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You are here: Ireland’s Yearbook of Education 2019 2020  >  Editorial

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Dr Brian Mooney

Editor, Ireland’s Yearbook of Education

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As we enter the 20th year of the 21st century, it is time to reflect on how we have managed the Irish education system in this millennium to date.

Recently published data from Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) showing that Irish 15-year-olds are among the top performers in the world in reading literacy, and perform above average in Science and Maths, is a very positive indication that overall we are getting a lot right.

The pace of change in how technology is affecting every aspect of our daily lives is breathtaking, and the extent to which we are using it across our entire education system needs to be explored.

This year’s Pisa results indicate that Irish students up to age 15 are less likely than students from other developed countries to use digital devices for classwork in school or while doing homework.

Given the constant struggle between the very human desire to live within our comfort zone and the need to respond to an ever-changing world , this finding may indicate nervousness around the use of technology among educators due in part to a lack of technological skills or of sufficient access to technical support or assistance.

Another issue of concern in this year’s Pisa results is that Ireland has significantly fewer high-achieving students in Maths and science subjects than other developed countries. Over the past five years, growing numbers of Irish students have been taking advantage of the availability of degree programmes taught through English in continental European universities. The biggest barrier they are experiencing is in their level of competency in Maths and the sciences – even among those who secured H1s in these subjects.

In adopting new curricula in Maths (Project Maths) and the sciences, we have pitched their level to encourage more students to participate at higher level, thus enabling many schools to offer these subjects for the first time, as they now have a viable class group and can allocate a teacher to teach this subject.

The negative Pisa findings may indicate two important constraints on improving our performance in STEM subjects. Firstly, very few graduates in Maths, Physics, and Chemistry seek positions as teachers due to far higher remuneration opportunities in the wider economy. Secondly, our brightest STEM students don’t get to engage with curriculum content which is core in other developed countries. There are no easy answers to this dilemma, but a good place to start may be a State-funded online course in the more advanced elements of STEM which could be accessed by those considering third-level progression in STEM disciplines.

Early Childhood Education

Minister Zappone, in her article in this publication, outlines how she is consolidating the growth and development of the early childhood sector through the implementation of First 5: A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families.

The key issue is the quality of training provided to those who will teach our youngest learners during these formative years. Under the Workforce Development Plan, the government is facilitating the creation of a collective professional identity. To make this a reality they will have to integrate early childhood teachers into the State’s mainstream salary structures, which will not come cheaply. But unless we do, we will never properly resource this vital sector. Peanuts and monkeys come to mind.

Primary Education

The primary sector over the past twenty years has carried out a Herculean task of integrating huge numbers of non-traditional new Irish into our society, while at the same time dealing with a population bulge of over 50,000 additional children who will progress through our second-level schools over the next six to eight years.

The challenge for our primary school system over the coming years will be to effectively manage contraction in numbers of students and therefore teachers as our population of children drops in line with that of our EU neighbours. This can often be a more difficult task than dealing with growing numbers.

Alongside this task, our primary schools dealt with the ever-changing nature of religious beliefs and practices in Irish society, leading to the emergence of new models of trusteeship and management. Bishop Diarmuid Martin’s decision in December 2019 to consider moving sacramental preparation in the Dublin archdiocese from primary schools to parish-based catechetical preparation is truly revolutionary.

Sophia Maher’s appearance on the Late Late Toy Show and her discussion with Ryan Tubridy about her experience of bullying at school raised an issue which had received a huge airing on Liveline with Joe Duffy in November. The potential for using social media as a channel for such activity, alongside the more traditional face-to-face activity, is a constant in the lives of all human beings where they engage with each other.

As educators we must accept that bullying is and always will be present among our pupils and adults in our schools. It’s part of the human experience. The only way to address it is to accept that reality and to build in an anti-bullying strategy as part of school policy from 1 September each year.

We cannot depend on a reactive strategy and a determination to pretend that the problem is solved or, even worse, that it does not exist. Sophia’s bravery should be marked by the adoption of a ‘Sophia strategy’ in every school in Ireland, outlining what the school does as part of its daily activities to address bullying. This is essential to meet the needs of those experiencing bullying as well as those carrying it out, who have their own difficulties that drive their behaviour.

Post-Primary Education

Seeking promotion in one’s profession is a natural instinct of all ambitious persons. The fact that so few teachers are now seeking appointment as school principals indicates that the current model of school management is under severe strain. The sheer volume of regulation and accompanying DES circulars that school leadership must deal with puts huge constraint on their ability to do the job they are essentially tasked with: to provide leadership in teaching and learning. Clive Byrne, in his overview of second-level education, deals comprehensively with the challenges that this creates for the effective management of our schools.

2019 saw the rapid roll-out of the new Junior Cycle in all its aspects across all second-level schools. The in-service supports to enable teachers to secure the skills to deliver the new programme, which had been resisted by those affiliated with the ASTI, was rolled out, causing huge headaches for principals in securing replacement teachers to meet the health and safety requirements of the children, whatever about their education needs.

Ensuring the presence of a teacher in every classroom daily is becoming progressively more difficult, given the disruption caused by teachers being seconded for various roles in curriculum support services, carrying out State exam oral work, which requires teachers to be absent from their own students; the absence of teachers in September to correct Leaving Cert exam scripts appealed by students, which proved to be far more disruptive than anticipated; and a variety of other causes, including normal illness and personal leave under existing protocols in schools.

But by far the most important development to occur in 2019 was the emergence of the voice of young people over climate action. I do not think the adult world has any concept of how much our young people have been transformed in their thinking – regarding every aspect of their daily lives – by their sheer terror of the implications of current practices of adults on this planet. To dismiss them as ‘kids looking for an excuse to skip class’ is to totally miss the most seismic change in worldview to have ever occurred to any generation of young people.

Further Education

The challenge for our FE sector, as it has been since the establishment of Solas, is real integration, reform, and performance improvement. To this end, 2019 saw the launch of the action plan for apprenticeships and traineeships, an agreement of national further education and training (FET) system targets with the Minister for Education and Skills, and the establishment of strategic performance agreements between Solas and the ETBs. These actions have contributed to a more coherent sense of the future direction in which the FET system needs to evolve.

Andrew Brownlee, CEO of Solas, in his overview of the sector, emphasises that fundamentally FET revolves around skills development, learning pathways, and inclusion. He points out that FET can change people’s lives, allowing them to develop themselves personally, engage with their communities, and go as far they want to go. It can help people re-engage with education and take the first steps in returning to work, give people a vibrant college experience without a four-year commitment, offer direct routes into many varied careers , and let people upskill at minimal cost if they’re already in work and wish to ensure that their skills remain relevant and prepare them to succeed – whether they want to go on to higher education (HE) or straight into the workplace.

Higher Education

The key development here in 2019 has been the proposed reform of the Higher Education Authority Act, 1971, by Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor. The outlined legislative proposals envisage that a newly established Higher Education Commission (to replace the Higher Education Authority) will ensure the integration of the FET and HE sectors, an integrated approach to transfer and progression pathways from FET to HE, and an integrated approach to increasing the availability of apprenticeship training. The new Commission will also be given regulatory oversight of private and not-for-profit HE providers. It will have a pivotal role, alongside the DES, in developing national strategy for HE and HE research. 

1 January 2019 saw the formal establishment of the first Technological University in Ireland with the launch of TU Dublin. The implications of the development of TUs for the higher education sector are revealed by John Walshe in his overview of higher education, in which he outlines the details of a letter written by William Beausang, DES assistant secretary in charge of tertiary education – a new section in the DES formed by amalgamating the sections that dealt separately with further and higher education.

Walshe’s article reveals the details of this letter sent to Science Foundation Ireland, as a response to its draft strategy, and characterises the establishment of the TUs as the single most important development in the higher education landscape over the next number of years. Beausang, having originally worked in the Department of Finance, sought out the position of assistant secretary in charge of tertiary education, and he obviously has a vision for changes to further and higher education which he intends to oversee. Watch this space.

Because of Brexit, the place of Irish higher education in an international context is growing in importance each year. The number of international students coming to study in Ireland continues to grow across all third-level colleges, particularly in the private sector. 

Cuts to core grant third-level funding during the economic crisis have never been reversed, and restoring the previous levels of funding does not appear to be part of government policy. This has led to a growing reliance on attracting international students, and philanthropy has become part of the infrastructure of our third-level system. Where government is providing additional funding, the trend now is to allocate new targeting funding for the delivery of specific projects, such as the Human Capital Initiative, which was funded to the tune of €300m.

In higher education, Ireland has always been ‘more Boston than Berlin’ and sits comfortably in that Anglo-Saxon culture which includes the third-level sectors in Britain, America, Australia, and so on. But as an EU member state we are now in a single higher education market with our EU partners, which operate their systems based on free or almost free access to third level based on higher overall taxation than is the norm in Ireland or the UK.

The number of Irish students attending EU universities is doubling annually, admittedly from a low base. How then can our third-level institutions, as they weigh up the option of a CAO offer with an EU one, hope to retain our brightest and best students, if the costs associated with participation in a continental EU university are so much lower and do not require high CAO points?

The standard response from those I have discussed this with at senior levels in our universities and government is that EU governments will soon get tired of funding the education of Irish students and will find some way of cutting them out. This does not seem a very solid basis for our higher education strategy going forward. 


As Peter Brown alludes to in his chapter introduction, in the research and innovation ecosystem all eyes will be on the successor to Innovation 2020, the government’s strategy for science, technology, research, and development. The mid-term (in reality late-term) review of Innovation 2020, published by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, is well worth a read to get a sense of the progress made and also where we are seriously falling short. Ireland will be well off its 2020 target of having total investment (public and private) in research and development equating to 2.5% of GNP, although this was always going to be difficult given the strong rise in GNP linked to economic recovery. 

Business Expenditure on R&D (BERD) was €2.8 billion in 2017, up 31% since 2014. Since only a tiny fraction of this funding ends up in higher education, it falls to the public purse and other sources such as the EU framework programmes to fund research in higher education. But government expenditure on R&D grew by only 3.4% from 2014 to 2018. The upshot of all this is that university bosses are worried that Ireland will lose out in an increasingly internationalised research environment, as other countries, such as the UK, step up public investment in research and innovation. They want to see the funding pipeline renewed for basic research at individual investigator level, so that we can retain top-class researchers and attract new ones. National investment also leverages success in European funding, including prestigious European Research Council awards. 

Stakeholders are frustrated that research and innovation are not capturing the imagination of the political system and that there is a lot of lip service paid to this area. Gaining traction is undoubtedly tough when we continue to face major challenges in housing and health. But we cannot take expertise for granted. From a research stakeholder perspective, high-level expertise and knowledge are what will give Ireland the scope to address societal challenges, solve complex problems, and drive new technological and other innovations. The Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI) is an oft-used example of the transformative impact of large-scale investment across disciplines.

In an age of urgent problems such as climate breakdown, decarbonisation, and online abuse, sooner or later we will need to bite the bullet and invest for the future in our research and innovation system.

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