We need to have an honest conversation about the education system

A Citizens’ Assembly could revitalise education in Ireland for the 21st century

In September 2018 I was invited to an education conference at the Burren College of Art in Ballyvaughan, Co Clare. Unlike every other academic conference I have been to, attendees were not asked to present their own work but instead were challenged to work together "toward a more creative education system for Ireland".

Curious as to what this event would look like and never one to turn down a trip to west Clare, I found myself there on the opening night in a 16th-century round tower with a roaring fire and warm stew in hand. About 50 people had been gathered, among them students, teachers, union leaders, civil servants, parents, academics and members of the local community.

Our hosts, the College of Art, asked that over the coming days we would think about the purposes and system of education in Ireland. Softened by music, poems and walks through the Burren, our conversations moved from outlining familiar (often guarded) positions to more honest, authentic exchanges. People listened deeply to what others had to say and were open to changing their minds. It was intoxicating.

Educational discourse in this country can be complex: a lot of people have a lot to say and all feel, to an extent, their view is the correct one. Most of us, having gone to school, have first-hand experience of education in Ireland and tend to have fairly set views on its purpose and operation.

The pressure that many students, teachers, parents, officials and communities are under is unsustainable

The perennial media discussions on CAO points, admissions policies and student mental health rehearse now-predictable arguments with little changing in them each year. For those of us working within “the system”, our views on its function tend to be guarded; at times it seems there is little trust between the various component sectors. In such a tight space, there is little room for people to talk and listen to one another such that unhelpful aspects of how our system works might be imagined differently, tried and honestly reflected upon. It is rare, if ever, that we discuss what education is for.

Strained system

The negative effects of this complex discourse are felt most by our young people in full-time education. In recent months we have seen how the stresses of the Covid-19 pandemic have strained the education system. The pressure that many students, teachers, parents, officials and communities are under is unsustainable. The pandemic has demonstrated the need for us to find new ways to talk about education.

Two of the initiatives that began at the Burren College of Art conference “toward a more creative education system” may offer some ideas as to how we might imagine a more productive education discourse.

The first has been championed by the Teaching Council. Bringing Education Alive for our Communities on a National Scale (Beacons) is a new model for conversations between teachers, parents and students. Working with schools and their local communities, Beacons offers a new model that gives participants a safe forum to generate and discuss ideas and issues important to them.

The Covid-19 pandemic has upended many reliable norms. The Leaving Certificate exams were cancelled for the first time since 1925 for example

A 2019 report from the Teaching Council shows schools and their communities that have taken part in Beacons have spoken about several similar topics. These include the aims and processes of education – how to incorporate creativity into education; how to make it fun; and pedagogy, the method and practice of teaching. Many referred to well-being and stress in education and to exam stress, in particular. Common to each Beacons forum was the appreciation from those involved for the process. People valued the honest, unguarded conversations.

National conversation

The second idea that bubbled up from the Burren conference also prized conversation, listening and compassion. It was proposed that a Citizens’ Assembly in education take place with the hope that an honest, national conversation about the place of education in Ireland could have the same electrifying effect in Irish citizens as it had for those of us who spent a week together in the Burren College of Art. The 2020 Programme for Government has since committed to holding a Citizens’ Assembly on education.

The Covid-19 pandemic has upended many reliable norms. The Leaving Certificate exams were cancelled for the first time since 1925, for example. While each of us eagerly awaits a safe and full reopening of our schools and colleges, this great Covid upheaval, and its effects on education, has pointed to the real need for us to find new ways of talking about education. Perhaps the Citizens’ Assembly on education is a way to do this. Previous assemblies have demonstrated that seemingly intractable problems can be reimagined.

The Beacons project shows neutral conversations about education at a local level have power for local effect. It demonstrates the transformative effect of involving young people when talking about education. Might a Citizens’ Assembly bring such conversations to a national level and revitalise education in Ireland for the 21st century?

Dr Shane Bergin is an assistant professor in science education at the school of education at University College Dublin

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