‘End the points race; foster sustainability; drop the well-meaning platitudes’: Big ideas for the future of education

The Government has pledged to establish a Citizen’s Assembly on education in the coming months – but what should it address?

‘Address ownership and control of schools’

Áine Hyland, professor emeritus of education at UCC and founding member of the Dalkey School Project, which grew into the Educate Together movement

About 90 per cent of primary schools and almost 50 per cent of second-level schools are owned and controlled by the churches or religious orders. The Citizens’ Assembly should discuss how the balance between denominational and multi-denominational schools (particularly at primary level) should reflect more accurately the wishes of the population.

The assembly might also address the need for a more professional and State-funded structure for the administration and management of schools, given the heavy legal and compliance demands currently imposed on voluntary boards of management. It might address the need to meet parental demand for more Gaelscoileanna at both primary and post-primary level.


‘Build neurodiversity into school life’

Siobhán Daly, primary teacher and neurodiversity advocate

When I discovered that I was autistic, my life so far made much more sense.

We cannot bring out the best in children unless we know who they are and how they think. But we cannot do that by making autistic or neurodivergent people conform to a neurotypical way of being and suppressing our true selves. We have insights, understanding, experiences and strengths that greatly contribute to society; we do not need to be fixed.

We need to build an understanding of neurodivergent people into teacher training and right through the curriculum, so we can all understand each other better. This will require looking at ways of delivering a universal design for education that includes all people, reducing class sizes and making the sensory environment in schools less hostile for autistic children. And, most of all, this needs to be led by the neurodivergent community.

‘Let more voices in’

Catherine Byrne, education campaigner, former deputy general secretary of the INTO and policy adviser with Atlantic Philanthropies. She was an instigator of the proposal to hold the assembly

The assembly should provide a safe space for the general public to spell out how they see the education system serving them and their communities.

It should reach out to those on the margins who feel excluded – the voices that are seldom heard in educational discourse. Visual art, music and storytelling can help bring their narrative to the assembly.

We need different perspectives on how issues such as wellbeing, mental health and preparation for an AI-driven world are being addressed in education settings.

It should showcase excellence and point us towards more inclusive schools where the main focus is on the care and education needs of students, not on exams or excessive administration.

‘Create a spark for lifelong learning’

Claire McGee, head of education policy at employers’ group Ibec

Ibec’s big theme for consideration is building a culture for lifelong learning. This is not an easy task, but it is an essential one. It will require input, planning and financing from across the education system, the Government and business.

Different factors contribute to a culture of learning – school curricula and assessment, including a greater prioritisation of experiential learning approaches; modernisation of the CAO process to provide greater access across the breadth of opportunities within higher and further education; and supporting people to develop complementary technical and transversal skills as they transition to the world of work and within it.

Flexibility, resilience and an appetite for learning must be ingrained in what we teach and how we teach it.

This is a skills revolution, and business will need supports and opportunities to engage with the education and training system so they can be central to it.

A culture of lifelong learning, coupled with a dynamic and responsive education system, will help people and businesses to seize new opportunities and reap the resulting rewards.

‘End the CAO points race’

Jack McGinn, education officer with Irish Second Level Students’ Union (ISSU)

While senior cycle reform is the buzzword of education groups at the moment, the key issue facing second-level students is the CAO “rat race”.

The CAO system is based primarily on exam results and a limited range of subjects, which places undue pressure on students to achieve high grades in a narrow set of areas.

A more equitable and accessible system would consider a wider range of criteria, such as aptitude and potential, and would be designed to support students in finding their best-fit options for further education and career paths.

Some universities have programmes that do just that – UCC’s Nurturing Bright Futures programme, for example – but without meaningful reform, this rat race will not be stopped.

‘An all-island education’

John Boyle is general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation advocates for a mechanism by which the voices of children and young people can be heard, as they are the current and most recent of our citizens to experience the education system. And of course, the views of teachers and school staff must be listened to.

The historic disparity in funding between primary, post-primary and third-level, the underinvestment in comparison with OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] norms and the repeated failures of the State to plan properly for population change must be central to the discussion.

Finally, as an all-island union, we feel [the assembly] should include consideration of what education would look like on a truly shared island.

‘Consider the true purpose of education’

Martin Hawkes is a founding trustee of the Burren College of Art and lead researcher at ReSource, which has explored the questions the assembly may consider

What does society want from our education system? How can the system contribute to the building of a successful and sustainable society? These are the central questions that need to be addressed by the Citizens’ Assembly on the Future of Education (CAFÉ), according to a cross-section of the education system that assembled at the Burren College of Art in 2022.

If the Citizens’ Assembly can interrogate in depth and satisfactorily answer the overarching question of the purpose and intent of education in the context of 21st century realities, addressing the many subsidiary issues competing for the assembly’s attention from across the spectrum of education will be greatly facilitated and simplified.

There is also a need to interrogate the “how” of change in a structure as large and complex as our education system with a recognised implementation deficit.

‘Well-meaning platitudes’

Dr Kevin Williams is former president of the Educational Studies Association of Ireland

A Citizens’ Assembly on education, it seems to me, will offer little more than a forum allowing for the uttering of well-meaning platitudes. The public meetings prior to the Green Paper of 1992 were exactly of this nature. I fear the assembly will offer much ill-informed and uncosted rhetoric and seanscéalta.

For example, one idea that is commonly canvassed is the wish to temper the academic focus of the traditional Leaving Certificate. But the LCA [Leaving Cert Applied] does exactly this and, under different names, has been part of the system since the 1970s. Most of all, I dread the nonsense that we shall hear about assessment.

‘Inspire a national conversation’

Dr Shane Bergin is assistant professor in science education at the UCD School of Education. He was an instigator of the proposal to hold the assembly

The assembly should look at challenging topics that can only be developed meaningfully in the context of broader questions: what education is for and how our education system can contribute to building a successful and sustainable society.

It should inspire a national conversation, and the choice of assembly chair, location for proceedings, and amount of time given for the assembly to do its work are all important factors to consider.

Might an assembly meet at schools around the country? Might it be facilitated, rather than “chaired”? Would universal design for learning ensure a diversity of voices?

If a Citizens’ Assembly on the future of education is to breathe life into a system, rather than add to the “initiative overload” felt by so many working in our education system, then care must be given to how it runs.

Finally, it must centre the voices of those young people being educated, [perhaps] through the Lundy model of participation, rather than adopt a more tokenistic approach.

‘Speed up teacher education’

Liz Farrell is president of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland

Regrettably, the teaching profession has simply become an unaffordable one for many, a profession where young teachers are often forced to be subsidised by family, if they are fortunate enough to have this safety net.

If we aspire to ensure a diverse teaching profession that reflects the diversity in our classrooms, it is too much to ask that teachers complete a four-year degree course and then a subsequent two-year Postgraduate Masters in Education (PME).

The PME should be halved to a single year, and the Department of Education must work to ensure that teachers have access to jobs of full hours – a full salary – from initial appointment.

This measure would also have a significant positive impact on the teacher recruitment and retention crisis.

Do you have a big idea for the future of education? We plan to publish a selection of the best. Share them with Irish Times education editor Carl O’Brien (carl.obrien@irishtimes.com)