I thank the Chair and the members of the committee for inviting me to meet them today as chairperson designate of the board of the Educational Research Centre. The ERC has a long-established and well-deserved reputation nationally and internationally for excellence in the area of research, assessment and evaluation. I am honoured to have been nominated by the Minister for Education and Skills to chair its new board. I will begin by introducing myself and saying a little about the ERC before identifying some of the challenges facing the board in the period ahead.
I am an educationalist and historian by background. I am a graduate of UCD and the Australian National University. My career has largely been spent in the public service in Ireland. I have been successively lecturer and head of department at St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra; dean of the joint faculty of humanities in St Patrick’s College and DCU; and finally president of St. Patrick’s College for 13 years between 1999 and 2012. In the last capacity I played a leadership role, particularly in teacher education, and worked closely with primary schools, the Department of Education and Skills and relevant agencies. I have been involved in the promotion of blended learning and digital technologies in teaching inter alia through TeachNet, the online community for teachers, of which I served as chair for many years. An honorary life member of the Irish Association of Teachers in Special Education, I have had an ongoing interest in access and disability issues.
In the area of governance, I have wide experience as a member of boards and statutory bodies in the educational and cultural field. I have been a director of the Central Applications Office, CAO, a member of the Teaching Council, a founding director and vice chair of the Centre for Cross-Border Studies in Armagh and a founding member and chairman of the standing committee on teacher education, North and South. I was a member of the governing authority of Dublin City University for 14 years, and I am currently chairman of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.
The ERC was established at St. Patrick’s College in the 1960s on the initiative of the then Department of Education and the college. It has a staff of 34, including researchers and support staff.
While the centre has been in existence for half a century its board is new, deriving as it does from the designation in 2015 of the centre as an independent statutory body under section 54 of the Education Act 1998. The members of the board, myself included, were chosen after selection and vetting through the Public Appointments Service, PAS, process and consideration by the Minister of qualified applicants. In addition to myself, the board comprises four members: Dr. Denise Burns, former principal of Sancta Maria College, Rathfarnham who has been designated deputy chairperson; Dr. Jude Cosgrove, senior statistical analyst at the Institute of Public Health and a former research associate at the Educational Research Centre, ERC, who is taking up the role in her personal capacity; Professor Michael Martin from the Lynch School of Education, Boston College; and Edward Murtagh, former assistant chief inspector at the Department of Education and Skills. I am confident that the board contains the appropriate balance of skills and experience to fulfil its mandate. The ERC has, of course, an able director in Dr. Peter Archer and experienced staff who have responsibility for operational matters. I look forward to working constructively with them and with the other members of the board.
The responsibilities of the ERC are laid down in the establishment order, S.I. No. 392 of 2015. In summary, these are to provide an assessment support service to schools and centres of education, including the development and provision of standardised tests and other assessment instruments, and to conduct independent research on all aspects of education, including research that will inform policy making and practice and the improvement of educational standards. The ERC undertakes research for and provides advice and support to the inspectorate and other sections of the Department. It also does work on behalf of a range of bodies, including the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, the State Examinations Commission and the National Council for Special Education. It has strong associations with the EU, the OECD and other international organisations.
The central challenge for any educational system is to achieve the best outcomes for individual students and wider society within the resources available. Well conceived educational research and evaluation can and should influence policy and practice relating to a myriad of issues including educational disadvantage, special education needs, gender equality, assessment, the Irish language and student attainment. For example, with finite resources, it is important that interventions which seek to address the continuing problem of educational disadvantage are targeted to achieve maximum impact. Policy and practice in this area, particularly the manner in which Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, the Department’s initiative for disadvantaged schools, has evolved has been significantly shaped by educational research conducted by the ERC which is the external evaluator for DEIS.
Another key challenge lies in the area of literacy and the minority of students who leave school with literacy and numeracy problems. The National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy 2011-2020, which addresses this issue, has been shaped by empirical data on literacy and numeracy levels as well as qualitative research on what is happening in classrooms and what is effective. Well focused quantitative and qualitative research and evaluation informs decisions on curriculum change and the mainstreaming of pilot programmes.
At a system level, large scale studies of achievement play an important role in monitoring and improving quality in educational provision. International studies such as the Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, PIRLS, and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, TIMSS, which are administered in Ireland by the ERC on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills, provide invaluable comparative data on achievement levels generally and, in particular, on performance in English reading, mathematics and science. Similarly, the National Assessments of English Reading and Mathematics, NAMER, provide valuable national data. The ERC works closely with the inspectorate of the Department on such studies which are helpful in identifying trends and informing approaches to improving standards.
While the headline results attract the most attention, often the more detailed analysis is more useful - for example, the PISA finding that although Irish pupils performed well otherwise, higher achievers lagged behind their counterparts in other countries. A criticism sometimes made of the Irish educational system is that is serves the average student well but those near the bottom or the top less well. Ensuring that every student reaches his or her full potential is an aspiration that can be realised with the assistance of good quality educational research.
The Educational Research Centre is an important part of our national educational infrastructure. Its establishment as a body corporate with a board strengthens its academic independence and secures its continued contribution to policy and practice in Irish education. Acting within the policy set by the Minister for Education and Skills, the board will set its strategic direction, approve the associated work programmes for the staff and the centre and, in due course, report on the outcomes. The work programme will continue to include participation in major international research studies, focused research and evaluation at national level, including research initiated by the centre, and services to schools and other educational centres.
One important strategic goal will be the building of capacity for educational assessment research by making provision for professional development of staff of the centre and by providing training in, and advice on, areas of its competence to others. To this end, the centre will seek to enhance its collaboration with the new institute of education at Dublin City University and other cognate institutions and agencies as appropriate. Another strategic goal will be to build on work already done in the centre on the development of computer-based platforms for the delivery of tests provided to schools - that is, the Drumcondra tests - and in the context of international studies.
Until now, the ERC operated as a functionally autonomous unit within St. Patrick's College. As such, its governance arrangements were somewhat anomalous. The appointment of a board rectifies that situation. An immediate priority will be to undertake a review of its existing codes and policies and to introduce new ones, as appropriate, to ensure that they are fit for purpose and in accordance with best practice. The board will be open, transparent and accountable in its operations and will of course abide by and implement the revised code of practice for the governance of State bodies.
In this year of anniversaries, we mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Educational Research Centre. We also mark an important transition and a new phase in its development with the creation of its first board. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the new board, the staff of the centre, the Minister, the Department, the members of this committee and all educational stakeholders to enhance the contribution the ERC makes to Irish education.