The Educational Disadvantage Committee; A Strange Case

 

The Educational Disadvantage Committee (EDC), as provided for in the 1998 Education Act, was appointed in March 2002 by Minister for Education Michael Woods. As specified in the legislation, the term of office was for three years, and, unusually in Irish education, it was designed as an expert rather than a representative group. The Act specified that no more than half of the members were to be nominees of education partners’ groups. During its term of office, the group submitted four important reports to the Minister for Education on the issue of identifying disadvantage and targeting resources, teacher supply and staffing in disadvantaged areas, and integrated delivery service and priority areas for action in adult and community education.

It concluded its term of office with a final report, Moving Beyond Educational Disadvantage. In it, the committee identified a number of principles that it felt should underline any national policy. This was a rights-based approach to equality, inclusion of diversity, integration of strategies, structures and systems, coherence of provision, focused target-setting, and measurement and monitoring of outcomes and results. This led to a strategy based on three goals: Achieve educational equality in the broader context of achieving social inclusion. Provide inclusive opportunities for learning at all stages of the life cycle, from birth onwards. Improve the mainstream school system so that all young people aged from three to eighteen receive an education that is appropriate to their needs.

In relation to each of its objectives, the committee recommended a course of action, including priority investment in disadvantaged areas, which was to be carried out in a strategic manner; provision of adequate resources to the National Education Welfare Board; more integrated practice between the various governmental departments, local authorities and agencies, both voluntary and statutory, involved in the provision of services to children and young people; the promotion of high standards of literacy and numeracy across all age groups, using schools as locations for before- and after-school education programmes, providing timely and effective support to ensure that no learner is left behind; and recognising alternative provisions such as Youthreach as meeting the requirements for compulsory schooling, preventing early school-leaving by providing appropriate intervention programmes in pre-school, primary, post-primary and in the community. The EDC set out a number of conditions that needed to be in place if the strategy were to be successfully implemented. These included a clear focus on outcomes, availability of the necessary resources, effective communication of the strategy to all the relevant parties, and an emphasis on measuring and reporting outcomes.

DEIS

In May 2005, Minister for Education Mary Hanafin launched the DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) Programme. It acknowledged the work of the EDC as having been central to the development of the plan. Of particular interest was its greater focus on the objective assessment of schools being incorporated into the programme, and an integration of various initiatives was proposed. Extra funding was to be made available to about 150 designated secondary schools, including an additional grant under the School Books Scheme, resources to fund a Whole School Literacy and Numeracy Strategy, inclusion in the Home School Community Liaison Scheme, and School Completion Programme. A total of forty additional guidance counsellors were assigned, and the Junior Certificate Schools Programme demonstration library project, which then incorporated eleven schools, was extended to another ten. As an essential part of the programme, school planning and target-setting measures were to be provided. Curricular initiatives, such as the Junior Certificate Schools Programme and the Leaving Certificate Applied were to be made available to those schools serving disadvantaged areas, and which were not already providing them. The various initiatives that had previously been made available to such schools were to be integrated in a school-support programme, and outside agencies such as the Education Welfare Board were seen as important participants in ensuring progress. A commitment was also made to disadvantaged areas in the form of early education and primary provision, together with an indication that the issue of access to third level would be developed with the support of the National Access Office. Progress on the implementation of plans was to be reviewed on an annual basis. It is noticeable, however, that no effort was made to analyse the educational needs of particular areas, their extent, and the resources needed to overcome them.

In its final report, the EDC welcomed the introduction of the DEIS plan. However, it pointed out that its own plan went further, being based on the belief that ‘schools alone cannot achieve educational equality’. Therefore it stressed the role of other bodies, government departments and agencies, together with the voluntary sector, in working towards a bigger social and economic change agenda. In particular, it stressed the importance of encouraging marginalised communities to identify their problems and work towards their solution in tandem with agencies of the State. The DEIS plan had a more narrow focus, essentially outlining actions that should be taken within the formal education system, thereby excluding the possibility of intervention with pre-school children, whereas the EDC had identified that as a priority. In addition, the EDC sought to ensure ‘joined up action at both local and national level’. The vision outlined in the EDC’s final report was ‘not only equality of opportunity and equality of participation but equality of outcomes and equality of condition’. Another distinctive feature was the emphasis placed on supporting the teachers in schools, an issue that received little attention in the DEIS document.

The term of office of the first EDC, due to end in March 2005, was extended to June to allow it complete its final report. The department’s production of the DEIS plan in May came as something of a surprise to members of the committee. It is clear that they were unaware that the department had intended taking this step, even though some senior officials had been attending meetings of the EDC. ‘We were gazumped’ is how one member with long experience in the ways of government departments recalls his feelings. In his view, the representatives of the department who attended EDC meetings never really engaged with the process but ‘made a pretence of doing so’. Another member refers to officials engaging in discussions only these concerned a ‘pet’ project. The fact that various officials had different ‘pets’, which were in competition for resources, made the work of the EDC more difficult:

 

I had a feeling that the EDC was considered by some to be an unacceptable intrusion into the decision making role of the DES. The EDC could advise but the DES will do its thing.

 

The chairperson of the EDC, Áine Hyland, sensed a ‘lack of support which I never understood’ among department officials, and a feeling that ‘somehow it had been set up without their approval’. Of course it is possible that Micheál Martin, when he included the idea of an EDC in the legislation and then decided to make its establishment imperative, was acting contrary to the advice of his senior officials. However, the former minister is quite clear, in recalling these events, that this was not the case.

Subsequently, the final report of the EDC was printed but never officially launched. When the term of office of the first committee ended, it fell to the Minister for Education and the government to appoint a new committee, as required by law. There is no evidence of any urgency on the part of the department or the minister to appoint members to commence a new term of office. It was not until six months had elapsed, after the EDC went out of existence, that the department wrote to various organisations in January 2006, advising that the ‘process of appointing a new committee is now underway’ and seeking their views ‘about the composition and future work of the committee’.  A background note accompanying this letter emphasised the department’s commitment to implementing the DEIS plan as a key priority and foresaw a role for the EDC in this regard. ‘In line with its advisory role, the advice of Committee will be sought by the Department in relation to the effective implementation and evaluation of DEIS measures generally.’ The note also advised that the minister intend to appoint a chairperson and committee at an early date. Most of the educational partners replied within the next month or so. The matter of the future work of the committee was addressed in some responses. Many agreed that the new EDC should have a role in overseeing the implementation of the DEIS plan. Some of the submissions echoed the findings of the final report of the first EDC in calling for a more comprehensive, holistic, rights-based approach to the issue of educational disadvantage. Just over a year later, the minister indicated in response to a parliamentary question that the views as expressed by the various groupings were being considered, following which ‘the members of the new committee will be appointed’. However, after a further two months had elapsed, the Minister for State at the Department of Education, Seán Haughey, outlined a new position:

 

The government has decided as part of the decision on the rationalisation of agencies in the 2009 budget that a formal statutory committee is no longer required in order to advise on the issue of education and disadvantage.

 

In view of many controversial decisions announced in that budget, in relation to education and other matters, the abolition of the EDC did not attract significant attention.

As the setting up of an EDC was a requirement of the 1998 Education Act, legislation was required to abolish it. This came before the Oireachtas in 2012, seven years after it last met, notwithstanding the legislative requirement to have an EDC in the meantime. Minister Ruairi Quinn expressed the view to the Seanad that the EDC ‘is no longer required since the establishment of DEIS’, and that ‘the implementation and evaluation of DEIS has been continuously supported by ongoing consultation with education partners and stakeholders’. Subsequently, in the Dáil, he advised that the Educational Research Centre and the department’s inspectorate had evaluated DEIS and that he was confident that the ERC and other research bodies would continue to provide data on disadvantage, and inform future policy decisions.

These events are difficult to rationalise. More than three years elapsed between the end of the term of office of the first EDC and the announcement of its abolition. This delay clearly suggests a marked reluctance to appoint a replacement EDC. The explanation that the decision was made on financial grounds is not persuasive even allowing for the stringent times.  When questioned as to why the EDC had not been informed that the DEIS plan was in preparation, a senior official explained that the Official Secrets Act prohibited the sharing of such information. Such a rationale is considered to be laughable by insiders interviewed during this research. The minister’s comments in the Dáil and Seanad, implying that consultation with the partners and commissioned research on DEIS is equivalent to the role an independent statutory committee might have fulfilled in evaluating provision, is not convincing. A second EDC would have an agenda wider than DEIS in any event.

Another possibility is that the work of the EDC, and the reports they produced, were of little value, but no such assertion was made. This episode, as more than one insider put it, ‘is about control’. Perhaps it is to be expected that a department that traditionally had such limited control over events should resist any further diminution by conceding power to others. The department officials gave a hostage to fortune when they assigned a role for the proposed second EDC to advise on DEIS. Unwittingly, they had come close to Deputy Bruton’s suggestion of the EDC equality- proofing the policies of the department, and decided to reverse Micheál Martin’s initiative of 1998. More specifically, the EDC was as close as we had ever come to an independent evaluation process of educational provision since the Investment in Education exercise in the 1960s.

 

Brian Fleming

Education History © 2017