The new Minister for Education

To a certain extent, the policies and actions of the new minister Richard Bruton will be determined by the education section of the programme for government. It is based largely on the Fine Gael manifesto which was strongest in the area of early years and primary education and less than comprehensive in other areas of formal education. The programme contains some valuable proposals. The addition of a second pre-school year and the concentration of pupil-teacher ratio reductions particularly at junior and senior infant level are significant promises. The long-lasting value of early intervention is well-established in numerous research reports world-wide so this is a welcome development. The document mentions Pupil Teacher Ratio (PTR) reductions elsewhere in the system but without specific detail. Perhaps this is just as well. The evidence suggests that marginal reductions of PTR have no impact on educational outcomes. Specific commitments to increase the numbers of speech and language therapist and of psychologists, by 25% in each case, are likely to improve services significantly. As regards special needs, the document is more circumspect indicating that the possibility of progressing sections of the Education of Persons with Special Educational Needs Act will be examined. As regards small schools, none is to be closed against parental wishes. I can see two sides to this issue. The need to strengthen the role of parents both nationally and locally is a welcome objective of the programme so the small school undertaking is in line with that. How justified it may be in educational terms is a moot point.

In the matter of the availability of non-denominational education, the programme is more reassuring in that there is a clear and specific commitment to increase the numbers of schools in this category, presumably at both primary and post-primary levels. Also there is reference to increasing capitation grants to schools at all levels though no details are provided. An unusual feature is the proposed new Schools Excellence Fund to support innovation and reform at school level. In theory this sounds fine. In practice as the DES currently does not assess schools with any degree of rigour and transparency, it is hard to know how ‘excellence’ will be defined and identified. When we look at second-level specifically, the proposals are limited, though the restoration of ex-quota guidance teachers will correct a decision that was ill-advised no matter how scarce money was.

My particular interest is in educational disadvantage and I welcome the fact that it has such high priority in the document. I’ll be watching with interest to see what emerges in the Action Plan for Educational Inclusion which is to be produced within a year. In that context, the plan to increase the mandatory school leaving age seems very odd. Given that thousands have either left the system before the current figure of 16, and more are still on the books but actually disengaged from the process, I would have thought that was the place to start. The question of the class divide as regards access to third-level is dealt with by a commitment to implement the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education produced by the Higher Education Authority. Time has proven that this is a fairly intransigent problem. Other than providing poorer students with adequate financial support the solutions lie in the earlier stages of the educational system. So, relying on the HEA, which has no role in these areas, to bring about radical improvements is a flawed strategy.

Third-level issues generally are just touched upon in the programme while a decision on the funding issue is awaited. There is little sign of comprehensive thinking in relation to the further education sector.

The lack of detail in the programme as regards education opens up the possibility that the new minister, Richard Bruton, has more freedom to introduce policies of his own than might otherwise be the case. The question arises what can we expect? His time as education spokesman in opposition, albeit some time ago, together with the approach he has taken as a Minister for Enterprise and Employment more recently, offers some clues. Four possibilities strike me, two of which are specific and the other two more general.

As spokesman on education, Bruton prioritised strongly the issue of educational disadvantage particularly strongly. In 1998 he produced document entitled ‘Not just another brick in the wall’ specifically on the topic. It was extremely well-researched and innovative. Also in 1998 he contributed as opposition spokesman to the debate on the Education Act. The minister at the time, Micheál Martin, had included an excellent provision for the setting up of an independent Educational Disadvantage Committee on a statutory basis. Bruton proposed at that time that one of the committee’s functions would be to equality proof the policies of the Department of Education but this was resisted by the then minister. I’m sure that if it had been adopted the system would be far more equitable by now. Mind you, the Education Disadvantage Committee was abolished years later, a decision which was, in my view, very regrettable. It looked to me like the work of a latter day Sir Humphrey Appleby. 

The further education sector has been the Cinderella of the Irish education system for decades. Like its parent the VEC system, it has had to struggle for existence in the face of official attitudes which were close to indifference. I have a feeling that Richard Bruton’s experiences, particularly those in Enterprise and Employment for the last five years, may bring about significant changes.

In more general terms I associate him with two particular traits, intellectual rigour and accountability. Lobby groups seeking policy changes that are not supported by clear and well-founded research evidence are likely to make little progress. Accountability is not a strong feature of Irish education but he will endeavour to apply it to all including the DES and himself. The programme for government commits him to produce a three year strategy for the DES within the first hundred days and to measure it subsequently. I suspect that this will be a far more serious process than is usual.

It may surprise some but I think it is possible that he could turn out to be the most radical Minister for Education in years. There are of course powerful conservative vested interests in Irish education and we know that these will not be persuaded to agree to innovation very easily. It is important to remember that the last Minister for Education who introduced a period of radical improvement in the 1960s, Dr Hillery, would not have been so successful but for the full support and active involvement of the Taoiseach of the day Seán Lemass. So, the challenge is great and he will need support from the highest levels of government, and others with influence in the education community, if he is to radically improve services for our children and young people.

BRIAN FLEMING

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