Saturday 25 May 2019

'A robust school system, but we cannot take it for granted'

Continual focus: John Curtis believes it’s important to make the position of principal attractive once again
Continual focus: John Curtis believes it’s important to make the position of principal attractive once again

The second-level education system in this country can be seen to be in a very robust state. A healthy pluralism exists in that the predominantly denominational voluntary schools account for roughly half of provision and State schools account for the other half.

This implies choice and diversity, and an incremental evolution to meet changing demographic needs and to cater for parental choice is ongoing.

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Our schools and our education system are well-regarded, nationally and internationally, and are continually referenced as a reason why so many firms invest here and value our workforce. We have an emphasis on education that is considered relatively balanced and focused on the holistic as well as the academic, and a retention rate in our schools that is enviable in international comparisons.

We are cognisant of changing needs and are engaged in reforms of pedagogy and curricula that aim to prepare our young people for the challenge, professionally and personally, of the world they inhabit. A reform of Junior Cycle is underway and a consultation process has commenced regarding how our Senior Cycle might change that has seen a fruitful engagement with our students.

There is a continual focus on how to assess what we might need and implement what is required, in a manner that exhibits investment and professionalism. Education matters and many able, committed and talented people have a profound sense of their responsibility and stewardship.

But we should never take things for granted. Traditionally, much of what was positive in our schools emanated from a sense of vocationalism and service that may not be as easy to sustain in years to come due to a deficiency in Government funding.

The problem of teacher supply that has arisen in recent years needs to be addressed. What tends to be forgotten by many is that so much of what is valued in our school tradition comes from the extra-curricular and the freely given, and there is a richness here that we do not want to lose. This is not the norm in most countries. Finland is often advanced as a model of best practice in education, and there is much we have learned from its system, but it has no tradition of extra-curricular activities in school. We have so much of value here that we should try to nurture, and it is incumbent on us all to support the profession and ensure that the cohort of talented and committed people who work in our schools is suitably replenished and sustained.

The balance we have in our second-level school system between voluntary and State provision is commendable. Our voluntary schools can be seen to represent a successful and long-standing model of public-private partnership. These schools, the majority of which are faith-based, are highly regarded in educational terms and intrinsic to the fabric of our communities. The faith-based school sector is popular, not only in Ireland but throughout Europe, where one-third of children attend Catholic schools, and is generally afforded an autonomy and support that allows it to prosper. This entails a willingness to respect the characteristic spirit and founding intent of our schools in a pluralist and inclusive environment, and this is something we should not lose sight of, ensuring the voluntary in this country continues to thrive.

Separately, we have been concerned for a number of years that an initiative and compliance overload has made leadership difficult and the position of principal less attractive. Too many principals wish to leave early or there are insufficient applicants when posts are advertised. This is a real issue. We need more administrative and deputy-level support, or the realisation that change and what is expected of our leaders should be measured and tapered according to capacity. The most effective work a principal may undertake with students and staff is unmeasurable; watching out for, anticipating and trying to help and support students before problems might occur. It will benefit us all if principals can use their skill-set on more than the administrative and to allow them to realise that sense of service and engagement that attracted them to teaching in the first instance.

That space is always afforded to care for the student is crucial.

Of course, there are imperfections and work to do, but as a society, we have so much to look forward to given the inherent strengths of our system, the calibre of the young people who emerge from our schools and the vibrancy in debate and reform that characterises our education sector.

John Curtis is General Secretary of the Joint Managerial Board (JMB), the representative organisation for schools in the voluntary secondary sector, whose annual conference opens today.

Irish Independent

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