I welcome the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, to the House.
Learning to Teach Report: Statements.
Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin)
Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis na Seanadóirí as ucht an t-am a thógáil chun an tuarascáil seo a phlé. Mar is gnáth, bíonn suim ag na Seanadóirí i gcúrsaí a bhaineann le hoideachas. Ba bhreá liom teacht isteach anseo.
The Government has attached great priority to education and has trebled expenditure to €8.4 billion. The money has been well spent. There are now 7,000 more primary teachers than there were when we came into office and a further 800 extra primary teachers will be employed next September. The schools building programme continues apace, with expenditure having risen to more than €540 million this year. Capital investment in colleges of education also features in the current programme, with a major project on site in Mary Immaculate College and planned developments in St. Patrick's College and the Church of Ireland College, Rathmines, at a total projected cost of almost €100 million.
All the expenditure and activity in the education system is ultimately designed to benefit the pupils. Central to this is ensuring that the quality of the education they receive is second to none. While many factors influence educational outcomes, the quality of the teacher in the classroom is by far the most important. Well-prepared, committed and motivated teachers are any education system's best asset. There is no doubt that we have been blessed in this country with the quality of our teachers. Much of our recent economic and social success is owed to those who have dedicated their careers to challenging young minds and helping them to reach their full potential.
As Minister, I have always set a high value on affirming the contribution of teachers and supporting them in the work they do. I am justifiably proud of the fact that the high quality of the Irish education system is well recognised around the world, and Irish students score very well in international assessments. At the same time, however, I am determined to ensure that we do even better. I am ambitious for the even greater heights we can reach and I am confident that the high priority this Government has attached to education will lead to even stronger outcomes in the future.
Much of our success will continue to depend on the quality of our teachers. We are fortunate in Ireland that the teaching profession continues to attract high-calibre and talented young people to its ranks. While other countries have struggled to fill places in their teacher training colleges, entry to ours remains extremely competitive. It is important not only to attract the best people into the colleges but also to ensure that the education they receive therein prepares them well for the challenges they will face in the classroom. The teaching practice dimension is a core element of this and I therefore believe it is crucial that the Department's inspectorate work with the colleges to monitor and improve continuously the effectiveness of practice in classrooms.
The purpose of the evaluations reported in Learning to Teach was to present an overview of existing practice and evaluate its effectiveness, and present recommendations with a view to further expanding the frontiers of improvement. The report is based on an evaluation of the teaching of 143 final-year students from five teacher education colleges in Ireland. This represents a sample of 10% of final-year students who were studying for a BEd degree or for a postgraduate diploma in primary teaching.
The evaluation examined the work of the student teachers in the areas of planning and preparation, teaching, learning and assessment. Students were evaluated while teaching a range of curriculum areas across all class grades, and a structured evaluation schedule was used. Students from Hibernia College were not involved because they had not begun their final period of teaching practice when the evaluations were undertaken. However, teaching practice evaluations were carried out with final-year students from Hibernia College in 2004, 2005 and 2006 on the same basis as the evaluations conducted with all the other colleges.
The majority of student teachers, 62%, were found to be excellent, very good or good overall in their teaching. A few over one third, 34%, were found to be fair or weak, and one in 20,5%, was judged to be an ineffective practitioner. The report also acknowledged the commitment of the colleges to enhancing the teaching practice dimension of their programmes and found that teaching practice was well organised and managed by the colleges. It also found that the students were carefully supervised and that all the colleges had procedures for ensuring that students experiencing difficulties were supported.
Consider some of the specific strengths identified in the report. Seventy-six percent of students were rated excellent, very good, or good for planning; 70% were judged to have effectively used a good range of resources to support their teaching; 76% displayed a confident, assured presence in the classroom and communicated effectively with their pupils; and, in most instances, discipline was good and pupils respected the code of behaviour that had been agreed.
The report highlighted a number of weaknesses, among which were the following: 35% of students were rated fair or weak in the way they used teaching methods; fewer than half of the students, 41%, employed the best strategies to develop pupils' higher-order thinking skills; and fewer than one in three, 31%, were rated excellent, very good or good in catering for individual differences in the ability and learning styles of pupils. The evaluation concluded that more than a third of the students, 37%, were experiencing some difficulty in managing assessment practices, and a few, 3%, were considered to be ineffective in this aspect of their teaching.
The report made a number of recommendations. It proposed that the colleges provide additional exemplars of good planning practice in differentiation and integration to students. It also recommended that they should ensure that students do not rely on an exclusively whole-class approach during teaching practice but should explore a wide range of methods to foster children's learning. It was recommended that the colleges provide additional examples for students of strategies that enable pupils to collaborate during lessons and clearer examples of good practice in the area of assessment and learning. Greater use of information and communications technology in the classroom was also encouraged.
It is important to put the findings of the Learning to Teach report in context. In all colleges, teaching practice is deemed a critical aspect of the overall teacher education programme. College staff take seriously the fact that their student teachers should be challenged to reach the highest standards. The inspectorate has had a role in monitoring the standards of teaching practice of final year students from the colleges of education since the foundation of the State. While the findings of these evaluations have always been shared with the colleges concerned, individual college reports were issued for the first time in 2003-04. Individual reports were first given to colleges where students took part in the learning to teach survey in 2005. The report published recently represents a composite account of these reports. Annual evaluations of a sample of students on teaching practice have since been undertaken by the inspectorate and meetings with the colleges were organised in both 2005 and 2006. In the experience of the inspectors who conducted these evaluations, colleges have consistently sought to address issues raised in previous reports and to bring about improvements.
Important initiatives have been introduced by some of the colleges to address some of the issues arising from the evaluations of teaching practice during 2003-04 which were reported in Learning to Teach and to develop a closer partnership between colleges and schools. The greater involvement of experienced teachers in advising, supporting and supervising student teachers in their classrooms is a welcome feature of recent developments. Following publication of the composite report, further meetings are planned to identify and disseminate best practice across the colleges.
I want to speak briefly about the dissemination of the report beyond the colleges because that issue generated a surprising amount of interest last week. As Senators will be aware, I have been determined to make information on education available to a wider range of stakeholders. To this end, several important reports have been published by the inspectorate in recent years. As with the initiative to publish school inspection reports on the Department's website, the publication of Learning to Teach was motivated by a desire to disseminate its findings to a wider audience as part of the transparency culture I wish to promote. This month, copies of the report were distributed to colleges of education, universities, teacher unions, parents' organisations, management authorities and support services. The report was also made available on the Department's website.
Contrary to unfair and ungrounded suggestions that the report was published to distract from other matters, it was issued by the inspectorate as soon as it was ready. At no stage was the report leaked and, in fact, a newspaper report on the subject appeared one week after it had been circulated to all the aforementioned bodies. I am fully in favour of transparency and believe that disseminating the report widely was the right thing to do. I am glad that the report has stimulated interest in teaching practice and am confident this will help to bring about further improvements.
In considering the important findings of this report with regard to teaching practice, it is important to remember this is just one part of teacher education and that the processes of probation and induction are also central. All beginning teachers are subject to a rigorous probationary process, the professional aspects of which are managed by the inspectorate. Inspectors visit probationary teachers during their first year in schools, advise them on their practice and provide two written reports on their progress. Until teachers have completed the probationary process and received satisfactory reports, they do not gain full recognition status.
In parallel with the probationary process, a national pilot project on teacher induction has been funded by my Department. A core element of this project is the provision of systematic support to newly qualified teachers, thus laying the foundation for subsequent professional growth and development. In the current school year, 167 primary schools are involved across 12 counties, with 288 newly qualified teachers and 112 mentors participating in the project. The mentors, who are fully trained under the programme, are experienced teachers who take on the role of guiding, advising and mentoring the newly qualified teachers. Practical issues regarding class work and teaching are also addressed. Induction support differs from teaching practice during initial training in that it provides on-the-job support to teachers who have been given full responsibility for teaching and learning for the first time.
Initial feedback from the project is very positive, with new teachers acknowledging the supports they receive in the all-important first year of teaching. A defining feature of the pilot project has been its emphasis on exploring the most workable model of structured induction for schools. I am considering this project in the overall context of teacher education with a view to assessing how it can be expanded further.
I am also examining the important issue of the content of the B.Ed. programme and the degree to which it equips teachers for the challenges they will face in the classroom. During last week's debate on Learning to Teach, considerable comment was made about the length of the B.Ed. programme and calls were made for its extension from three to four years. I have already indicated that I do not intend to change the duration at present because I believe that, rather than lengthening the programme, it would be far more beneficial to student teachers if the content of the existing programme were re-balanced.
I am concerned about the emphasis in some courses on taking academic subjects to degree level. In one college, 50% of first year and 40% of second and third year course time is spent on two academic subjects. The time has come to re-assess the learning outcomes required from teacher education programmes and, in this context, to review existing programmes to ensure student teachers develop the knowledge, skills and competence needed for classroom practice now and in the future.
A restructuring is also needed to ensure student teachers build a solid foundation in areas such as teaching children with special needs and those whose first language is not English. There is also scope for a greater emphasis on the effective use of information and communication technology in the classroom. However, I am also cognisant of the caution expressed in the 2005 OECD report, Teachers Matter, with regard to lengthening teacher education programmes at the expense of induction and continuing professional development programmes. I am of the view that well structured induction programmes, separate from but linked to initial teacher education, should be prioritised. I also believe strongly in ensuring that teachers have access to professional development throughout their careers to enable them to respond effectively to new challenges.
The Teaching Council has an important role to play in defining teacher education programmes. It has a statutory remit to review the standards of knowledge, skills and competence required for the practice of teaching and to review and accredit programmes of teacher education provided by higher education institutions in the State. I look forward to engaging with the Teaching Council in progressing this work in the near future.
In addition to improving teacher education, a range of other initiatives have been put in place to improve the quality of education. I referred earlier to the publication of whole-school evaluation reports to ensure the availability of information on school quality to parents and the public. A further 140 reports were published today, bringing the total to 600 approximately.
Another example of my commitment to making information available on the quality of education, especially for parents, is the initiative on standardised tests. As of this year, schools are required to test each child in English reading and mathematics twice during their primary school years. A standard report card template is being developed to report each child's results clearly to his or her parents.
Measures to address under-performance in teaching will be addressed under the partnership agreement, Towards 2016. While the agreement recognises that the majority of teachers fulfil their teaching function and professional duties well, it also acknowledges that there are, as in all professions, a small number of under-performing personnel in schools. A new system for addressing under-performance is to be put in place by the start of the next school year.
A wide range of measures have been taken in recent years to improve the quality of education in our schools. The findings of Learning to Teach will help us to improve teaching practice in the interests of student teachers and pupils alike. I acknowledge the dedication and diligence of the colleges of education. The challenge is to build on the high calibre of students entering the colleges and ensure new teachers are equipped to teach all aspects of the primary school curriculum and are familiar with the teaching methods that best support pupils' learning across the curriculum.
I welcome the Minister for Education and Science to the House and thank the Leader for arranging this debate on foot of our learning last week of the report's launch. The method by which many people learned about the report rang alarm bells and, despite the Minister's best efforts to aver otherwise, most people are clear in their minds that the leaking of the report to certain sections of the media was not the right way to present it to the partners in education. It must be said that many aspects of the report suggest it was rushed. A leagan Gaeilge of the report is not yet available. Although Members have been told that the legislation introduced by the Minister's colleague means that all reports are translated instantly and simultaneously presented trí leagan Gaeilge, this has not happened.
There are grounds for at least being suspicious in this regard. Most importantly, both the Minister's address and the report completely avoid any mention of class size and the difficulties faced by many of the students who were assessed. The students were teaching in class sizes that were far larger than the great aspiration to which the Minister referred previously, namely, having younger children below nine in classes of less than 20 pupils. The Minister stated this was simply a pious aspiration.
No, I did not. The Senator should quote me accurately.
In any event, the Minister has done nothing since. Although three reports have been produced in the period from 1995 to the present that have urged and demanded a proper review and assessment of the modern needs of teacher training, nothing was done by either the Department of Education of Science or successive predecessors of the Minister.
When one considers the report's foreword by the chief inspector, Mr. Stack, as well as the inspectors who were involved in its compilation, it can be stated clearly and truthfully that none of them has ever been obliged to teach the revised curriculum in today's overcrowded classes. None of them has ever been tasked with organising active learning with the numbers of children who attend today's classes. None of them has ever been asked to meet the special needs of children in today's large classes. None of them has ever been asked to teach the curriculum to large numbers of newcomer children who do not have English as a first language. Such inspectors assessed the final year student teachers who were in their final weeks before qualification against that background. It should be clear to the Minister that from the outset, there were difficulties in this regard that do not appear to have been recognised by the inspectors who compiled this report.
It is important to recognise such issues. This report should be withdrawn in the best interest of all partners involved in education. Moreover, an apology is due to some student teachers who were classified. The method of student selection was not carried out randomly or fairly, as most people might believe. However, the inspectorate, in consultation with the lecturers and assessors in the colleges of education, examined the students' results. Selections were then made in three bands, namely, excellent, good and fair. Thereafter, the students were assigned to schools that were selected on the basis of being single sex, coeducational, disadvantaged and so on, rather than at random. If one considers such factors, it can be see how unfair it was of these people, who are absolutely removed from the modern curriculum, to have made such assessments.
It was unfair and has inflicted severe damage on young teachers' morale. The Minister's statement noted that 800 new teachers would graduate shortly. Can she identify the percentage of the teachers graduating this year, who will qualify within a couple of months, who will be within the 5% she has mentioned and that this report highlights? I refer to those about whom scornful remarks were made in the national newspapers. This is not good enough. However, it is clear that had the Minister the interests of such teachers and the quality of education they deliver genuinely in mind, she would have made greater progress in reducing the pupil-teacher ratio and in providing adequate facilities for those who teach in such areas.
I fully agree with the Minister on the need for reform of the practices and assessment methods employed by the colleges of education. However, the Minister should consider another aspect of this matter to establish how unreal is this report. It can be seen that although the student teachers teach a revised modern curriculum, those who lecture them admit to being from an era whereby they are simply not acquainted with its delivery at the coalface. Similarly, teachers of 20 years' experience who were asked for a genuine and fair comment on this matter would point to great difficulties. Despite their experience, they would state that they have great difficulties in delivering this modern revised curriculum to their students. This is not simply because of large class sizes but is also due to its content.
A section of this report contains criticisms of the lack of individual tuition involved and notes the prevalence of whole class involvement. There is also criticism of teachers in respect of the quality of education delivered. A student teacher can enter a class of 30 to 35 pupils, whose capabilities may diverge enormously, and that may also contain children with special needs. How can the Minister expect a teacher to deliver individual tuition in that context? Moreover, this assessment was made by the inspectorate within a two session period. All indications are that this report was produced to be controversial and to remove the focus of attention from the reality of the current problems facing education, over which the Minister has presided in recent years.
Although I welcome some of the Minister's comments, the OECD has raised certain issues. The Minister has raised a parallel issue, namely, that primary teaching in Ireland continues to attract high calibre students, which is a source of national pride and international envy. However, teacher education must be continually reviewed to ensure it remains of high quality. While no one can quibble with that, the Minister now has three reports to hand within her Department. She now claims she intends do something, will review everything and will invest money. The Minister has mentioned money repeatedly as the be all and end all of this process. However, education is not about money. It is about allowing teachers the facilities to teach in an environment in which there can be absolute confidence in their work and in which teachers and pupils can benefit from such confidence without interruption.
It has taken a long time for the Department or the Minister to introduce an element of control of indiscipline within the class. This only came to pass last year. The inspectors made their assessments without any reference to special needs, disadvantage and the disruption and lack of discipline in certain, if not all schools. On that basis, how can Members be confident that this report has any worthwhile contribution to make? I again ask the Minister to withdraw it in the best interests of morale among teaching practitioners, who have received a terrible pasting in recent years from various sections of the media and internally, from several of the Minister's predecessors. I refer to teachers at all levels, and not simply to primary teachers. If the Minister is serious about this, I ask her to take urgent steps to provide immediate redress through consultation with the management of the colleges to influence the content and delivery of training. I also ask her to bury the report or withdraw it and replace it with something real and imaginative. The inspectorate's main function was to enter schools in an advisory capacity but, according to the report, its main function is to criticise. Reference was made to 63% of colleges being excellent and so on. Where problems have arisen, I ask the Minister to correct them as a matter of urgency before fatal damage is done.
I welcome the Minister. I compliment everybody involved in the concept of partnership in education. The teachers of Ireland, through the decades and against formidable odds, have helped to advance the cause of our society and economy. I also compliment the inspectorate for initiating the report, although I have a number of criticisms. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the issue of primary teacher training, which is vital, and the debate should be ongoing. I compliment Members who raised the issue of the report on the Order of Business last week, although I was not present until Thursday. It is important that we continue to debate this issue.
For a long time education has been widely acknowledged as the key to personal development and the door to life's chances. It has been universally recognised as playing a pivotal role in Ireland's success over the past decade. Primary education, in particular, is the foundation stone upon which success has been built. It is essential, therefore, that the training of primary teachers must strive for the highest standards of excellence at all times.
I acknowledge the Minister's spectacular track record across the spectrum of education issues during her two years in office. She has adopted a holistic approach, which has highlighted her vision, understanding and grasp of the issues and her determination to improve primary teacher training during pre-service and the teacher's first year in the classroom. The Minister has secured supports for teachers and principals, about which they comment freely and complimentarily. Principals, in particular, are very enthusiastic about the forum she has set up for them. This highlights the Minister's determination that teachers should be well prepared for the reality of modern classrooms, both at primary and second level. She has outlined a number of the initiatives she has taken and more are in the pipeline.
The Learning to Teach report is based on an evaluation carried out during the 2003-04 school year when students were completing their final year of teaching practice in schools. It was not carried out, therefore, during the Minister's watch and my concerns are not intended as a reflection on her successful Ministry. On the other hand, there can be no question that the Department of Education and Science has a duty to monitor the quality of teacher training to ensure it is of a satisfactory standard and must respond at all times to the changing demands on the teaching profession.
In his foreword to the report, the chief inspector sets out a perfectly reasonable and coherent rationale for the survey upon which it is based and the question of justification is fully satisfied. The only questions that arise are the following. Was the sample upon which the findings are based scientifically representative? Were the assessments objective? Was the scope of the assessments adequate? Are the recommendations insightful and pertinent? Other so-called issues referred to over the past week, such as the timing of the report's release into the public domain or the manner in which it was released, are spurious. The report was intended to be in the public domain from the outset and it states clearly it is for publication and can be obtained from the Government Publications Office. Any baloney and blather about that is of no relevance and only clouds the issue of the merits of the contents of the report.
The report is significant and there was a sound rationale for its production, but the fundamental question is whether it has served its intended purpose adequately.
I refer to the four legitimate areas of concern I have. With regard to the question of whether the sample upon which the findings are based is scientifically representative, the report states on page 8: "It was not a representative sample." I would like that concern to be addressed. The report also states on page 7:
Initially all the colleges provided lists of students, the name and address of the schools where they were on teaching practice, the classes they were teaching and the contact details of the schools. Additionally, the colleges provided either provisional teaching practice results for the school year 2003/04 or teaching practice ratings for previous years for each student.
That coloured the outcome.
In other words, the assessor was given an impression of the student's competence prior to the conduct of the assessment. That was prejudicial to any qualitative evaluation of the student. This is a regrettable departure from the established and respected norms of assessment and scientific research. If I am incorrect, I would like the Minister to outline why. This is almost akin to giving the jury the full book of evidence before the trial begins. I am drawing this to the Minister's attention because I would like it to be addressed. The methodology used is questionable and if I am correct, what is the status of the findings?
I refer to the objectivity of the assessments. The Minister has been committed to objectivity throughout her different careers. Apart from the impact of prior evaluation marks being known to the assessor, the process employed also seems to be suspect. The evaluation schedules set out in appendix 1 to the report outline 43 elements of the evaluation process. Marking is provided for on a graduated scale ranging from excellent to NE, which means no evidence of any component skill. The report provides no evidence of agreed performance indicators to guide assessment grading. There is also no evidence that any student had the benefit of a second opinion nor of cross-checking or cross-moderation to ensure the norms expected of each of the nine inspectors were common across the range of assessors. That should have been a basic standard. Were some of the assessments rushed and cursory?
Lines 1 and 2 on page 8 of the report state: "It was recognised that there were constraints on the inspectors with regard to the location and the time available for carrying out the school visits." I must consider this in the context of my former career as a teacher. Each inspector assessed three students per day. Given that the school day for each student for the purpose of the assessment was supposed to be five hours and travel between schools must be taken into account, it is unlikely that any student had more than an hour to be assessed on 43 criteria. Perhaps I have totally misinterpreted this, but if not I would be concerned. If I have misinterpreted this, I would like to know in what way.
I am seriously concerned about the adequacy of the assessment under these conditions. It seems clear it was not adequate. Apart from what seems to be the rushed nature of it in certain cases, it obviously did not focus on issues such as the socio-economic context, which is extremely important, the cultural norms of the children being taught — God knows we have dealt with that issue in various projects on the north side of this city in which INTO teachers and sociologists have been involved — and the discipline issues in the classroom.
The Minister outlined the recommendations, which are sensible, encouraging and positive. However, I could not find a challenging recommendation. It is very important that we improve students' understanding of the sociological considerations which cause some children to be highly motivated and easy to teach — I will not mention places of which I can think, as can other Members — while others are demotivated, resentful of authority and challenging to teachers. There is an absence in that regard and that is a fundamental weakness.
There is also merit in reviewing whether a student teacher should serve an apprenticeship under the guidance of a high quality practitioner. That is my tuppence ha'pennyworth. I am greatly encouraged by the many initiatives in regard to the first year of teaching. They are commendable and positive and I very much support what the Minister said.
There is no doubt the report reveals the startling finding that a minority of teachers show a serious lack of competence. However, the finding is based on that questionable process. I would be less than honest if I did not say that. Along with her many other qualities, the Minister is a very discerning and objective person and I am sure she will treat this report as providingprima facie evidence that not all is well. As distinct from Senator Ulick Burke, I would encourage the Minister towards a more thorough and comprehensive evaluation of teacher training.
I commend the Minister on the many positive, encouraging and holistic initiatives she has brought to bear on education not only at second and third level, which have been extremely impressive, but also at primary level. The vision she has shown and the depth of understanding she has of what teaching and partnership in education are about are very commendable. I commend her on a whole catalogue of initiatives which I do not have time to mention. However, I am not happy with this report. I would like clarification of the concerns I have raised.
I welcome the Minister and the opportunity to comment on this report. I fundamentally disagree with the Minister's view that it was unfair and ungrounded to suggest this was a diversion from other issues. I firmly believe it was and I hope I can prove that to be the case.
The issues not in the report raise questions. The two previous speakers from both sides of the House mentioned some of the issues and I will not repeat all of them. However, the Minister cannot ignore the points made very diligently by two professional people. Why did the Department choose not to tell us the class size in which these student were teaching? She had that information but somebody chose not to report it. Surely it was unfair not to deal with it and that is grounds for suspicion. The report is misleading and flawed. Perhaps the Minister has not been told some of the background but this sent a ripple through the political and education system last week. Questions of genuine concern were raised in the House. My colleague, Senator Quinn, raised one such question, while Senator Jim Walsh went so far as to say there were teachers in every school in Ireland who had chosen the wrong career path, although I would like to hear him back that up. That is how far the matter went in two days.
I wish to make it clear how the sample was selected. Some 143 people were selected, a large enough sample if properly collected. The sample was put together on the direction of the Department, which should not have been the case. I thought there might have been practical reasons for this until I discovered that over the past couple of years the colleges of education have selected and asked the Department to accept a random selection representative of students but it refused to do so. Surely that is unfair. This report reflects badly on students who hope to be probated by the same people who compiled this report and on colleges of education which are dependent on the Minister to give them a grant for the next building. Consequently, the only people who can speak freely on it are Members of this House. There is something wrong with that and I am very upset by it.
According to this report, 3% of the students should not have been in classrooms. Should somebody not have asked how many finished up in classrooms? It took me ten minutes to find out the failure rate in teaching practice in the colleges. I worked out that probably none of these students ever got to a classroom. Would it not have been important at least to have looked at that issue or to have presented that possibility to people reading this report? There is a 2% failure rate which, out of the number of students selected, would give one almost precisely the 3% figure in the report. That is despite the fact that 85% of students in the colleges are A or B level students and the Department and the inspectorate know this. A random sample should have reflected that. However, the Department insisted on three one thirds. If students had been selected at random, 113 students selected would have been A or B level students and one could not possibly have got these skewed results. This is wrong.
While the damage has been done, I would like the report rewritten and the additional information, about which I spoke, included in it. I very much support the idea of a monitoring system but why did we not see a report last week in regard to what is happening at post primary level? I would have to come to the conclusion that there is no action in regard to class size at that level at present and no need for a distraction. That is another reason I came to the conclusion I did — rightly or wrongly. At least one can see there is a logical process to my thinking.
What happened to these students assessed in the classroom? In some of the colleges, they received ten months of further study dealing with the issues before they got to a classroom. If these students were so bad, what happened to them when they went into the classrooms? These selfsame inspectors who wrote this report met them in the classroom and very unfairly applied the same criteria as they did originally. It is completely skewed to use the same criteria to assess student teachers as one would use to assess teachers. One would not do that to doctors or to anybody else. That was wrong and very flawed by any standard.
The students were met by these selfsame inspectors. It took me five minutes to find out that 95% of that cohort of teachers were probated by the same inspectors in their first year of teaching. Perhaps half the remaining 5% were people whom the inspector did not have a chance to inspect. That would mean that approximately 2% only were not probated in their first year. As far as I know, they were all probated in their second year, although I cannot be sure about that because I did not get the information. One can see why we are deeply suspicious about this.
This information did not come out in the report. On four occasions, the Minister mentioned her commitment to information. We did not have the information and had to look for it. That information, which is germane to our discussion, was not available to enable us to give a fair reflection of what the students and colleges are doing. I would be the first to support the Minister if she found something in the education system which needed to be corrected. If this report had revealed something which needed to be corrected I would have stood by her, but it revealed nothing.
The Minister raised a valid point about the percentage between liberal arts and education subjects in the colleges. As we know, it varies between 40% to 60% or two thirds to one third. A critical mass of knowledge and academic subject study as opposed to education study are required by teachers to give them confidence and understanding. The Minister cannot change that critical mass. It has to be there. There is only one way to have the balance which the Minister discussed and it is an easy bit of maths. It is a four year course.
I cannot sit here and listen to the Minister discussing a reduction in the standard of academic study. I do not want teachers to be less academically advanced. I could not live with it. Allow them to reach the same level but give them a fourth year and they will have everything. It would provide more education time with which I agree. I am sure the Minister knows I supported a fourth year for many years and did so at a time when many of those in favour of it now were opposed to it. I always thought it was important and had to be done.
Teachers state the students in the report were in classes of more than 30 and 85% of them were in classes greater than what was promised when they started in their colleges of education. These are realities. I am not making this up. It is what teachers state and it is why people jump to conclusions. It would be helpful if the Minister simply took the report back and rewrote it to provide all the information. I support the idea of this being done every year. In future, a commitment should be given that it will be done through a properly randomised sample.
The Minister may not be told that the Department of Finance is always critical of the fact that 85% of students graduate from colleges of education with honours degrees and it costs the State money. The same people who make this statement then turn around and state somehow there is a problem with teachers going into classrooms. If there is a problem let us deal with it. However, the report does not indicate a problem.
The report is demoralising for young teachers and the colleges of education and it undermines the trust and confidence of politicians. During the past week, I spoke to people here from both sides who asked me about the report with a genuine interest. They wanted to know what it is about and how bad it is. They were concerned, apart from Senator Jim Walsh who was ready to use the opportunity to have a go at teachers.
He always is.
Otherwise, everybody else wanted to get to the bottom of it. Let us do so. I ask the Minister to pull back the report. It will allow us to deal with the issue of class size. Why cannot the Government give a commitment on future class sizes and take the steam out of this? If it will be done let us hear how. Provide trust and confidence and let people plan for next year if it is put in place.
Is cuimhin liom lá eile anseo nuair a bhíomar ag plé staid na Gaeilge i measc na múinteoirí agus sna scoileanna. Nuair a bhí mé ag plé an ábhar sin le daoine as na coláistí, dúirt siad rud an-tábhachtach liom. Dúirt siad gur mhaith an rud a bheadh ann an cheathrú bliain a bheith ag mic léinn, ionas go mbeadh seans níos mó acu an Ghaeilge a staidéar agus caighdeán an nGaeilge a ardú. Tá sé thar a bheith tábhachtach go mbeadh seans acu cleachtadh a dhéanamh sa Ghaeilge, i múineadh na Gaeilge, i múineadh trí Ghaeilge agus in úsáid na Gaeilge sna scoileanna.
This report should be withdrawn, rewritten and amended with all the information which both sides of the House ask for this evening. A commitment should be given that in future it will done through randomised sample. The Minister should give a commitment on how she will introduce class sizes of 20. A group of people should be established to advise the Minister on the fourth year.
I join with previous speakers in welcoming the Minister to the House. There is a lot of sensitivity flying around this evening. I will declare an interest. I am not a teacher. However, I am a parent——
Senator Minihan is an education partner.
——and I was a student. I taught in my other profession. Legitimate concerns were raised in some of what I heard this evening. However, in all walks of life assessment which allows one to build on one's strengths and work on one's weaknesses must be welcomed. We can talk about semantics, we can change methodology and we can reduce from 76% to 72% and up 34% but we will not get away from the core point which is that we have strengths and weaknesses. Weaknesses were in the design and if the methodology has to be changed in compiling the next report let us change it.
However, it does not get away from the basic findings of this report. I, as a non-teacher but as a parent and a teacher, have seen fantastic teachers and horrific teachers.
The report is wrong. That is the point.
The bottom line is that we have a problem and the Minister, her Department and officials must put forward proposals to deal with it. In-house reports and under the table reports seen by selective vested interest groups achieve very little. It is only when they come out in the public domain that we get real action and I congratulate the Minister on that.
We will not get any action.
Her timing was perfect.
I am giving my opinion and Senators Ulick Burke and O'Toole do not have to agree with it. I certainly know Senator Ulick Burke will not agree with it but that is regardless.
During the past ten or 15 years, the educational system has seen major challenges and changes. We all acknowledge that. We had social changes which affect every family in the country. We have multiculturalism, different nationalities in classes, special needs and integration. These are major challenges for any one profession to cope with. We responded quite well in dealing with it. More challenges are ahead and we must yet go full circle.
Regarding the academic standard of a teacher, one can be a brilliant academic but not necessarily good at imparting that knowledge.
That is correct.
We must look at the balance, particularly in training colleges, and ensure that academia is not the be-all and end-all. I would prefer somebody who is not as well-qualified academically but is far better in communicating the skills at a lower level to the students. The teaching profession must question and face up to how in the past teachers who did not perform were protected. Teachers were carried within the system.
And soldiers and politicians. They are everywhere.
Yes. However, we discuss other professions often enough. This evening we will talk about the teaching profession. If weak teachers are being carried, we must look at them not only at student level but we must have ongoing assessment throughout their careers.
Regarding the findings of the report, one of the issues mentioned is that of class sizes. It is fair to ask the Minister what was the size of the class on which the students were assessed. On the general principle of class size I wish to make a number of points. The average class size in 1996-97 was 27. It is now 24. The pupil-teacher ratio in 1996-97 was 22. It is now 17. The percentage of pupils in classes of more than 30 was 41.8% in 1996-97. It is now 25.1%. The percentage of pupils in classes of more than 35 was 11.4% in 1996-97. It is now 2.2%. We are heading in the right direction and we have 4,000 more primary school teachers than we had in 2002. I can go through all of the figures.
The Minister has correctly directed resources to the areas in which they were most needed, namely, disadvantage, special needs and language skills. Plans are afoot to recruit 800 more teachers. My understanding is that 500 will be targeted into special areas and 300 into main classes. Schools have also decided within their own remit to at times allocate teachers to younger children at a lower pupil-teacher ratio than more senior classes. Overall, the pupil-teacher ratio has come down and will reduce further despite all the new challenges faced by the Minister in recent years.
We must welcome and work on this report. I do not support the calls for it to be withdrawn or the arguments that because of the sensitivities of certain people, they would be unhappy or offended in some way because questions are suddenly being asked about their profession and how it is taught. People have much to learn, including those in training colleges, students, we as politicians——
The inspectors have much to learn.
The inspectorate may have something to learn from it.
We should not be dismissive of a report we can learn from just because people are getting hyper-sensitive. I firmly believe the area of teacher training must have a greater emphasis, in the modern society in which we live, on how teaching skills are communicated and knowledge is imparted rather than academia. I would like to see some redressing of the balance in their education syllabus in that regard.
I welcome the Minister's commitment to this report and that we are taking on board self-criticism. This is no harm and it is the only way we will improve. Such improvement will be to the benefit of all the students in the country and the teaching profession.
I wanted to welcome the Minister but as she is leaving I will welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey. Senator Minihan is not a teacher and neither am I, so I respect the views expressed here by those who were teachers. I also respect that they would have much more knowledge of this issue than I do. I have some knowledge as I worked for some time as a substitute, or unqualified, teacher. Such teachers are often berated by others but I filled a need in schools which badly needed a teacher, even if it was just a supervisory capacity. I would like to think I did much more than that.
As with every profession, there will be good and bad. There would be excellent teachers and good teachers, as I would not like to state there are bad teachers. There may be weak or underperforming teachers. The majority are very hard working and excellent teachers.
Those in our training colleges today aspire to be excellent teachers in future but this report will do nothing for their confidence. I have concerns similar to those others expressed this evening about how this report was put together, the evaluation and the assessment carried out on these student teachers. I have questions as to how the ground rules were set down as it is clear a level playing field was not set out.
The student teachers were all in different types of schools and on a particular day they would have had different problems depending on class size, behaviour of students and children's use of the English language. We know that to be a major problem in many schools currently, where so many children do not have English as their first language. There are also children with special needs. Every student teacher was in a different situation so we are not getting an accurate picture of how each teacher performed across different levels.
One of the problems with teacher training as it stands is that trainees are not getting enough practical experience. My son is a qualified teacher who did one year of training, or more accurately nine months, as a postgraduate student in Glasgow. Half of his time there was spent in the classroom, and he probably spent more time in the classroom during that period than the average trainee teacher does in Ireland over the course of three years. This should be considered and I know the Minister has indicated she wishes to look at whether student teachers should be given more practical teaching experience. I believe they should.
Every one of us would improve as we have more practice at whatever we do. To judge a student teacher on a hour or two hours of a performance on any one day, given the problems that can arise within the classroom, is totally unfair. There should be an ongoing assessment involving the class teacher and principal. We should improve this area and I would have liked to have seen recommendations relating to the amount of teaching practice student teachers get and the involvement of the teacher within the classroom and the school principal. This is the process in Glasgow, where the teacher and principal must give a report on how the student has fared throughout a six-week period at the school.
To come out with such an assessment over a longer period would be a much more valid evaluation of how student teachers are doing. The way this report is done gives a very unfair picture of how student teachers are. I agree with Senator Ulick Burke's comments that this report should be withdrawn or at least revised to give a more accurate picture of how people perform. Instead of knocking people's confidence coming towards the end of the training programme, we should be trying to inspire them and ensure that these people will do the most important job anybody can, namely, educate our young people.
This is an unfair assessment of those student teachers. We will of course have excellent and good teachers; we would have such people in every profession. Some will have better skills than others and even within the classroom some teachers will be good at mathematics and others will be very good with computers. The issue should be expanded and at the very least, the report should be revised.
I would welcome the Minister's acceptance of many of the cases and points raised here tonight instead of a defence of a report which is indefensible.
I welcome the Minister of State and the opportunity to speak on this issue. I must declare that I am not a primary school teacher. Hence, my knowledge of teacher colleges and teaching programmes is not in-depth. However, I came from a teaching background, as my father taught in the multigrade system. I have often maintained that what matters is not the numbers in a classroom but how good is the teacher. The five pupils in a classroom with a bad teacher could get bad results whereas the 20-30 pupils in a classroom with a good teacher——
Few have just 20 pupils.
Better than anyone, the Senator knows what I am talking about. He has experience of 30-35 pupils in a classroom, good teachers and good discipline. I am not too worried about class sizes, as the numbers are reducing. If a teacher is good enough, the system works.
The Minister does not seem to be worried about it either.
I welcome the report in so far as it gives us an opportunity to discuss the matter. It has strengths and weaknesses and the Minister has acknowledged the latter, but why should we throw out the dirty water until we have the clean inside? We should examine what we have and determine how to improve the system. If we must, let us criticise the report, but let us not throw it out. Everything written should be analysed and revised. This report is concerned with determining the degree to which we can review teaching practices in colleges and has some positive aspects.
Recently, I received a telephone call from a young teacher who had just concluded her training at Mary Immaculate College. During her teacher practice, she had a bad experience with her inspector in that her assessment was not good. Consequently, she only passed and did not get an honours degree, which will have an impact on her salary. However, in St. Patrick's College in Drumcondra, one is not required to get an honour in one's teaching practise to get an honours degree. If one gets an honours degree, one will be paid a higher salary.
Something is not right in Mary Immaculate College's procedure. I would have thought that all teacher training colleges would have the same standards and criteria for work experience assessments. I do not know enough details, but why are there different standards in the two training colleges? While I did not read through the report in detail, I looked through it to find an answer to my question. The situation is unfair to the Mary Immaculate College student. Will I be given a reply on this matter?
The system has changed, but the teacher colleges have not taken single grade classes, Irish medium schools and children with disabilities into account. Schools are facing increasing levels of complexity in terms of different ethnic and social backgrounds and the new school curriculum. I searched for this topic in the report, but I found no answer as to whether the colleges cater for the issue. Is this fair on a young teacher who goes into a classroom without knowing the structure of the school, the principal or the class teacher or without enough understanding of the school's environment, namely, is it urban or rural?
Would it not be better to lengthen the probationary period? Once teachers receive their final qualifications, they should be assessed during the ensuing probationary year. Is this not the fourth year in question, namely, three years in college followed by a probationary year? I do not know enough about the matter, but I listened to the debate. The Minister is against increasing the duration to four years whereas some speakers were for the measure, but am I missing the point? It was not raised in the report but perhaps we should examine it.
How do colleges organise the school network? Is there a structure? I did not get a feel for this matter in the report, but it seems haphazard. I would like a more formal structure wherein St. Patrick's College, for example, would have a network of schools so that the new teacher would have time to familiarise himself or herself with the class teacher, the school's structure, the students' backgrounds, the parents and so on. Given that it would help teaching, the network would be important. Apart from the learning process and connecting with the class, there is more to teaching than going into classrooms, using computers and so on. It receives greater holistic consideration than it did 20 years ago.
I welcome the report and the changes that must be introduced. There are many weaknesses, but I congratulate the Minister for moving the matter forward. It is a step in the right direction.
It suited her to move it forward on that day.
Let us be positive.
Senator Ormonde to conclude.
I am tired of negativity. Let us be positive and determine what good can be done through the report.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, to the House. I also welcome the report and the opportunity to speak on it. Other speakers referred to whether they were teachers, but I was not a teacher until last year when I became an adjunct professor at the National University of Ireland, Galway. I have declared that I am a teacher, albeit not a secondary teacher.
Last year, I was in South America. It is interesting that at the end of the Second World War, the middle class people of Uruguay wanted to educate their children and went around the world to find a good education system. They found Ireland and brought its Christian Brothers to Uruguay to teach their children.
The Minister spoke about the quality of Irish teachers and education. That quality is high and I was supported by Senators Ulick Burke and Fitzgerald when I sought a debate on the report last week in an effort to maintain the quality. I am pleased to discover that a personal belief of mine is shared by the OECD, which stated that the quality of teachers is the most important determinant in the achievement of pupils. I have always referred to it as teachers being the linchpin of education from pre-school to university level.
If one talks to a person about his or her school days, what he or she will remember is the influence of a particular teacher. I have vivid memories of very good teachers and, perhaps, others as well. My belief in the central role of teachers was reinforced by my experience as chairman of the steering committee on the development of the leaving certificate applied, about ten years ago. We on that committee could huff and puff all we liked, but the real determinant of whether the new approach would work was the approach to be taken by the teachers at the chalkface. They were the ones with responsibility to implement change, and the quality of the end-result depended entirely on the quality of their input. Any success the leaving certificate applied has had, is due entirely to them.
The reason I was in South America was to talk about the Celtic tiger and relay the reasons for Irish economic success. In all my researches I found the prime overall determinant was education. For many years we had invested in education and in so far as I can see the Government is increasing that investment to a considerable extent.
In this country we have a tremendous respect for education, for what it can do for us both individually and as a contributor to our economic development. Unfortunately, we do not have an equivalent respect for teachers, and I think that this is a very bad thing indeed. It may be thought romantic and nostalgic to hark back to the days of the hedge schools, when the teacher was respected as one of the pillars of the community, but I do not believe this to be the case any longer. If we want to have the best teachers, then we must respect them and accord them the rewards and status that is their due. That is the first essential requirement for getting the best teachers to work for us. In making this point I may sound like a propagandist for my colleague, Senator OToole, but I believe that my view is all the more compelling because it comes from outside the profession, and is totally free of any vested interest.
Having nailed my colours to the mast, let me express the hope that this debate will not turn into an exercise in teacher bashing. Let us use this very valuable report to learn some lessons that will have the end result of improving the quality of our education system. Teaching is a demanding profession, and there should be no place in it for those who are not capable of meeting those demands. Just as we all can remember those exceptional teachers who influenced the rest of our lives, we can also recall instances in which a teacher was clearly not up to the job. If we really believe what the OECD says when it argues that teacher quality is the most important determinant of a pupil's achievement, we would take very good care indeed to ensure that inadequate teachers are removed from a situation in which they can cause lifelong damage and underperformance in their pupils.
Teaching is more than a profession, it is a vocation, like being a doctor, a priest or an actor. In all these vocations, academic achievement is an important prerequisite, but it is not enough on its own. There must also be that special spark that joins together the person and the task. Either that spark is there or it is not. Without it one cannot excel.
Having made the teaching profession sufficiently attractive to bring in the best people, our first task should be to ensure that only those with that special spark are allowed in. This is the first area where we could usefully have some change. At present all entrants to the teaching profession are high academic achievers, but that is the only criterion by which we assess them. We do nothing to ensure they have the spark, and I believe that we should. Teaching is one of those professions where we should have an aptitude as well as an academic test. Aptitude tests may have their shortcomings, but they are better than nothing. In the case of medicine this is being clearly talked about in recent times. It is not just a question of whether one has got good marks in the leaving certificate, but rather a matter of whether one has the aptitude.
This research shows that a significant number of student teachers in their final year of training were not up to the job. That could be due to a fault in the way they have been trained, or it could be an indication that some at least of them lack the necessary spark to become successful teachers in the first place. My point is that under the present system we simply do not know the cause — whether it is with the students, teachers or the way that they are taught.
The reality is probably that it is a combination of both. Given that we make no attempt whatever to assess students' aptitude before admitting them to a teaching course, it is inevitable that some people without a true vocation will slip through. On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that the number without a vocation could be as high as the number of students the inspectors found to be producing unsatisfactory results. Therefore, the training they get must also be capable of improvement.
There are two ways in which to deal with the issue revealed by the report. First, we owe it to everybody concerned to make an effort to weed out from the student cohort at the outset those who do not have the exceptional capabilities that it takes to make a good teacher. In assessing student teachers for basic suitability, we must look beyond their results in the leaving certificate. Second, we must put pressure on the teaching colleges, in two ways. First, we must encourage them to constantly review their training methods so that they match the true needs of the profession. Second, we should require them to fail students who do not reach a high level of competence in the problem areas the inspectorate has identified in this report. It is a good report and should not be hidden as it is very valuable. However, it will not serve its purpose unless we act on it.
Today's debate has been very useful, I am sure, from the Minister's viewpoint. I urge her to listen to what has been said today, to read the report seriously and to react to it.
I thank the Senators for the lively contributions we have heard during this debate. There is always a very high standard of debate in Seanad Éireann.
It is clear that the quality of our education system is as close to the heart of many Senators as it is to the Department of Education and Science. Maintaining quality and ensuring the best educational outcomes for our children is central to what we have been debating this evening. The issues raised, from class size, the high calibre of students going into teaching, the quality of work in the classroom in catering for pupils from diverse cultures and backgrounds and integrating children with special needs are all core issues that the Department has been prioritising for some time.
As has been stated, the level of Government expenditure on education has trebled in the last ten years. Today we spend €8.4 billion on education. A particular focus of this expenditure in recent years has been to offset the effects of disadvantage at primary and second level. Almost 50,000 pupils in schools in disadvantaged areas are now in classes of reduced size. This year nearly €730 million will be spent on tacking disadvantage and a further €820 million will be spent on educational provision for pupils with special needs. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure this level of expenditure is spent wisely and that the ultimate beneficiaries are the pupils.
While some may criticise the Government for not meeting the target on class sizes outlined in An Agreed Programme for Government, we make no apology for the decision to prioritise resource allocation to pupils with special educational needs, those in disadvantaged communities and those who need help with their English. Now that these priorities have been largely addressed, extra teachers are being provided in the current and 2007-08 school years to reduce class sizes in primary schools.
Provision was made in the 2006 Estimates for extra teachers to reduce class sizes in this school year and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen is committed to doing so again in 2007.
That is very optimistic of him.
The Government firmly believes that the benefits accruing from the re-targeting of resources towards the most vulnerable pupils outweighed a general reduction in class sizes in the first instance.
My Department is conscious of its responsibilities with regard to quality in the system. Every year evaluations are carried out in a range of educational settings and now whole school evaluation reports are published on the Department's website. Additionally, a number of composite reports have been published on the thematic evaluations carried out by the inspectorate. Previous publications aimed at the primary sector examined literacy and numeracy in some disadvantaged primary schools, the impact of school development planning on pupil learning and how primary school curriculum subjects are being implemented.
The reports are published to inform a wider audience about the quality of the education system and also to promote professional debate and dialogue with a view to bringing about further improvement. The report we are discussing Learning to Teach examined student teacher progress during their final period of teaching practice in primary schools. Teaching practice is a core element in initial teacher education because it focuses on real work in classrooms. During teaching practice students have an opportunity to bring theory and practice together and to experience being in a class of children perhaps for the first time since they were pupils in primary school.
It is an intensely challenging time for student teachers and the final grade ultimately awarded by their college depends to a great extent on how well they do in the classroom. The inspectorate in my Department has worked for many years with the colleges to monitor the standards of teaching practice in schools with a view to ensuring that the high level of achievement is maintained. The inspectorate has considerable experience in this area as every other year inspectors work with newly qualified teachers during the probationary period.
I am conscious that it is now 7 p.m. and that a number of questions were asked during the debate. The questions will be taken on board and I am sure that the Minister will respond in due course in the context of forthcoming debates on education. We have had a good debate. The quality of debate in the Seanad is always impressive and I say that as a former Senator. Education is a very important subject and close to the heart of Senators and that was demonstrated here this evening. I look forward to ongoing debate on all these issues.
When is it proposed to sit again?
At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.