In his review of 2019 at post-primary level, Clive Byrne looks concisely at a wide range of topics, including the pace of system change, inclusivity and participation, school leadership, the Student and Parent Charter, reduced timetables, challenges ahead, and future hopes and developments.
Shortly after he was appointed Minister for Education and Skills in October 2018, Minister Joe McHugh announced that he’d heard the clamour that our education system was failing to cope with the pace of system change at the heart of the Action Plan for Education, and that he knew where educationalists were coming from. The Plan, highlighting strategic reform in the education and training sector, was designed to enable the Department of Education and Skills (DES) to respond in an agile way to the demands of today’s society.
For example, in the Special Educational Needs (SEN) sector, a new model of allocating teachers to schools was implemented so that each school has a baseline allocation. A key soft barrier to admission and enrolment should be no more. With advances in the Post-Primary Online Database (PPOD), school profiles can be updated to enable accurate allocations for the following school year if required.
The Action Plan has also ensured that a National Forum to engage with stakeholders on the issues of teacher supply has been held, and a new portal to maximise the number of substitute teachers available is being developed. A workgroup has been established to increase the number of girls and women participating in STEM. Irish and foreign languages will benefit from the establishment of a Content Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) working group to plan the development of pilot projects.
The Minister has been as good as his word in trying to slow the pace of change, but other issues have emerged which have major workload implications: child-protection inspections, students wishing to opt out of religion classes, students wishing to be exempt from Irish, and most recently the Student and Parent Charter, to name a few. School leaders are in favour of review and reform. A lack of administrative support to help with the bureaucratic demands of the school leaders’ role needs to be urgently addressed. If the necessary supports are in place, the job becomes doable and the education outcomes for our students are enhanced.
There have been around a thousand changes among second-level school leaders over the last seven years. Over fifty newly appointed principals attended their Misneach gathering in Hodson Bay in August, with over seventy newly appointed deputy principals as part of the Tánaiste programme in the Sheraton in Athlone on the same day.
The good offices of the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) and the Centre for School Leadership (CSL) are stretched at this time of year to support the new appointees, particularly in mentoring, where newly appointed principals are engaged in one-to-one mentoring with an experienced colleague. Deputy principals engage in mentoring through cluster groups facilitated by the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) and some of the management bodies.
The willingness of colleagues to take on leadership roles in our schools is welcome. However, there is a disparity in the number of applications for the position of principal as opposed to that of deputy principal. Many schools re-advertised for the position of principal, but this is rarely the case at deputy-principal level, where there is a wider field of applicants to choose from. Why have so many senior leaders moved on in the last seven years? Several principals have retired early for reasons of work pressure. Some have left the principal’s role to take up a position of deputy in their own or in another school. There is no doubt that the role of principal is a lonely one. Dealing with suspensions and exclusions as a result of breaches of school rules on the use of social media through the use (abuse?) of the Section 29 process is draining and time-consuming.
Why have so many senior leaders moved on in the last seven years? …There is no doubt that the role of principal is a lonely one.
Among their reasons to leave early, colleagues cite the paperwork associated with Child Protection Guidelines, SEN applications, Tusla referrals, and latterly the granting of exemptions in Irish and opting out of religion. This year, the state exams ran into a fourth week, the results were issued earlier, and the appeals process happened just as schools were reopening. Several colleagues complained bitterly that they had tried to fill staff vacancies as early as possible, but appointed personnel had left the school high and dry because they had found a position nearer home or with more paid hours. In fairness, who can blame such colleagues for looking after their own interest? The reply invariably is, who is looking after the school leaders’ interest! Keeping the show on the road in the absence of substitutes and teacher shortages in subject areas is a major issue.
A working group on the attractiveness – or not – of the role of principal is urgently needed. The answer isn’t money, I suspect. It’s the lack of ancillary staff, both secretarial and caretaking, to support the administration of the school and enable it to function more efficiently and free up the school leaders to be leaders of learning.
The Centre for School Leadership is a collaboration between the Department of Education and Skills and the professional associations for school principals, NAPD and IPPN. The CSL pays a vital role in supporting school leadership by mentoring newly appointed leaders, by enabling coaching for serving leaders, and in a pilot project looking at team coaching in a school. It has overseen the establishment of the Professional Diploma for School Leadership (PDSL), based in the University of Limerick but offered nationally.
Based in Clare Education Centre, the CSL has forged close links with counterparts in Scotland and Wales and hosted a tripartite gathering to consider how best to meet future leadership needs, particularly in the area of effective middle-leadership. Two new coordinators to the CSL team have been seconded from their schools in Cork and Kerry: Finbarr Hurley and Donal O’Reilly began their new roles in September as they seek to expand the level of service the Centre can offer.
The Carter judgment from the High Court last year on the timing of issuing results following appeals meant there was an in-depth review of the entire public exam process by the State Examinations Commission. Education partners were briefed on the implications of the judgment, and it became clear that that it wouldn’t be possible to release the Junior Cert results in mid-September, as was the norm, because Leaving Cert appeals had to be prioritised. Students were disappointed that the results were delayed until October and issued on a Friday. School authorities had previously called for a Friday release, because media headlines of tired and emotional students the morning after the results reflected badly on our students and on the system. On balance, though, the fact that the students will be under their parents’ care is better and may encourage more age-appropriate family celebrations of the students’ achievement.
The Centre for School Leadership has hosted a tripartite gathering with counterparts in Scotland and Wales to consider how best to meet future leadership needs.
Minister McHugh published the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019 in early September. The draft legislation reflects the government’s commitment to introduce a stronger complaints procedure and charter for parents to make sure their voices are heard. Under the legislation, every school will be required to publish and operate a Student and Parent Charter which will declare to students and parents what they can expect from the school, in accordance with national guidelines, which will be published by the Minister following consultation with the education partners.
The Bill includes a requirement for schools to follow standardised procedures in dealing with grievances of students and their parents. These procedures will be set in the national charter guidelines to provide a clear framework in establishing and implementing good practice. The Bill includes provisions that:
The publication of a Student and Parent Charter in every school will allow for a clearer understanding of what students and parents can expect from their school, and also what schools can expect from parents and students. Best practice would suggest more harmonious situations when everybody sings off the same hymn sheet. This is already the case in most schools; formalising it through a charter will ensure it becomes the norm in every school. School principals are aware of the rights and responsibilities that exist between students, parents, and their school and are supportive of all initiatives that strengthen this relationship.
Amendments to the Education Act 1998 emphasise the role of the board of management to prepare, publish, and implement a charter for students and parents. Most boards won’t have the requisite expertise to do this, and many principals fear that the responsibility will be devolved to them – not ideal, but experience has shown that this is what usually happens.
The draft legislation also proposes to standardise complaints and grievances procedures across our schools. This will give greater certainty and clarity to everyone involved, in what can be a difficult and fraught process. Early intervention and clear procedures are fundamental to achieving better outcomes when issues arise.
The Minister has promised further consultation with education stakeholders in arriving at the guidelines that will inform these charters. Through these consultations, the true form of the charters will take shape. Student and Parent Charters are a hugely positive step forward in education, so it is vital that their final form meets the needs of our students and their parents in the years ahead.
The timetable, first and foremost, is the mechanism through which each school ensures that students access the curriculum as prescribed by the DES in the most effective manner. Its primary goal is to serve the needs of the student. Effective timetabling can increase students’ ability to reach their full potential and can facilitate students to access additional educational assistance in special education. It is a tool for schools to deploy resources in the most effective manner for the benefit of students.
Effective timetabling can contribute to reducing disciplinary challenges. Not all students can access the curriculum to the same extent, and in some circumstances a full timetable can be counterproductive for a student. Sometimes a student, for various reasons, may need to have a reduced timetable to help with a variety of challenges, such as:
Sometimes a student may need to have a reduced timetable to help with various challenges.
Where a reduced timetable is employed, in terms of either time or subjects, it should be to maximise the educational and pastoral experience for the student. In an ideal situation, reduced timetables are agreed between the school, the student, and the parents or guardians, in consultation with external agencies who represent the educational or health and well-being interests and needs of the student. The following external agencies may collaborate with a school in requesting a reduced timetable to accommodate the specific needs of a student:
While there are times when a reduced timetable is used to help deal with behavioural issues, the goal of such a reduction should be to support the student to move towards a full timetable. In managing challenging behaviour, a reduced timetable should be considered only after every other option has been explored and undertaken as part of a consultation with all outside agencies involved. A reduced timetable should be for a set period, as short as possible, after which all parties should meet to discuss the student’s future progress.
Sometimes a reduced timetable used in conjunction with home tuition can help a student through a difficult time in their lives. Students who are suffering from anxiety or who are potential school refusers can benefit from short-term reduction in class contact: they don’t suffer the pressure of attending for a full school day. Students may also choose subjects or teachers that they are most comfortable with. This may encourage students to succeed and improves their chances of better attendance.
Where a reduced timetable is considered for students with serious medical conditions, it is part of a consultation with the parents and care team, and other provisions are put in place. For example, a student not in class is collected by a parent and taken home at the times they are not in class.
The problem in this scenario is that presently it is proving extremely difficult for parents who are approved for home tuition to source a suitably qualified Teaching Council-registered teacher to provide the home tuition for their child. This problem stems from the shortage of suitably qualified teachers available nationally.
Not every school will have students on reduced timetables, and for schools that offer this facility the numbers of students availing of it are small. Principals report that offering a reduced timetable can be hard to manage. It requires a huge commitment from the parent or guardian because, although it is explained clearly at the outset, when their child is not attending a timetabled class, the supervision becomes their responsibility, and their day may be disrupted by collection and drop-off. This is a frequent downside of reducing the timetable.
Schools rarely have capacity to provide appropriate supervision for the child, and in a situation where a parent or guardian cannot collect the child, they usually end up in the principal’s or deputy principal’s office, which isn’t ideal.
Schools recognise that they must be inclusive of all students, but since the policy of inclusion has been implemented, the experience for schools is that they must cope with diminished resources and can’t operate in the best interests of students.
The publication of recent Higher Education Authority (HEA) research has again raised the question of equity in the system. Are we really surprised at findings that the children of more affluent families take up most places on high-point courses? The relentless pursuit of points seems to be at the core of our education system, to the detriment of students’ health and well-being. The artificial hierarchy of level 8 courses in universities or institutes of technology undermines the value of other forms of educational involvement or achievement.
Statistics released after the state examinations at junior or senior cycle level show that girls outperform boys in many subjects. There has been some discussion of our teaching to the test model, which doesn’t suit almost 20% of the student cohort. ‘Boys don’t try’ was the headline on a recent newspaper article. The thesis was that boys are afraid of failure and feel better about not succeeding in school on the basis that they haven’t tried.
College Awareness Week, which takes place each November, has as its raison d’être the promotion of conversations about educational opportunities in lesser-served communities. During the week students undertake research on possible career and study opportunities in primary schools and in the early years of secondary school, to help them narrow down areas of interest and open their eyes to the benefits of education in all its forms when formal schooling ends for them. Oftentimes young people don’t consider potential opportunities because they have no experience or role models to direct them, to open their eyes to the endless possibilities in the modern word.
We are regularly told that many of our students will work in jobs that haven’t been invented yet. Let’s promote independent learning, self-confidence, resilience, and flexibility among our young people. So what if the more affluent take up high-points courses! Let’s work to ensure that access to these courses or careers is not based solely on class background or high points. Let’s change the paradigm!
The reformed junior cycle is helping to do this by changing the language of instruction. Statements of learning, classroom-based assessments, and student opportunities to present to their peers give cause for hope and celebration. The recent decision to award special status to History with a 240-hour designation, when combined with the requirement to have 400 hours of Wellbeing, risks undermining the potential benefits of the junior cycle reform. Other subjects will demand special status, and the joined up thinking of the junior cycle project risks being sundered. Meaningful reform of the senior cycle will hardly take root until the junior cycle process is firmly embedded.
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