Sunday 9 December 2018

Seamus Mulconry: 'Ease off on all the paperwork and let our teachers teach'

Ireland ranks second of 41 wealthy nations in reducing education inequality between children, according to Unicef's latest Report Card. Stock photo: Getty
Ireland ranks second of 41 wealthy nations in reducing education inequality between children, according to Unicef's latest Report Card. Stock photo: Getty

Seamus Mulconry

Despite having to cope with a virtual tsunami of social, curriculum and governance changes - not to mention funding cuts - over the past few years, Irish primary schools have continued to deliver outstanding results.

Ireland ranks second of 41 wealthy nations in reducing education inequality between children, according to Unicef's latest Report Card. Last year, another major international study, Progress in International Reading Literacy, found that Irish 10-year-olds were among the best in the world when it came to literacy. They outscored all their peers in the EU and the OECD, and just three countries were ahead of us in the global rankings.

That primary schools do so is a tribute to the quality and commitment of the teachers and the principals in our schools, and the voluntary boards of management who support them. Their hard work forms the bedrock of educational excellence.

Local primary schools are where we all learn the core skills we use every day. For many of us, myself included, it is also the place where, inspired by great teachers, we develop the interests that shape our entire lives. Primary schools are delivering, but they face some real challenges.

The chronic shortage of substitute teachers is a real challenge. If we don't win the war for talent in the classroom, Ireland won't win the war for talent in the global marketplace.

Underfunding is a real challenge - parents are paying a stealth tax of €46m a year to cover the basic running costs of schools. The Government spends less than €100m a year through the capitation grant to fund school running costs.

To put that figure in context, the HSE had unplanned spending last year of €600m. Or, to compare it to products directed toward children, games company Bioware spent roughly twice as much to develop the video game 'Star Wars: The Old Republic' as the Government did on capitation last year.

The biggest challenge by far is initiative overload. Primary education is being swamped in a sea of paperwork.

The administrative burden on principals and school boards of management has soared in the past 20 years, driven by new EU and local legislation, a public mania for measurement, and not least by the insatiable appetite of politicians for new photo opportunities.

Far too many policymakers seem to think a new course in primary schools is the magic bullet for every social problem.

The resulting initiative overload is undermining the morale of principals and teachers and distracting boards of management from their real job, and risks damaging our children's education.

There is now no doubt that initiative overload represents a real and present danger to primary education. This has been repeatedly highlighted to the Government by the education partners, and more recently by teachers and principals at the coalface of education.

Thankfully, new Education Minister Joe McHugh - a former teacher - has identified tackling initiative overload as one of his key priorities. In doing so, he has identified the real strategic challenge facing primary education.

If the minister can whittle down new initiatives to the essential, and if he can cut back, or help schools to cope with existing initiatives, he will free teachers to teach, and principals to focus on leading teaching and learning - the jobs we hired them for. The potential benefits of such an approach are huge - it would not only preserve the quality of our children's education, but would help to lift Irish primary education from good to great.

A few years ago, I watched a talented but badly managed hurling team crash and burn as they were hamstrung by an overly complex game plan - the hurling equivalent of initiative overload. Beside me, an old supporter roared in frustration at the manager: "Will you just let them hurl?"

I knew how he felt.

Seamus Mulconry is general secretary of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association

Irish Independent

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