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Voices of our students must be heard on the future of education

Catherine Byrne

In a changing world, education is the most vital lever in preparing for what lies ahead


'Education is the greatest single lever at our disposal in preparing our society for what lies ahead. We should use it wisely.' Stock picture

'Education is the greatest single lever at our disposal in preparing our society for what lies ahead. We should use it wisely.' Stock picture

'Education is the greatest single lever at our disposal in preparing our society for what lies ahead. We should use it wisely.' Stock picture

There are so many urgent issues clamouring for attention in various manifestos that it's easy to overlook one promise that could transform the way we prepare young people for an increasingly uncertain world - the commitment to a Citizens' Assembly on the Future of Education in which the voice of students will be central.

This initiative is both timely and important. There are more than one million students in our schools and colleges and well over 100,000 teachers, special needs assistants, administrators and support staff. All have ideas about what kind of education system we need - as do the parents of students in the system. There is no end of reports, seminars and symposia, looking for answers to this very question.

What is unique about the commitments made by the Green Party and Fine Gael is an openness to put students at the heart of a Citizens' Assembly/Consultation on the future of the Education System. Students, along with teachers, parents and other citizens, will be present to help shape the kind of system we need to equip young people to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world.

Children entering school in 2020 will be young adults in the 2030s. The OECD constantly reminds us that education needs to equip them for jobs that have not yet been created, for technologies that have not yet been invented and to solve social problems that have not yet been anticipated.

We are already in the midst of profound change brought about by climate change, mass migration, the growth of artificial intelligence which will make many jobs obsolete, insistent demands on our attention from social media and ''fake'' news and the rise of populist politicians in many countries. The only certainty is more uncertainty.

Traditionally, the culture of education in this country, as elsewhere, has been characterised by conservatism, conformity and control in the transmission of values and knowledge. The challenge that is opening up now is to equip students with the creativity and sense of purpose needed to shape their own lives and contribute to those of others through a process of life-long learning in which no one is left behind. Already, there is a ferment of initiatives within the education system seeking to respond to this challenge.

Recognising that the time was ripe for change, the Burren College of Art convened a cross-section of the education system for three days of creative conversation in 2018 to consider what might help the education system to move in a more creative direction. The symposium was notable, not just for its ambition, but for the central roles played by students and the creative process utilised and the absence of any formal 'speakers'.

One of the powerful ideas to emerge from the process and which attracted immediate support was the proposal for a Citizens' Assembly for Education. Throughout 2019, a diverse group of participants from the Burren symposium pursued this idea. We are delighted that our work on the ground has built momentum and has resulted in proposals in both the Green and FG manifestos.

In both documents the parties acknowledge that the time is ripe to stand back and take a system-wide look at what education needs to be at this time. An assembly would provide an opportunity for a cross-section of citizens, informed by the best advice available, to address the fundamental philosophical question of what the purpose and shape of education in the 21st Century needs to be and to indicate the direction and the speed of change that are required.

It will be no surprise if the need to cultivate capacities of creativity, empathy, co-operation, resilience, critical thinking, purpose and responsibility are given equal importance alongside subject knowledge. By giving a people's mandate to the Oireachtas the many contentious issues that have resisted fundamental reform such as different forms of assessment of students, funding of higher education, increasing access, and lifelong learning will be more easily resolved.

The distinctive feature of a Citizens' Assembly or consultative forum for education will be the centrality of the voice of students, the ''digital natives'' who have their own view of the world and who have the capacity to speak truth to power. They, together with teachers, parents and others, have the capacity to bring fresh testimony and perspectives on the often stressful-lived reality of education in the early part of the 21st Century. They can also point the way to necessary change.

This is an exciting and important moment for everyone with an interest in education and not just for children, but for people of all ages on the path of life-long learning for a world in transition. Education is the greatest single lever at our disposal in preparing our society for what lies ahead. We should use it wisely.

Catherine Byrne is actively involved in the arts and education. She was formerly a teacher, trade union leader and policy adviser to Atlantic Philanthropies

Sunday Independent