A dozen education issues set to dominate 2017

Here are 12 issues you are likely to hear plenty about in Irish education next year, ranging from the baptism barrier to student loan schemes and from industrial action to preschool problems


1 School admissions

New school admissions legislation due to be enacted next year will oblige schools to set aside no more than 25 per cent of places for children of past pupils.

Expect lobbying and potential legal action from private schools keen to retain the “old school tie” provision. An attempt by the previous government to put a similar limit in place was never legislated for and faced resistance from some private schools.

Another provision in the same legislation proposes to end waiting lists on the basis that they unfairly discriminate against parents and children. Many prestigious secondary schools already have the names of thousands of young children on waiting lists for admission who are not due to begin second level for 10 years or more. It’s likely a long lead-in time will be provided before the measure takes hold. However, some principals are convinced legal writs will be flying soon.

2 Employers to help foot bill for third level

After eight years of spending cuts and rising student numbers, our universities and colleges are on the verge of crisis. If anything, it is set to get worse: high birth rates mean numbers are likely to jump 25 per cent over the next decade or so. An expert group has proposed an income-contingent loan as one of three potential models. Political opinion is sharply divided on a loan scheme; students are broadly hostile to the idea.

In the time-honoured tradition of political hot potatoes, an Oireachtas education committee has been tasked with securing “consensus” on a way forward. While progress on a loan scheme is unlikely, most parties are likely to back proposals for employers to pay more. They gain significantly, yet contribute relatively little to higher education costs.

3 Fitness to teach

More than a decade after legislation was first signed into law, parents and students finally have a formal “fitness to teach” process by which to make complaints about the conduct of teachers.

The measures finally commenced earlier this year, and the first hearing is likely to be held during 2017. Under the measures, teachers could be banned from the classroom for serious misconduct or poor performance.

These hearings will be held in public by default, in the same way as those in the medical and legal professions are. However, disciplinary committees – on which teachers will have a majority – may opt to hold them in private where there is “reasonable and sufficient cause” to do so. Expect a media circus around the very first case to be heard.

4 Baptism barrier

The Minister for Education kicked the controversial “baptism barrier” issue into an Oireachtas committee for debate midway through this year. The issue is due to resurface over the coming months and will attract strong opinion from different quarters.

Almost everyone – including the churches – agrees that them controlling 96 per cent of primary schools is not in anyone’s interest in an increasingly pluralist society. But ensuring unbaptised children have access to their local schools will mean navigating a complex array of legal landmines. Competing articles of the Constitution protect both the right to religious education and protection against religious discrimination.

5 University rankings

The decline of our top Irish colleges in world university rankings during 2016 prompted much soul-searching. Another dip next year will spark a full-blown crisis. The Times Higher Education list showed that no Irish university made the prestigious top-200 list for the first time.

Trinity, however, is likely to re-enter the top tier, as it was omitted at short notice due to an error that saw it tumble down the rankings.

These league tables may not occupy the minds of most students or lecturers, but they are crucial in attracting research funding, international students and foreign direct investment.

6 Preschool problems

Since September the “free preschool year” has been expanded to ensure children can remain in childcare until they start primary school. The extension is projected to accommodate an additional 55,000 children and will be worth up to €4,000 per child to parents.

It’s good news, but there are already teething problems: childcare providers say they don’t have the funds to expand their services to meet demand, although Government officials are confident the places will be provided. The issue didn’t surface in September, but a new intake of children in January and April will challenge many providers. Most say they are operating on a break-even basis and the expansion of the preschool scheme will not improve matters.

7 Junior cycle reform

Last week thousands of students took part in a new assessment task linked to new junior cycle reforms. This task – worth 10 per cent of next summer’s English exam – is aimed at providing a broader snapshot of students’ skills.

However, two out of three Junior Cert students did not have this opportunity due to a dispute involving the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI). Teachers are currently balloting on a proposed settlement that would give students a second chance to undertake the assessment task in February. If they reject it, up to 40,000 students are likely to be penalised by 10 per cent.

8 Stem tuition

Rarely a week goes by without a siren warning over the need to urgently improve the quality and quantity of graduates in jobs-rich areas such as science, technology, engineering and maths. The reality is that Ireland’s performance in most of these subjects is consistently average. A national strategy to improve the quality of tuition and provide greater information on careers is due in 2017. With more jobs due to be created in the sector than there are graduates to supply them, this is an issue that won’t go away any time soon.

9 New CAO points system

A new points system aimed at easing the pressure on students is due to come into force for students sitting the Leaving Cert next summer. The old familiar grading system – A, B and C – is being replaced with a new system in which higher-level grades will run from H1 to H8 and ordinary grades from O1 to O8.

One of the most significant changes is that any student who gets 30-39 points – a E grade, or fail, under the old system – will receive points.

Another key change agreed by higher-education institutions is that any student who secures a D1 grade (50-55 per cent) will be deemed eligible for entry to honours degree courses for the first time.

10 Primary school changes

Major changes to the time given to teaching subjects during the school day at primary level are likely on foot of a report by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. Its report on the structure and time allocation of the school day – unpublished at the time of writing – will form part of a redeveloped primary curriculum.

Traditional subjects are likely to be replaced by “areas of learning” during the initial years of primary schooling, aimed at boosting the transition from preschool.

Schools may also be required to prioritise teaching time for state-favoured subjects – such as maths, Irish and English – while religion may be consigned to “discretionary time”.

11 Brexit

On paper it is a golden opportunity for the State’s universities. The Republic’s soon-to-materialise status as the biggest English-speaking member of the European Union could result in a surge in students and world-class academics seeking an Irish home.

It could also open the door to eye-watering amounts of EU research funding.

In reality, the higher education system is creaking and hardly in a position to seize these opportunities. That’s unless politicians and policy-makers can figure out a way to fund the sector in the short to medium term.

12 Industrial strife

The ASTI is due to ballot on a new settlement next month. Rejection would cost teachers significant sums of money in lost increments, and leave the union isolated and backed into a corner. In the unlikely event the deal is passed, a successor to the Lansdowne Road pay deal seems just around the corner. Given the resentment towards the current partnership deal, don’t expect the union to rush towards it with open arms.


A good year for . . .

Private schools
After declining enrolment during the downturn, the numbers in fee-paying schools have bounced back. Latest feeder school figures show they are tightening their grip on places in high-points third-level courses.

Women in academia
While women are still under-represented in more senior roles in universities, that is about to change. Mandatory gender quotas are being introduced to higher education for the first time, which, over time, will increase the proportion of women in leadership roles.

Lynn Ruane
Against all odds, Lynn Ruane – a single mother from Tallaght who dropped out of school aged 15 – was elected president of Trinity’s students union last year. This year she went one better and was elected to the Seanad on her first attempt. She is proving to be a passionate campaigner for greater access to education.

A bad year for...

Institutes of technology
Universities may think they are in crisis, but they have nothing on institutes of technology in that regard. There are major concerns over the future of up to 10 of the country’s 14 institutes due to financial deficits and dwindling cash reserves.

Arts students
Points for arts courses have fallen to a new low, as students question the value of these degrees. Latest figures also show that arts graduates earn less money than any others. Science, on the other hand, is increasingly seen as cool, sexy and lucrative.

The actions of the country’s biggest secondary teachers’ union resulted in the closure of hundreds of secondary schools, the loss of three days’ pay for thousands of teachers and chaos for pupils – and their parents – preparing for state exams. The union was left with little to show for it.

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