The fact that our schools are continuing to operate during Level 5 restrictions, even with recent difficulties such as contact tracing and sanitisation, is a testament to the extraordinary effort and diligence of our school communities. It is also a reflection, in particular, of the determination of school management to do everything possible to mitigate the negative effects on students.
It’s been quite a year. We have had to contend with issues regarding the State examinations, and that protracted and complex saga brought about the calculated grades process which, inherently imperfect as it was, has allowed our students to progress and a chance to conclude the second-level education chapter of their lives in a relatively orderly fashion.
There has been criticism of the decision to postpone the Leaving Certificate but, as someone involved in the deliberations this necessitated among the education partners, what was striking was the unanimity evident when medical advice and forensic interrogation of all the possible options led to the difficult decisions that had to be taken.
I have always maintained that the quality of the teaching workforce in this country is second to none, and the generosity exhibited by teachers in engaging with the calculated grades process was exemplary, but it was the investment of school management in organising and overseeing the process throughout the summer that enabled it to function. It was not a simple task. Unprecedented as the model was, it inevitably presented management with profound challenges and frayed many nerves as we all endeavoured to make it work.
That issues subsequently arose regarding the use of historical data in determining grades and the algorithm errors that occurred was far from ideal, and compounded the difficulties that schools experienced at local level in explaining, managing and supporting students, with our principals inevitably to the fore.
As we worked our way through that chapter, our hope always was that we could reopen our schools fully at the start of the new academic year. Acutely aware of how challenging a period this has been for students and their parents, we were all delighted when this became a reality. At school level we now had to segue quickly into issues relating to reopening, and this placed a considerable burden on school management as a raft of guidelines landed on the principal’s desk.
Again, there was an extraordinary generosity in engaging with so much that was new and unknown, and I can attest to the commitment of the leaders in our schools in harnessing the goodwill of staff, and the amazing adaptability of our students in enabling the reopening to work. As you can imagine, the added complication of now managing the Leaving and Junior Certificate examinations scheduled for November and December in our schools will further stretch us.
We know that we are now at the forefront of a national endeavour to keep our schools open. We are proud of the progress to date and will do everything we can to enable that to continue. But I do worry about my colleagues involved in the running of our member schools, by virtue of their giving nature, the unrelenting and unrehearsed journey they have been on and the incessant demands we all seem to place on them.
Prof Selina McCoy, head of education research at the ESRI, and Dr Eamonn Carroll in their recent report, Learning for All? Second-level Education in Ireland during Covid-19, have pointed to the difficulties principals are experiencing in the face of the unprecedented demands on their time and emotional energy and the toll this invariably takes.
We can take too much for granted. I would like to think there would be a collective acknowledgement of how much has been achieved by leaders in our schools. This has masked the ongoing underinvestment that has characterised education in this country over many years. At an Oireachtas hearing on school buildings, I made the point that our issue with underinvestment was not with the Department of Education. There are different parties in the education sphere who would all contend that available funds should be directed more in their direction, and those of us in the voluntary second-level sector are particularly exercised over issues relating to equity of funding. But, in essence, if the Minister and department personnel are allocated funds, they will spend them judiciously. The real issue is the proportion of the national financial pie that is allocated to education in the first instance – the OECD report Education at a Glance 2020 ranks Ireland in last place out of 36 countries for investment in second-level education as a percentage of GDP.
Sense of service
This is the crux. We acknowledge that this year’s budget had to take account of unique circumstances, but yet again education remains underfunded. Our schools, and management in our schools, need more support. Given our present situation, there are inevitably further challenges on the horizon but we will keep on giving. It’s in our nature, and, tired as we are, there is that collective drive to look after our students, to lead with optimism and confidence, and to replicate that sense of service that so many of us have experienced in our own time in our country’s schools. So, with the schools reopened, well done and thank you to all of my colleagues on the front line. Perhaps we might all reflect on the value we place on education and what we need to do to sustain what we have and to provide for our children’s future.
John Curtis is general secretary of the Joint Managerial Body, the advisory and negotiating body for the management authorities of almost 380 voluntary secondary schools.