Thursday 23 November 2017

Strong legacy of free education, but urgent issues to resolve

In my opinion... John  Curtis

John Curtis
John Curtis

In this year, the 50th anniversary of the introduction of free education in Ireland, it is appropriate that we reflect on our educational landscape. There are always issues that need to be addressed. The manner in which our second-level sector is constituted is quite complex and structures that properly allow for parental choice, fairness, diversity and reflect community need, as well as comprehending the necessity for ongoing educational reform, will always require adjustment.

In so many respects, however, we can be thankful for where we stand. The strong legacy of achievement that has marked the last half-century is based on a respect for the educational process that has been a hallmark of our society. All studies indicate a broad confidence in a system that values personal growth and achievement and which, crucially, continues to attract committed young people of such high calibre to our teaching ranks.

Adequate state funding has traditionally been an issue. The value we place on education has prompted a generosity from parents that means a disproportionate amount of funding in our sector comes from this voluntary source and this has allowed successive governments prioritise elsewhere knowing that school communities will always manage and find a way.

It's what we do, but this imbalance in funding is fundamentally inequitable and needs to be addressed. We should acknowledge that as the veil of austerity that frustrated so much of our endeavour in schools in recent years is drawn back, the light of new initiative and promise gives us much to be optimistic about. The creation of additional deputy principal posts in many larger schools will remove some of the pressure that has prompted a significant number of our principals to retire. In addition, the restoration of some posts of responsibility and a more effective model of distributed leadership should allow the principal to emerge more as an instructional leader and to alleviate some of the difficulties experienced in managing a modern school. A new school self-evaluation model sets out standards in leadership and learning and provides a frame that will encourage best-practice and allow for promotional opportunities for aspiring leaders.

A revision of how special education needs resources are distributed is welcome, though there is the caveat that, in this most important area, the erosion of resourcing that has marked the last decade of cutbacks should still be reversed. A review of DEIS that has allowed more schools into the programme is also progressive, though a more tapered index of school eligibility for securing resources, and not one that has schools either fully-in or fully-out, warrants consideration.

Obviously, there still remain difficulties over some aspects of Junior Cycle reform, but the changes in teaching and learning that are taking place are fundamentally positive and a broad engagement that offers an enrichment of practice and planning for the future has to be welcome. A programme of increased IT provision is also underway and while there are deficiencies in what this can deliver given funding, it will allow improvements in our schools further embracing the challenge of this digital age.

We are in a generative space. It is a time to be optimistic, as the potential of improved resourcing and the underlying strengths that have made the education endeavour so productive over the years can impel us to meet the needs of those in our care and to prepare us all for what will unfold in the next half-century. It is all the more urgent therefore that the outstanding industrial relations issues that have stymied some aspects of this developmental work in our sector are addressed.

We need to move forward with reform, but in a collaborative and open way that will allow for the resolution of any issues. That we are compromised at present as to how we engage in school planning and how we schedule parent-teacher meetings is of concern and, notwithstanding the creativity and resilience of those in our schools, this urgently needs to be addressed. As we move towards a new academic year, it is vital that there is values-based leadership and good grace displayed by all. Ultimately, for all of us involved in education, there is always more that unites than divides us.

John Curtis is general secretary of the Joint Managerial Body (JMB), the representative organisation for school management in the voluntary secondary school sector. The JMB annual conference is taking place this week

Irish Independent

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