type of curriculum we need to achieve that.

There were a number of references to the time allocation for mathematics. In our review of the mathematics curriculum, the findings were very much that there was a high level of satisfaction but the time issue was raised by teachers in terms of the challenge of covering all the content in the curriculum. With regard to English and Irish, particular difficulties and gaps were identified and I mentioned these in my presentation and in the paper I submitted. A number of these are relevant in the early years at infant level in the primary school curriculum. This, along with the fact that Aistear has published the early childhood curriculum framework, is why the council is prioritising a review of the infant curriculum with a strong focus on language, meaning both English and Irish.

The council has been involved in working directly with schools on the Irish curriculum. This currently involves teachers working on developing materials and tools as a support or resource for colleagues to help them to identify the stage of language learning the children are at and to plan for progression.

The issue of transition was raised a number of times. As committee members may be aware, the NCCA has been involved in a project entitled Project Maths for our post-primary system. A strand of work in Project Maths has focused on the transition of pupils from primary level to post-primary level and as part of that work we have developed a curriculum bridging framework. In time, we hope this will make for a smoother transition for students as they move from sixth class into first year at post-primary level.

On parental involvement, the primary school curriculum places huge importance on the role of parents. Aistear, which is the new early childhood curriculum framework, puts significant emphasis on parental involvement. This is not surprising, given that Aistear focuses on children from birth to six years. Aistear gives practical ideas and illustrations on how to involve parents in various settings. I use the word "settings" because we are not just talking about infant classes, preschools, playgroups and other early childhood settings. Aistear offers a range of ideas and strategies for trying to support greater parental involvement within settings and, ultimately, to support better outcomes for children. Ms Lynch has already alluded to some examples, in the preschool sector in particular.

A number of references have been made to the role of play within the education system and this was also linked to the issue of transition. Play, like the curriculum, is not static but evolutionary and it changes significantly as children progress through the education system and get older.

It has gone electronic.

Ms Arlene Forster

Absolutely. Aistear places great emphasis on play as in imaginative, fantasy, pretend and exploratory play. The primary school curriculum equally places emphasis on play, but with a different understanding of what play may be as children get older. Play is very much part of the primary school curriculum in terms of active learning, but it is a different way of playing as children get older. In terms of the transition from primary school to post-primary school, learning through practical activity is a strong element of a number of subjects at post-primary level, for example in the sciences and the arts. There is, therefore, a development in how play is seen and how it changes and evolves throughout the education system.

On the issue of transition, Mr. Cottrell mentioned that when children move from primary level to secondary level, they are lost for most of first year in certain subject areas. Is there any indication of the development of a greater link between the primary level and secondary level curriculum?

Ms Arlene Forster

I gave the example of Project Maths, where there has been a clear and specific focus on transition. That project probably provides us with a model or template for other subjects. In the case of the subjects which have been revised and reviewed in recent years at post-primary level, significant consideration was given to the new primary school curriculum introduced 11 years ago. However, we know there are still issues in terms of continuity of experience and progression in learning. The Project Maths work now provides us with a blueprint and template for how we can better support the transition of students from primary level to post-primary level.

I had to leave for a vote, but I understand the question I asked about how we can improve the quality of teaching was not fully addressed. I asked that question because, when we look at the OECD PISA report to see which country performs highest in literacy, maths and the sciences, we see it is Finland. Finnish teachers enjoy a high level of teacher autonomy and the state invests heavily in them. Some 95% of Finnish teachers are qualified at masters level or above. The information I received in response to a parliamentary question was that only approximately 5% of teachers in Ireland are qualified at masters level or above. How beneficial would it be to the quality of teaching and pupil outcomes if we invested more in the professional development of teachers, in further study for teachers and in specialties?

Ms Sheila Nunan

It would be very beneficial and the profession has been seeking this for a long time. Teachers who start teaching at 21, 22 or 23 will now continue until they are 66, 67 or 68. Continuing professional development, CPD, provides the opportunity for renewal and information and methodology changes and is critical. We can anticipate that the Teaching Council will have a role in terms of the direction CPD takes, which is, finally, an acknowledgment of the need. The questions to be answered now are who will provide it, what format it will take and whether it will be school based. The lack of CPD is the significant gap in the spectrum of teacher education.

Ms Sheila Nunan

It should be the responsibility of the State. The resources of the Teaching Council do not put it in a position to do that, although it may be the body to prescribe it. That investment is an investment in the education process. Many teachers fund their own development and that will always continue. There will always be a personal demand by people who want to take on specialised interests. However, there is a need for the State to set the minimum for CPD, which it will do through the Teaching Council, and provide the mechanisms for achieving it.

Paragraph 7 of the IPPN presentation referred specifically to the allocation of time. I have a general question for all the delegates on that and for Ms Lynch with regard to what parents can expect. Some parents are more proactive and almost put the principal of a school under an inquisition to find out what exactly will happen, while other parents are intimated or afraid of antagonising the principal. Is it standard practice throughout the country for a parent to be given a sheet showing the allocation of time for each subject for each class from junior infants to sixth class?

Mr. Seán Cottrell

In my experience, that does not happen. However, schools are required to display a timetable somewhere in the school. This is typically posted in the lobby or the staffroom and parents may have access to it from time to time. There must be an agreed timetable in each school. The point made in paragraph 7 is that the majority of parents would not know the first thing about this, because most of them are busy with other issues. What we found when we surveyed parents on this was that they knew very little about the amount of time allocated to the different subjects. However, when they began to consider the issue we found they had very strong views. The question I want to pose is whether we as educators, administrators and politicians are prepared to hear those views. We may not hear what we want to hear. Until the late 1970s our education system was very much system based, where the system revolved around ——

If I can make a comment. The logic of this is that we have a one-size-fits-all system, whether one is on the Aran Islands or in City Quay in Dublin, which are totally different environments. Is the IPPN suggesting or opening the door to the possibility that parents will look at the time available to teach the curriculum — which by and large is a good curriculum — and then, those in one part of the country will say they want more priority given to a particular range of subjects, within reason of the mandatory and discretionary time involved, while parents in another part of the country will ask for more time to be spent on a different area? Is that a possibility?

Mr. Seán Cottrell

Every board of management is ultimately responsible for the particular school plan and that school plan must be based on consultation with all the key partners, including parents. For example, the last page of our submission gives an outline of the current allocation of time to the different subject areas and there is a two-hour discretionary period which schools can allocate as they wish. From anecdotal evidence, most of this time goes to maths, literacy and SPHE. It is a large chunk of time. In my view, parents need to be consulted in greater scientific detail on a national basis rather than having lobby groups jumping up and down at a local level. That is not good for a school. Most schools have a parents' association and if it says that parents want four foreign languages to be taught then suddenly the school is in upheaval. A school is not a democracy. Everybody has a slice of the action in schools when it suits them but the bottom line is that the principal and the teachers must deliver a curriculum in which both they and the parents have confidence. There are certain things which must be mandatory and implemented nationally. Obviously schools need to have some local discretion but it is a case of getting the balance right.

The point is well made. I will move on to allow in other speakers, as some ears have pricked up on hearing the subject matter. I am hoping to finish in public session in the next five minutes. I ask Ms Áine Lynch to comment.

Ms Áine Lynch

The direct answer to the direct question of whether parents are aware of the time allocation is, generally speaking, they are not. This comes back to a broader issue of the notion of parental involvement. I said earlier it is very important that parents and principals lead this involvement at school level but it needs to be considered at a much broader level. It is not sufficient just to say to schools they need to start asking parents because that can open up a can of worms. All of a sudden, parents think that when they are consulted that is what is going to happen.

One is also asking a body of professionals who have not been trained in methods of consultation, participation, partnership work at a school level, to do something quite complex and when this goes wrong, it is almost a case of a "We knew it would never work" attitude. Parents and principals have to lead it at a school level. There needs to be a national approach to parental involvement. The role of parents in education was first officially highlighted in the 1998 Education Act. However, structures and mechanisms are now needed to be put in place which must be led by the Department and be inclusive of all partners in such a development. It must be across a broad range. We cannot just expect schools to involve parents if the teaching colleges are not incorporating this training as part of their work. It is a case of finding a way to include all voices effectively and make parents feel heard and listened to. It is a very complex skill and needs to be done correctly, otherwise it is abandoned very quickly because it goes wrong. This is a broad answer to a specific question but, in general, parents are not aware of the time allocation.

May I add a comment addressed specifically to Ms Lynch?

Ms Lynch has made an excellent point about the inclusion at teacher training level of training in dealing with parental involvement. Unless this is included in their training, young teaching graduates will have no real awareness until they find out the hard way and then it is too late.

Ms Áine Lynch

To expand a little on that point, if there are not proper mechanisms in schools to allow for parental involvement often a teacher's first experience of a parent is in a conflict situation. That is difficult for the parent and difficult for the teacher. Dealing with conflict is a very complex issue, particularly when one is dealing with a parent who is discussing his or her child which is his or her most precious possession. If that is the first opportunity for a teacher to experience parental involvement——

It is the wrong way to experience it.

Ms Áine Lynch

I agree, it is the wrong way to experience it.

Mr. Jim Higgins

A school that does not take cognisance of parents is like a cactus growing in the desert; it is not worth anything in any society in the world if it does not include parents. This is a sine qua non; it is essential. I am at the end of my teaching career of 43 years and I enjoyed every year of it except for one year when I would have broken rocks in a quarry rather than go into school that year. The committee members can make out the reasons for themselves.

I came from a society that valued education. I began teaching in 1968. Neither of my parents had more than primary education but there are many people with masters and doctorates in education today who are less encouraging of their children in their education than my parents with their family.

As a society, our attitude to the primary teacher in particular, is going down rather than up. All of us in authority have a responsibility for this. I note that ten years ago, in the United Kingdom, people who qualified as primary teachers left their profession, with all of their education and all the energy they put into it, within five years. There are people who are dedicated to what we used to call a profession. If the society looks upon them as no better than a dustman or a caretaker of a cemetery or a management person or whatever, then those people will not stay in that profession. Everyone wants to be valued as a person. One can have all the modern teaching facilities available. One must have a happy teacher, a happy school and parents who support that happy school as the focus, the beacon of light in the midst of whatever the circumstances, whether on the top of a hill or in the middle of the poorest area of any of our cities. If one does not have that, it is like the cactus in the desert. Our schools should not be like that but should be the very focus of society. I hope that continues. When I started in my school — and it was the case for many like me — there were no facilities whatsoever. One was lucky if one had a piece of chalk and a blackboard.

If I may interrupt Mr. Higgins, years ago children were fearful going to school.

Mr. Jim Higgins

I agree with that statement too.

Teachers like Mr. Higgins have changed schools into places of happiness. The vast majority of children now cannot get to school soon enough, they want to go to school. Teachers have transformed schools and they should acknowledge that.

Mr. Jim Higgins

That is very good too.

How do we improve the autonomy of teachers? How do we improve how Irish society values teachers?

We are running out of time but if members want to prolong the meeting, that is fine.

This is a very important question.

Mr. Jim Higgins

In our very attitudes. Parents and teachers in a school are one seamless garment. They should not be set at each other's throats. Without parents supporting me as principal of a school or as the teacher of junior infants, I cannot do my job effectively. The support has to be there. The whole society must be permeated with this partnership and not in party political ways of looking at things. It must not be a case of "I do my job, you do your job" and blaming each other. A good team is from the goalie to the full forward and everyone in between.

Ms Carmel Kearns

I wish to sound a positive note as the meeting draws to a close. The Teaching Council commissioned a survey last year on how teachers are perceived by the public. We were very encouraged by the findings of that survey. It showed the public perceives teachers positively and endorses the value of the role of teachers in society. Teaching can be a very humble profession and teachers may not perceive themselves as being very valuable but the opposite is true. Compared with 12 other professions, they were second only to nursing in one survey. Teachers were rated very highly as regards levels of satisfaction and trust.

More highly than bankers and politicians, I presume.

Ms Carmel Kearns

Absolutely.

That would not be difficult.

Mr. Seán Cottrell

I wish to make two brief points. On a positive note, last year the National Parents Council (Primary) and the Irish Primary Principals Network worked together to produce a short document entitled, Supporting Each Other. This is a guideline based on best practice on how principals and parents' associations can work together productively in schools. This document is well worth using as a reference.

Everybody is looking for public sector wage cuts and public sector reform yet every parent wants his or her principal and teacher to be highly paid and highly motivated and in top gear. We need to remind ourselves that despite all the doom and gloom, people seem to value their local school, by and large.

This has been a very interesting discussion. We could have spent more time on the broader issues but I am conscious of time constraints on the delegation. We have taken longer than is usual for a session. I thank the delegates for their patience and their ability to contribute in an open and honest way. I thank members. Two further meetings on curriculum reform at second and third level are scheduled. All points raised at this meeting will be brought to the attention of the Minister. The committee will request a written response from the Minister as it is important to have a ministerial response. There are broader issues to be considered other than just the work of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. I thank the delegates for their time and courtesy.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.10 p.m. sine die.