Upon its formation, the tri-party Government recognised the role that education will play in the post-Covid-19 recovery. eolas explores the initial tenure of the Minister for Education Norma Foley TD and examines the education portfolio’s priorities for the time ahead.
Having floundered in an interview with the Sunday Independent shortly after her appointment as Minister for Education in June 2020, Norma Foley has quietly endeavoured to get to grips with her portfolio.
The first-time TD was a surprise selection among the Fianna Fáil cabinet cohort in the coalition Government. However, as successor to Fine Gael’s Joe McHugh TD, Foley is a seasoned public representative. A post-primary teacher by trade, the Kerry woman previously served as a member of Kerry County Council for the Tralee area, from 1994 until her ascent to the Dáil in 2020.
The Department of Education exists to provide a policy, legislative and funding framework for the national education and training system. Throughout 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic radically altered the context in which this system operates. As such, the focus and resources of the department have been required to pivot accordingly to facilitate the continuity of learning, assessment and inclusion for students.
In total, the Minister for Education delivered on four major objectives with broad success amid the Covid crisis.
- Widening the eligibility criteria and delivering the Summer Provision 2020 programme: In July, the Department published the Home-Based Summer Provision 2020: Reconnecting with Education programme for children with complex special educational needs. The expanded programme was widened to provide for around 15,000 children (5,000 more than the traditional July Provision) and its central objective was to prepare students for the reopening of schools.
- Reopening schools that had been closed since 12 March 2020: In late August and early September 2020, the State’s 4,000 primary and post-primary schools successfully reopened. Through Reopening Our Schools: The Roadmap for the Full Return to School, the Department of Education provided a financial package of €377 million to support the safe and sustainable reopening of schools for over one million students and 110,000 staff.
- Delivering calculated grades for Leaving Certificate students: Initially postponed (10 April 2020) the Leaving Cert was subsequently cancelled entirely (8 May 2020), and 61,000 students were assessed through a calculated grades system. Teachers were required to “to draw on existing records and available evidence, to provide a fair, reasonable and carefully considered judgment of the most likely percentage mark that each student would have achieved”. School leavers subsequently accessed their Leaving Cert grades online. However, errors were later identified in the calculated grades system. This problem was exacerbated by Foley’s delay in informing her Cabinet colleagues. As a result, a total of 6,870 grades increased, affecting 6,100 students.
- Keeping schools open during the introduction of Level 5 public health restrictions: Ensuring that schools remain open and that students can continue to safely attend school is a key government priority. Following the introduction of Level 5 restrictions in October 2020, Foley reaffirmed her commitment to the safe operation of schools, and they remained open. “A significant factor in the decision to move to Level 5 is that by doing so we can support our schools to continue to operate safely and sustainably during the pandemic. The decision recognises the overwhelming evidence from our public health experts, that schools are a safe environment for our school communities, children and staff members,” she said.
Education in the PfG
Additional educational ambitions for the Government are contained within the Programme for Government (PfG) and include “striving for education excellence”. As such, the Government has committed to establishing a Citizens’ Assembly on the Future of Education at primary and post-primary level, developing a Digital Education Strategy, reviewing and reforming both the primary and post-primary curricula and establishing a new Education Research and Policy Section within the Department.
The PfG also pledges to ensure plurality and choice in education, support for Gaeilge in education, support for school staff and the creation of a sustainable vision for school transport.
Strategic challenges and opportunities
Looking ahead, the Minister’s Brief prepared by the Department of Education on behalf of the incoming Minister highlights several ongoing strategic challenges and opportunities for schools in Ireland.
Resourcing and demographics
Amid service pressures and wider expenditure pressures across line departments, the budgetary position remains a challenge in education. For instance, demographic changes often precede sustainability, workforce planning, school accommodation and transport challenges, necessitating a comprehensive policy response.
Projections indicate that primary enrolments will decrease, and post-primary enrolments increase up until 2024, while third level education will grow significantly in the 2020s. Student numbers and staffing represent the two major drivers of school costs. Simultaneously, demographic pressures have a direct impact on school accommodation capacity and therefore on capital expenditure.
Additional budgetary pressures include school transport expenditure and pension costs. The latter pressures are projected to increase for the foreseeable future.
The Department of Education’s budget for 2021 is €8.9 billion, an increase of €410 million (5 per cent) on 2020. Upon the announcement of Budget 2021, Minister Foley stated: “This Government’s first budget demonstrates clearly our commitment to, and support for, schools and our students. With this significant new investment, we will continue to improve the experience of our children in education, and provide improved practical supports, particularly in light of Covid-19.
“I am delighted to announce that I have secured in this Budget the funding to reduce the pupil teacher ratio and class sizes.”
Curriculum and assessment
A second objective is to develop greater coherence in education from early years to post-primary level. However, there is an acknowledgement that content and approach to teaching and assessment can be subject to contention. As such, the development and implementation of change in this sphere is complex.
Specific objectives include a redevelopment of the early years and primary curricula, continued implementation of junior cycle reform and the publication of an NCCA advisory report on senior cycle reform.
Quality of learning experience
The enhancement of quality and performance across the education system is regarded as critical. To that end, the focus is primarily on augmenting the professionalisation of teaching, effective teacher education, developing school leadership and fostering a culture firmly focused on maintaining high-quality outcomes for students.
“This Government’s first budget demonstrates clearly our commitment to, and support for, schools and our students.”
— Minister for Education Norma Foley TD
The department recognises that education is a critical component of inclusion and social mobility. While the equity of Ireland’s school system ranks relatively well in the OECD, a gap between DEIS and non-DEIS schools remains.
Within the PfG commitment to address the cost of education as a barrier to participation and a financial burden on families, the Government commits to enacting the Student and Parent Charter Bill and commencing a free schoolbooks pilot.
The PfG identifies education as “the foundation for a more just and equal society”. The Government makes 15 commitments under the objective of supporting an “inclusive and equal education system”. This includes completing the new DEIS identification model, reviewing and expanding the Hot School Meals initiative and publishing a national policy on Initial Teacher Education to enhance access to teaching for people from minority backgrounds.
Similarly, the introduction of the new SNA allocation model has been postponed until September 2021. However, capacity constraints within the HSE will limit, in the short-term at least, the reengagement of in-school therapy services. Meanwhile, in some schools, there has been difficulty in establishing special educational needs classes.
Overall, education is a complex portfolio facing several ongoing policy and funding challenges. Six months into her tenure, it is too soon to determine whether Norma Foley has an assured handle on her remit. After a shaky start, the Minister secured some early decisive wins for the government, though the delivery was far from flawless.