Ruairi Quinn report card: B for pluralism but D for higher education reform
Junior Cycle, special educational needs, and third-level funding top next education minister’s in-tray
Outgoing Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times
Three years and four months isn’t enough time to transform as conservative an area as education but Ruairi Quinn can’t be faulted for his effort. In the end, he chose to fight a limited number of battles - with mixed results.
Like a relay runner who has covered just part of the circuit, he leaves the next minister for education with much to do.
In his first month in office in March 2011, Quinn announced the establishment of a Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, promising long-overdue change to one of the few areas in Irish public life still dominated by the Catholic Church.
While portrayed in some quarters as an “atheist crusader”, Quinn built a key strategic alliance with Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin who shares his concern at the slow pace of progress in divesting patronage. Unlike some of his religious critics, Quinn has actually read up on the subject, and is fond of quoting the Catholic theologian Hans Kung on the need to learn from other religions.
His views about teaching faith formation in a manner that doesn’t interfere with classwork, and that allows children to opt-out without being made to feel like second-class pupils, have been often misrepresented as an attack on religious education.
Still, only two of the state’s 3,169 primary schools have changed patronage since the process began: just one Protestant school and one Catholic school. Hardly a revolution.
Like other Ministers, Quinn was dealt a tough hand with the financial crisis but he has managed it reasonably well. There has been no major run-ins with Finance over escalating costs. Teacher numbers have grown in line with the population, and the school building programme continues with €2 billion committed to 275 new schools and extensions.
By Quinn’s own admission, this ring-fencing of resources has been helped by the fact that three out of the four members of the Economic Management Council - Enda Kenny, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin - are all teachers. And that is likely to continue after the reshuffle.
Against that, however, there has been a squeeze on supports for special educational needs. While staff numbers have grown, teachers and parents say it is not meeting the increased rate of diagnosis. Moreover, children who qualify for resource teaching are getting 15 per cent less than recommended under measures introduced in 2013.
The next minister has a major challenge here - and special educational needs could become a big issue in the general election.
Curriculum reform: B
A lot of ministers have talked about the need to combat rote learning in secondary school. Quinn is the first to tackle it head on.
The teacher unions have accused him of failing to consult over the Junior Cycle reforms but they were largely the architects of their own downfall by failing to contribute to early consultations on the plan.
The new Junior Cycle Student Award is being introduced from next September and will be rolled out on a subject by subject basis. Some 60 per cent of marks will be awarded in a final exam at the end of third year with 40 per cent awarded for project work in second and third year.
While unions have concerns about the integrity of school-based assessments, these are not insurmountable and the odds are that Quinn’s plan will eventually win the day. A new minister who has less baggage will help the transition.
Equality and inclusion: B
Quinn’s biggest legislative legacy in education is probably the Admission to Schools Bill, which is aimed at making the application processes to primary and secondary schools more structured, fair and transparent.
It puts an end to waiting lists for school places and will not allow schools to interview parents, or give favourably treatment to the children of past pupils. Most significantly perhaps, it will make it illegal for a school to turn down a child on the basis of a disability.
Quinn has also been keen to protect a number of minority-faith schools from closing due to the financial crisis, facilitating the entry of several fee-charging secondary schools in this bracket from joining the Free Education scheme.
On equality more broadly, he secured €15 million in Budget 2014 to establish or expand book rental schemes in all primary schools, and requested schools to review their policy on the wearing of uniforms to try to reduce the cost burden on parents.
Higher education: D
A former student radical and member of UCD’s “gentle revolution” in the 1960s, Quinn entered the job with high expectations from third-level stakeholders. Perhaps here above all, he disappointed.
Having foolishly made a pre-election promise not to increase the student registration charge, he was later forced to double it - to the point where it will reach €3,000 by 2015. In that time, he has done little to put higher education on a stable financial footing. Having commissioned the Higher Education Authority to draw up a report on funding options, he cancelled that plan and announced the setting up of a working group to report by the end of 2015.
The reforms he has announced are of questionable value. Several institutes of technology are being turned into Technological Universities largely for political reasons rather than educational ones.
An unexpected but widely welcomed initiative was his introduction of lower fees for migrant students who acquire EEA citizenship during their college course, and also for children of Irish migrants.
Accountability and transparency: D
The glacial pace of “opening up” the teaching profession continued under Quinn’s stewardship. Since the beginning of the year, all teachers must be registered with the Teaching Council. However, long-promised “fitness to practice” hearings are still some time off and are likely to be held in private despite Quinn’s wishes.
The Minister can be credited with some modest gains, including the introduction of a Parents and Students’ Charter that will make consultation on school policy obligatory; as well as the creation of the Education Passport, a document which travels with a child as they move from sixth class to first year to aid with the transition.
Quinn shared with his predecessors an opposition to education league tables, and introduced a new bill last week that would prevent the Freedom of Information Act extending to new Education and Training Boards (ETBs). While ostensibly designed to prevent public access to people’s exam results, it could be used by a future minister to clamp down on release of broader data.
Maths education: B
In June 2011, Quinn published a National Strategy on Literacy and Numeracy: Learning for Life, increasing the amount of time devoted to both reading and basic maths in primary schools.
Training for teachers has been lengthened from three to four years at undergraduate level and from one to two years at post-graduate level with an increased focus on pedagogy.
While trainee teachers have raised understandable concern about the added cost of their education, the renewed emphasis on continuous professional development has been universally welcomed. So too has been the merger of teacher training schools, professionalising that sector and deepening its links with universities.
The training reforms have been allied with the completed roll out of Project Maths. In a diplomatic lapse, Quinn unnecessary stoked up some teacher anger recently when he linked an under-qualification in maths with the “highly feminised” nature of the profession at primary level.
Training and jobs: C
The “Skills” aspect of Quinn’s brief tends to get overlooked, and here he has been almost as busy. Some 33 vocational committees have been replaced by 16 ETBs, and Fas has been dismantled and replaced with a new further education and training agency, SOLAS. It recently the first ever strategy on further education and training for the next five years.
Another initiative is Springboard, which provides free, mainly part-time courses to jobseekers that lead to higher education awards has seen 16,000 take part to date, and a further 6,000 places are available in the coming year.
Unlike other ministers, Quinn has taken a holistic approach to education and training - arguing that critical thinking and like-skills need to be developed from an early stage. It would not be a surprise if, on leaving politics, he looks for a further role in education.