Teacher will have to study diplomacy

Top of Jan O’Sullivan’s ‘to do’ list must be junior cycle reform

New Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan with President Michael D Higgins yesterday. Education remains one of the toughest briefs given its scope and complexity. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

New Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan with President Michael D Higgins yesterday. Education remains one of the toughest briefs given its scope and complexity. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 01:00

Jan O’Sullivan will have a full agenda as Minister for Education and Skills. Changes to the junior cycle, school admissions policy, patronage of schools and third-level funding have already been set in motion by outgoing reform minister Ruairí Quinn.

The challenges associated with these changes now wait for her arrival. Ms O’Sullivan is a trained teacher, but she will need skills in diplomacy, negotiation and compromise most.

Even if policy changes were not in train, Education remains one of the toughest briefs given its scope and complexity.

At €8 billion the department has the third-largest budget of any portfolio. It covers all aspects of education from pre-school to adult education and training. It also features a crowded field of lobbies and pressure groups seeking to influence policy.

Top of her “to do” list must be junior cycle reform. Mr Quinn pushed the revised curriculum through, but in the process left the teachers’ unions behind. Teachers are now committed to implementing the changed curriculum this autumn starting with English.

The TUI and ASTI formally remain in dispute, however, over the associated changes including teacher assessment of student performance in class. This throws the Minister straight into industrial action even before she receives her seal of office.

Teachers are refusing to attend training sessions, leaving them unable to carry out the changes sought by the department. The curriculum changes in September, but things will not come to a head until the following year when teacher assessments are meant to be filed.

Mr Quinn also implemented changes in school admission policies, something that in the main affected fee-paying schools. Legislation is under preparation blocking the “old school” admission practices where a child had priority access if a sibling or parent had attended the school previously. These changes are also in train but will be far less contentious than junior cycle reform. This also holds true for changes in school patronage. There are other challenges, third-level funding, abysmal pupil teacher ratios, low quality school building stock and many others.