What’s next? Our predictions on the issues to dominate education in 2023

Curriculum clashes and battles over resources will make for a busy year ahead

Teacher shortages: it will get worse before getting better

Schools struggled to find substitution cover at primary last year, while at second level qualified teachers in key subjects were in short supply. The issue calmed down in December due, mainly, to the availability of thousands of student teachers. These subs are back in college and the issue will come back into focus once again.

Norma Foley has pointed to a host of initiatives aimed at boosting teacher supply such as easing employment restrictions for teachers on career breaks, job shares, etc – but, at its heart, this is an issue tied up with the housing crisis. Many teachers have relocated to cheaper parts of the country or abroad. If meaningful progress is to be made, expect more radical moves such as funding teacher education, more permanent contracts or fast-tracking recognition for teachers abroad. Otherwise, it will rumble on.

Leaving Cert reform: battles ahead

Most senior cycle reform plans will take years to realise – but the rubber hits the road this year with plans for students entering senior cycle in September 2023 to sit paper one in English and Irish at the end of fifth year.

Standing in the way are teachers’ unions. English and Irish teachers’ groups feel especially aggrieved over changes that they say will hurt students. Others see this as a proxy fight over wider plans to introduce teacher-based assessment for up to 40 per cent of marks. Foley insists the changes will ease the burden on students. The future of senior-cycle reform may well hinge on getting this over the line.

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Free schoolbooks: jostling over costs to parents

Funding of almost €50 million was announced in last September’s Budget to provide free schoolbooks and “related classroom resources” to all 540,000 pupils attending primary schools. However, education publishers and independent booksellers believe there are not enough resources to fulfil this pledge and they plan to join forces to highlight these issues in the new year.

Some in the sector estimate the allocated funding is in the region of between €80-90 per pupil, yet research by the Irish League of Credit Unions puts the average cost of books at primary level at €110. Expect jostling over whether there is sufficient money to deliver the announcement or whether parents will be expected to fund the difference.

Abuse inquiry: ensuring accountability

A Government inquiry into allegations of sexual abuse by priests at some of the country’s leading private fee-paying schools looks set to be announced later this month. The calls for an inquiry followed, in particular, recent revelations of historical child sexual abuse in schools run by the Spiritan congregation, particularly at their Willow Park school and Blackrock College in South Dublin.

The inquiry will need to be carefully constituted to ensure it enables survivors to have their voices heard and does not impede any Garda investigation. It is a complex task which, based on experience, may take years to complete.

Learning loss: the shadow of Covid-19

Incredibly, there is no Department of Education report yet into the extent of any learning loss linked to Covid school closures. Yet, many other jurisdictions have long since quantified the degree to which students have fallen behind. Research from the Netherlands, which had a shorter period of school closures, indicates that primary children performed on average 20 per cent worse on standardised tests and some disadvantaged pupil scored up to 60 per cent worse.

Anecdotally, school leaders in Ireland point to a range of deficits – yet, funding has been pulled for Covid catch-up learning programmes. We may see shortly the first indications of any learning gaps in international surveys. The Pirls (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) was conducted in autumn 2021 among student in fifth class. Those results, due soon, will be revealing.

School funding: ‘one-off’ measures to continue

The Government announced “once-off” funding of €90 million for schools to cope with higher energy bills, equivalent to a 40 per cent increase in school capitation, last October. But few observers expect the cost of energy to dip significantly in 2023. Similar levels of funding, then, are likely to be needed to help school make ends meet later this year.

As any politician will tell you, it’s always difficult to end once-off measures which, inevitably, appear as spending cuts. As a result, we may well see a new era of better-resourced schools where fewer are forced to constantly seek parental contributions.

Lifelong learning: making college more affordable

While we are star pupils across a number of education metrics, we’re nowhere near top of the class when it comes to lifelong learning. Latest Eurostat figures show just under 14 per cent of workers aged 25 to 65 in Ireland participate in upskilling to bolster their professional development, well below participation rates in Sweden (34 per cent) and Finland (30 per cent).

The EU’s lifelong learning target is for at least 60 per cent of the adult population to participate in some form of training every year by 2030. So, expect to see moves to make college more affordable and accessible for lifelong learners such as Susi grants for part-time students, greater prior recognition of learning and moves towards more micro-credentials for time-pressed upskillers.

Primary curriculum: biggest changes in 20 years

A shake-up in how teaching and learning takes place in primary schools – the most dramatic in 20 years – is on the way. A new framework for the primary curriculum, currently under consideration by Norma Foley, could see a reduction in time allocated to religious faith formation and other core subjects. Instead schools would be given much more “flexible time” to decide which areas of learning they want to prioritise.

The draft changes could see an increased emphasis on areas such as PE, digital learning and the introduction of foreign languages, education about world religion and ethics, and a broader arts education.

Anxious generation: what’s bothering our schoolkids?

School principals have expressed concern over rising levels of emotional ill-health, anxiety and mental health problems in schools since the pandemic.

Teachers are not experts, psychologists or mental health professionals - yet this is the type of help many pupils need.

A new pilot project to provide in-school counselling is due to begin this year. It will be watched closely to see if it can meet children’s needs and become a model for how to better respond to children’s needs.

School meals: move to expand scheme

A Government programme provides funding towards the provision of free meals to about 1,600 schools benefiting 260,000 children. A report that will shortly be on the desk of Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys – whose department funds the scheme – has a bold recommendation: expand school meals to all primary children by 2030. It sounds fanciful.

On closer inspection, it may well be achievable. School meal companies currently provide hot meals to order across many schools that don’t even have canteens at relatively low cost; and under an EU child guarantee, all children in need should have access to a healthy school meal each day.

Skills gaps: more apprenticeships

Ireland is facing urgent skills gaps across a range of areas such as construction, retrofitting and renewable energy, to name just a few. Increasingly, policymakers see the further education and training sector as key to providing a pipeline of skilled graduates in these areas and others. A key obstacle has been a status problem: many parents and students see it as a “second best” option after college.

This year more students will begin to see the smart option of “earn and learn” options which, in many cases, deliver jobs, degrees and decent earnings.

School buildings: delays ahead

Soaring construction inflation in the latter half of last year ate into the budget for new school buildings. Basic building costs in the education sector, based on tender outcomes, grew by 21 per cent in the first half of last year. There is no sign of these trends abating.

With fewer projects taking up more limited resources, it seems inevitable there will be knock-on effects on the delivery of new school buildings and other major projects.

Special needs: assessing children’s needs

Education authorities were forced to pause the roll-out of controversial school-based education assessments for children with additional needs following concerns among principals, teachers’ unions and campaigners. Campaign groups warned that principals did not have the expertise to identify children’s support needs and warned that the system was potentially unlawful.

The health and education system will need to urgently develop a fit-for-purpose model to ensure vulnerable children do not slip through the net.

2022: A good year for ...

Norma Foley: she secured a record budget, announced free schoolbooks at primary level and an ambitious education reform plan for senior cycle ... now she just has to deliver them. No pressure, then.

Technological universities: Following a decade-long campaign, the southeast Technological University was finally established with the merger of WIT and IT Carlow. The new university has a total student population of 18,500 students across four campuses.

SNAs: More than 1,300 who completed a UCD training programme were officially recognised as a level-six awardee, the first step towards securing a new entry qualification for classroom professions beyond 3 grade Ds in the Junior Cert.

... and a bad year for:

Schools in need of Irish teachers: ... or maths, home economics, woodwork, language teachers, etc

Students seeking beds: A combination of late Leaving Cert results, a dire shortage of accommodation and rising rents posed acute problems for many

PhD students: Many who earn below the minimum wage are faced with inflation and a cost-of-living crisis. Will a new review improve matters?