Joe McHugh TD
Minister for Education and Skills
As a former teacher and youth worker, it would be fair to admit that when An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD rang me in October 2018 to offer me the role of Minister for Education and Skills it was a dream come true.
I believe that it is through education that we prepare our young people for the world of the future and the lives they will live, which in many ways will be hard for our generation to even conceive.
In the time I have spent in the Department of Education and Skills, I have had the opportunity to work with department staff and a range of education partners who, although they may differ on the details, are dedicated to making sure the Irish education system is second to none.
The education brief is wide and varied, but there are a few policy areas that I want to focus on in this article.
The journey with the language continues. I want to see an education system which focuses on teaching our unique and prized 3,000-year-old language in a way that young people will use it. It is about making it relevant. It is about showing young people how to communicate and converse in Irish.
A small step on that road is the Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) project that I introduced for early years, primary, and post-primary schools. It sets the ground for young people to be taught subjects through Irish, with one of those being PE. Other subjects being worked on are Art, Maths, Science, Business, Geography, SPHE, and CSPE. There are many options. And I am confident it will help young people connect with Irish in a new and better way.
Our students also have to understand the legacy of our language – ár nOidhreacht. Irish is 3,000 years old. It dates back to Roman times. It was strong enough to survive the plundering of the Vikings and the penal laws, colonisation and An Gorta Mór, albeit badly weakened.
Now we have almost 60,000 students in 247 gaelscoileanna and 49 gaelcholáistí around the country. There has been strong growth in the sector in recent years. I am keen to see more on this front. That is why I made a decision to designate five new primary schools being established from 2020 to 2022 as gaelscoileanna.
There is an imbalance that needs to be addressed, and I am confident that there will be significant demand for places in the new schools. It is about choice. It gives parents a certainty about education options.
Our responsibility to the next generation is to leave the standard of education of Irish in a better place. We are making changes. But we need to do more. We need to work harder on showing young people the relevance of the language but also to instil it more naturally from as young an age as possible. My aim is to see that ambition worked on in 2019.
I strongly believe that an understanding of history is vitally important, not just for future generations but also for our own. If we don’t check in the rear-view mirror from time to time, how can we avoid the mistakes of the past?
An understanding of history – Irish, European, and global – will give you different and more informed knowledge of the importance of the border on our island, Brexit, or the rise of paranoid nationalism around the world. It is this type of understanding that is increasingly important for all our citizens to have.
The impact of the Decade of Commemorations in reviving the interest of Irish people of all ages, all over the world, in our struggle for Home Rule, the 1913 Lockout, the First World War, Easter 1916, the War of Independence, and the Civil War cannot be underestimated.
That revival has led to a thirst for deeper knowledge of our history from the earliest days to our recent past – not just the slightly rose-tinted view of the past that we sometimes get, but the unvarnished truth, all sides of our complex and often difficult history.
Shortly after my appointment in October 2018 I sought a review of the optional nature of History at Junior Cycle level. This ultimately led to my decision in the autumn of 2019 that History should be given special core status in the Junior Cycle.
The new History specification for Junior Cycle offers a much better way to teach and learn about our past, whether that is at a global, national, or even local level. It makes the subject more engaging for young people and moves it out of the classroom and beyond the ‘chalk and talk’.
I believe that every student will benefit from being part of this, that it will create a generation of well-informed Irish citizens with the skills to critically assess facts and draw their own conclusions from an understanding of what has created these conditions. What could be a more important skill in the future that our young people will face?
I know that our education system is responsive and progressive and will allow this to be implemented. I will work closely with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and other education partners towards making this vision a reality.
I am committed to tackling education disadvantage, and DEIS is the Government’s main policy initiative to achieve this. The programme also provides, amongst other supports, reduced class size in Urban Band 1 DEIS schools, Home School Community Liaison Coordinators, DEIS grants, enhanced book grants, curriculum supports, priority access to Continuing Professional Development, and the School Excellence Fund for DEIS.
Evidence from the various evaluations of the DEIS programme demonstrate that it is having a positive effect on tackling educational disadvantage and is succeeding in addressing education inequality. My Department will spend in the region of €125 million in 2019 on the DEIS programme. We will continue to support DEIS and build upon the success of this programme to strive to reduce disadvantage in education.
The provision of education for children with special needs is an ongoing priority for Government. The continual investment in special education since 2011, including the funding in Budget 2020, will see provision made for 1,886 special classes, 13,620 special education teachers, and 17,014 Special Needs Assistants in our schools. This is unprecedented and gives a clear indication of the Government’s commitment to this area.
It is important that we continue to work together in the education sector to provide additional supports to children who need them as part of their education. These can range from transport to teachers and classes and beyond. We provide school transport, sometimes including escorts, for children with additional needs, at a cost of over €100 million in 2019. We are expecting that commitment to increase next year, and we are investing in this.
Some 167 new special classes opened this year, which means there are 1,618 special classes in place this year, compared to 548 in 2011. Next year we will increase that number. The extent of new classes being opened in recent years shows the willingness of schools to open special classes.
As Minister for Education and Skills I have the power under Section 37A of the Education Act 1998 to direct a school to provide additional provision where all reasonable efforts have failed. Since it came into law, with the enactment of the 2018 Education (Admission to Schools) Act, I have exercised the power under section 37A on two occasions this year: firstly in west Dublin before the summer, and again last month in south Dublin. Part of that saw the establishment of a new special school, which we are committed to.
As Minister I would prefer to see schools offering to provide more places for these children rather than places being secured on the back of an order or a direction. And I would like to commend the work of the Archdiocese of Dublin and others in making increased provision a reality in west Dublin.
In the vast majority of cases, schools are doing this without recourse to taking this legislative action, but there are areas of the country where children with special education needs require school places which are not available, and, however reluctantly, if necessary and when advised by the National Council for Special Education, I will exercise this legislative power.
The work on special education will continue.
In January 2019 I was deeply moved by Rhona Butler. Her mother died while Rhona was sitting her Leaving Certificate exams the previous summer, and she was left with no option but to sit an exam hours after seeing her mother pass away, another exam on the day of the wake, and others after the funeral mass.
Rhona was not alone. Hundreds of young people have endured the same unnecessary stress and anxiety. The lack of flexibility in the state exams compounded grief and trauma.
The possibility of deferring state exams for compassionate reasons after a bereavement had been examined before. But on hearing Ms Butler’s harrowing story, I was determined to secure it. The change, announced in May and in time for the 2019 Leaving Cert, gave some time and space for students who suffered the death of a close relative to defer three days of the exams and to sit alternative papers in July.
I spoke to Rhona and thanked her for telling her story and for helping to secure the change. It was the right decision. By asking for the change I was able to put the well-being of students and their families first. It allowed me to ensure that in some small way we could help to ease the burden and stress of bereavement and loss and give students a brief window to focus on family at a time of their life that is already hugely pressurised. I want to thank Rhona again.
The Department, along with the State Examinations Commission, has committed to reviewing how the compassionate approach worked in 2019 and if other improvements need to be made.
Schools have long been building relations on an informal basis right across our island. But I think it is something that can grow. Thanks to the Politics In Action charity in the north and the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, and support from the Department of Foreign Affairs, we have set the foundations for lasting engagement between schools north and south.
The objective is to bring post-primary students together, from both sides of the border, and allow them to build relations by debating and reporting on universal issues relevant to them – our climate, bullying, consent, and other issues.
The programme is in its infancy, but with the drive and experience of Politics In Action and Glencree, I am hopeful that it is the birth of something bigger.
It is a huge honour to have been afforded the opportunity to work as Minister for Education and Skills, to work with the hugely dedicated staff of the department, and to experience the professionalism and commitment of the education partners.
I would like to thank the many dozens of principals and their staff for welcoming me to their schools. It is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job, and it is a phenomenally important learning experience which has allowed me to get a deep appreciation of the successes of our investment and policies and to understand how things can be improved.
Thank you, le meas,