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.