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Make-or-break year for educational reform

Jan O’Sullivan will have to balance electoral and administrative demands

Four days before the last general election Ruairí Quinn was bounced into signing a pledge not to increase the third-level student contribution. Whatever pressure he was under, as Labour dipped in the polls in February 2011, it will pale into insignificance compared to the fight-for-life his party faces in the next general election.

As that date approaches Quinn’s successor, Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan, will have to juggle competing electoral and administrative demands. The threat of new college fees hasn’t gone away and a working group to examine sustainable funding models for higher education is set to report towards the end of 2015. Almost inevitably, it will recommend a student loan system similar to that in Australia – something the universities have been advocating for some time.

But neither Labour nor Fine Gael will be eager to commit to anything that hits the “squeezed middle”. That’s bad news for higher education institutions, which face further financial strain.

The row over Waterford’s bid for university status is also set to intensify in the coming months. Raising blood pressure in the southeast will be the further progress in 2015 of two other bids for technological university status in Dublin and Cork/Tralee.

Curriculum reform was the big ticket item O’Sullivan inherited and teachers have scheduled their second day of strike action on January 22nd over the redesign of the Junior Certificate exam.

Already, Quinn’s reforms have been watered down significantly. Any other big concessions would undermine the Minister’s credibility, but she believes the two secondary teacher unions – the TUI and ASTI – are sufficiently isolated to allow her to hold firm.

Parents may well decide the outcome of the dispute. Are they willing to back the teachers if it means further school closures or disruptions to exams, later in the year?

Another battle looms over the planned public sector pay bid, to which the teacher unions at primary, secondary and third level will be party. The Easter conferences will determine whether a collective line will be taken.

For the Minister, however, the big political landmine of the year could be special needs education. Under reforms earmarked for last September, resources will be allocated according to a number of factors including the “social context” of schools, test scores and the number of students with very complex special educational needs.

The aim is to end the necessity for children to get a diagnosis before receiving support, something that has tended to disadvantage parents from low-income backgrounds. Well meaning as this may be, any change in the delivery of services locally will be controversial.

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