Twelve big ideas for the future of education

The Government has pledged to establish a citizens’ assembly to reform the education system – but what issues should we address? We asked a dozen public figures in the arts, media, business and education for their views

It’s just a single line in the programme for government – but it has the potential to revitalise education for the 21st century.

“We will establish a Citizens’ Assembly on the Future of Education ensuring that the voices of young people and those being educated are central,” it states.

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s surely that the unthinkable is possible. Whoever thought we could replace the Leaving Cert? Cancel the Junior Cert? Or run schools remotely?

It seems an ideal time, then, to ask big questions of how our education system can prepare citizens of all ages to meet the new environmental, technological and economic challenges which face us all.


We asked a range of public figures and educationalists for their big ideas for the future of education. Here’s what they said:

‘Creativity gives courage, focus, strength’

Joseph O’Connor

Novelist and Frank McCourt professor of creative writing at the University of Limerick

“An education that doesn’t include creativity in an utterly central way is not an education for life. Nor is it even an adequate education for work. Creativity fosters self-confidence, articulacy, problem-solving, collaborativeness, the skill of controlling and managing a project, the ability to communicate complex concepts simply and attractively. And creativity is the grammar of empathy, without which any notion of authentic community turns to ashes.

"More than that, it's a question of rights and participation. Creativity is the way we tell our stories. For far too long in Ireland, the chance to tell your story was a privilege, not a right. Too many were told by gatekeepers and power-appointed censors: 'Your story did not happen. You've misremembered. Be quiet.' The Republic of looking in the other direction.

“Creativity gives courage, focus, strength. Every single child in Ireland should have access to a musical instrument. Every school and university in Ireland should be creatively resourced. The arts are not an add-on, they are a way of growing participation and empathy. In other words, they are part of the balance of power.”

‘Third level should be open to everyone ’

Joe Duffy

Broadcaster and author

“Third level should be open to everyone who wants to go there.

“The biggest thing that happened in my life was free second-level education. My children laugh when they hear secondary school wasn’t free. But it was transformative for me and so many of my contemporaries. I cannot underestimate the psychological impact it had on me and others. At the time, it felt like I had better prospects of going to Mars than to Trinity.

“But there is still an awful divide. Too many young men and women don’t see any prospects for themselves. It’s ingrained in many communities.

“The argument against such opening up of third level is that there aren’t enough places. It’s an argument made mostly by people who themselves benefited from third level. People from working-class backgrounds, who don’t have the supports from home and grinds, are the ones losing out as things stand.

“We can create more places if we need to. Technology can also open up access in new ways. As it stands, competition for limited places is inhuman.

“Some might not stay in third level. That’s fine: a year of education is never wasted. This isn’t about letting everyone run amok in college. I believe in exams. Graduates need to be competent and graded for their work. Exams aren’t the problem – it’s access in the first place.”

‘We need empathy in the world more than ever before’

Cillian Murphy


Murphy is a strong advocate for embedding empathy education in secondary schools.

“Not alone do we need empathy education in schools, we need empathy in the world more than ever before,” he says.

He is patron of the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway, led by Prof Pat Dolan, which is researching the benefits of empathy education.

“Research shows that not only does it lead to lower aggression rates and increased conflict resolution among young people who are taught empathy, but it increases their capacity for compassion to others,” he says.

“The most astounding thing is that it actually leads to greater academic achievement as well.”

He also highlights the benefits of having empathy education in schools being youth-led, with the support of their teachers.

“My hope is that it will help young people see that everyone has a different story and everyone’s story is valuable,” he says.

‘An inclusive education system where no one is an outsider’

Áine Hyland

Emeritus professor of education, UCC

“My vision for the future of education in Ireland is for an inclusive system from early childhood to graduate education, where no child or young person is an outsider.

“Children and young people of all backgrounds – social; religious and ethical; race, colour and ethnicity, including refugees and asylum seekers; sexual orientation; and those of all abilities and (so-called) disabilities – will be equally respected.

“Additional resources will be provided to bridge the gap between those from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more advantaged peers. The overriding ideology will be one of respect, caring, equality and inclusiveness informed by the UN sustainable development goals.

“Provision for certification and qualifications, in a context of lifelong learning, will be flexible, allowing learning to occur in a wide range of contexts and environments. Assessment at the end of formal schooling will be reformed to remove over-emphasis on end-of-final-year examinations without any dilution of standards. Equality and excellence can co-exist!”

‘Make education more accessible for people with disabilities’

Joanne O’Riordan

Disability rights campaigner and journalist

“We need to make education more accessible for people with disabilities, it’s as simple as that. From ensuring every child has access to mainstream school to understanding that more places and adequate access are needed for children who need to go to a school that caters to their needs.

“I’ve seen the incredible work by those who work with students with disabilities on a shoestring budget. We need to develop these budgets and solutions more, we need to be active rather than passive, and we need to provide educators with the tools to help them cope when teaching students with disabilities.

“Communication, integration and an understanding that students with disabilities have a lot to offer are necessary. Instead of forcing them to adapt to society’s norms, we need to give these students the credit they deserve to adjust their whole lives to fit in with a majority and the tools they need to thrive.”

‘Senior cycle is no longer fit for purpose’

Richard Bruton

Fine Gael TD and former minister for education

“I was privileged to be Fine Gael’s first minister for education in 30 years and tried to use the time to drive high ambition and reform.

“Education shapes a person’s life: their opportunities, their sense of wellbeing and their skills. The area where least progress has happened is in the reform of senior cycle which I initiated in 2016.

“Senior cycle is no longer fit for purpose. It’s shaped by the thinking of the uniform production line. Its memory-based assessment stifles teaching and learning. It doesn’t build the capacities which this generation needs. It doesn’t cater to the varying needs or offer a route into new pathways like apprenticeships. It generates unnecessary stress.

“The opinion of students themselves must be given far more weight in shaping the necessary reform. For far too long, rows over assessment methods have blocked change. However, during the Covid crisis, necessity proved the mother of invention and novel Leaving Cert assessment proved viable and in many ways fairer.

“Now is the opportunity to drive for ambitious reform to release the ingenuity of teachers and learners.”

‘We need to stop girls dropping out of sport’

Emer O’Neill

PE teacher and RTÉ Homeschool Hub múinteoir

“I’ve been a PE teacher for 12 years and it’s clear we have a big problem with girls dropping out of sport. Over half drop out by the age of 14. Why? Research points to factors such as girls being more body conscious, having lower self-esteem or schoolwork taking over. The irony is that exam years are when you need physical activity most. It’s a powerful outlet that helps students retain information and stay positive.

“If we’re going to tackle this, we need a greater emphasis on PE in primary schools ensure pupils have a minimum level of physical skills. At second level, we need greater access to individual sports which girls are more likely to play such as badminton, dance, aerobics or karate. Physical activity needs should continue right into the senior cycle, when participation rates really drop off.

‘Education spending is essential investment’

Michael Gillespie

Teachers’ Union of Ireland general secretary

Without significantly increasing funding for the education sector, any debate around its future will prove to be little more than a talking shop. Now more than ever, education spending must be seen as essential investment in Ireland’s future. The dividends of prioritising education in such a way would drive significant positive change for the individual, for our communities and for our economy.

Latest figures show that only three OECD countries spend a lower proportion of national wealth on education than Ireland – at second level we’re actually bottom of the pile – and it is those students from disadvantaged backgrounds who suffer the most as a result.

Also, if we aspire to levelling the playing field for all learners, irrespective of background or ability, we must continue to attract the best graduates to teaching and lecturing by finally eliminating the scourge of pay discrimination.

‘Give students a real voice in their schools’

Reuban Murray

President of Irish Second Level Students’ Union

There are some schools across Ireland that work against student voice such as forcing students to remove hijabs, threatening disciplinary action for climate activists and refusing to allow transgender students to use their chosen name. We even saw students who asserted their rights amid over-testing in accredited grades being told they were canvassing.

In some schools, students who try to show when something is wrong are met with animosity or indifference. This is perpetuated by the current government policy in place around student councils: a board of management can choose who sits on a student council or to completely disband a council. Student council have no autonomy. We must transition to a place where student councils are recognised and asserted as the independent representative institutions democratically elected by their peers to amplify their voice.

‘Create a spark for lifelong learning’

Claire McGee

Ibec’s head of education and innovation policy

“We need to build a culture for lifelong and life-wide learning. This is not an easy task, but it is an essential one. It will require input and planning 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 breath 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 seize new opportunities and reap the resulting rewards.”

‘More schools run by organisations other than churches’

Emer Nowlan

Educate Together chief executive

“Ten years ago, an opinion poll confirmed that three out of four parents in Ireland would opt for primary schools run by organisations other than churches.

“Around the same time, the government announced a long-overdue forum on school patronage. The aim was to bring about a more balanced, diverse and inclusive school system.

“A decade later and Ireland is transformed – in demographics and in attitudes towards the role of religion in the public space. Ordinary citizens have driven social change and Ireland is a better, more caring, place as a result.

“Meanwhile the pace of change in our education system has been painfully slow. Just a handful of schools have transferred and religious organisations retain control of 90 per cent of Ireland’s primary schools.

“A citizens’ assembly is needed to break the logjam and bring about the inclusive school system that families in Ireland deserve.”

‘Connect with the natural world’

Dara McAnulty

Writer, naturalist and student

"For a 17-year-old, I have probably more experience of the education system than most, due to being autistic and bullied. I have attended every type of school. An Irish language primary school, a Roman Catholic primary school, Oscar Wilde's old school. I've been home schooled – to finally rest in integrated education. I've learned a lot along the way.

“Of course, as a young person who is fascinated and curious about nature, I truly believe that if more kids had access to an education which put the workings of our planet at its centre, the more connected kids would be to their one and only home.

“If care and compassion towards our Earth was encouraged decades ago, I believe the problems we are now facing could have been minimised. Religious partition in school – I believe this needs to end. A more integrated education system would mean a more accepting and less polarised society, especially here in the North. I have never felt more comfortable and at ease with myself than in my current school, where acceptance rather than tolerance is encouraged. Integrated education and a system which teaches children to connect with the workings of the natural world, that’s the future.”