Merger of Catholic and Protestant Colleges of Education may be finalised by 2016

Ethos and identity of each to be protected

Dublin City University (DCU)is committed to protecting the ethos and identity of those Catholic and Protestant Colleges which are to become the Institute of Education in Drumcondra under its control.

The university was putting in place “structures that will allow the ethos and identity of the incoming denominational Colleges to be respected, and for the preparation of teachers for denominational schools to be fully protected,” DCU president Prof Brian MacCraith has said. “You can institutionalise diversity within the context of a secular university by putting in place appropriate structures,” he said.

Prof MacCraith was speaking of the coming together in Dublin of St Patrick's College Drumcondra, the Mater Dei Institute of Education, and the Church of Ireland College of Education (CICE) on a new campus at St Patrick's in Drumcondra. The matter was expected to be discussed at the Church of Ireland General Synod in Dublin yesterday afternoon.

Arising from this DCU will add a fifth faculty, a new Institute of Education, and will have an expanded Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. This proposed Institute of Education will integrate initial teacher education and continuing professional development for teachers across the full education continuum , from early childhood, through primary and secondary, to third level.


“We aim to have this process finished by 2016. The objective at the moment is that all students entering in 2016 will be entering into a single entity which is DCU. By Sept 2015 all first years from St Pat’s and Mater Dei will be registered as DCU students. The timing process for the CICE is not finalised yet,” Prof MacCraith said.

He continued “The plan is that from Sept 2015 just to have two campuses, the DCU campus and the St Pat’s campus. If the plan goes as indicated all students of education and all staff in education would be co-located on the St Patrick’s campus. That is the ultimate goal.” It is expected that this new Institute of Education in Drumcondra will have a student body of around 3,000.

Noting that two of the integrating Colleges are Catholic with one Protestant and that there might be fears that a minority ethos could be swallowed up in that context, Prof MacCraith said that at DCU they were “ very sensitive to that issue from the start and we’ve committed to ensure that this does not happen, to allay those fears.”

He said that “the overall principle is that the core curriculum for teacher preparation is denominationally neutral but that one will ensure the delivery of modules for all denominations which will allow the appropriate preparation of teachers for denominational schools, whether that be for Church of Ireland schools, for Catholic schools, or ultimately for multi-denominational schools, as well as for non denominational schools, but maintaining a core backbone of preparation and a commitment to that ethos and identity.”

One of the main objects would be “that relationships with schools in particular denominations will be maintained and enhanced in fact, in the new Institute of Education itself.”

Where other faiths were concerned this would also apply. “We believe that we can ensure the protection and fostering of faith-based education in a secular university. I think that’s a reflection of a modern, pluralist Irish society where denominational education can feel strong and safe in such an environment. That’s a very important statement which we will stand over,” he said.

Where non-believers were concerned, he said “DCU will remain a secular university and those without religion, or who are non-denominational, will feel equally as valued and cherished, which is the fundamental principle of this university itself. I suppose it’s that sense of pluralism in a secular university that is the core principle. But I think the strong message is sometimes that people take pluralism as meaning not actually having respect for any religion. In fact we respect all religions, that’s the core message of the university, and none.”

As regards the teaching of religion in schools he said “we’d leave that to the specialists in those areas.”

What they’d been focusing on “is ensuring that the structures agreed upon reflect that commitment to maintain the ethos, identity and value systems of the denominational schools and non denominational schools.” Such structures , where minorities were concerned, start “with our clearly articulated commitments, which we’ll stand over.”

He felt it important to make clear that DCU had no role in the decision of the Church of Ireland College of Edcuation to break its link with Trinity College. "At no stage were we involved in those discussions. All those changes happened independently of any engagement with DCU itself. When we were approached to have dialogue around these issues we just spoke openly about our vision for the Institute of Education and our commitment to enable faith-based education to flourish in a secular environment. I think it was evident to us from the earliest conversations that the value systems we were articulating resonated with both denominations," he said.

"We recognised the difficulty in change itself but equally I am very happy to articulate strongly our support and our commitment to deliver on what we've stated in our dialogue with Archbishop Michael Jackson and colleagues from the Church of Ireland College of Education community. Bear in mind as well that the Governors of the CICE have supported this move. That the Archbishop recognises the value of what we are doing. There's been a positive approach at all stages to what we are trying to achieve."

It was also the case that “we have the full support of the Department, the Minister, the secretary general,” he said.

He noted that St Patrick’s College Drumcondra had a linkage agreement with DCU for over 20 years. “We’ve had linkage agreements with Mater Dei Institute of Education. The connection and relationship with CICE is obviously much younger,” he said, while “our own School of Education Studies here has been developing strongly over the past decade or so.”

The idea for the new Institute “ came together in dialogue between the linked Colleges involved in education and ourselves. I suppose no one will take any particular credit for it. It was a recognition that together we can be much stronger, recognition that there’s often strength in scale but ultimately the driving force for this was a shared vision, a shared vision of creating this Institute of Education which really would prepare the very best teachers for all the children of the island and beyond.”

It was not related to finances. “Not at all. This question often gets asked and I think it’s important to state this. This vision and this movement predated Government policy. In fact we were discussing this concept of an Institute of Education before the term was even used by Government. So this is not a reaction to policy, it may even have stimulated it.”

The idea embodied “the concept of synergy, that the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts; that you can deliver a lot more for students in the sort of environment when you have the richness of all the expertise not only coming together but co-locating. The co-location part of this is extremely important because collaboration happens most effectively in close proximity,” he said.

He felt that “if all goes according to the current plan DCU will have two academic campuses - the Glasnevin campus and the St Pat’s campus. The centre of gravity and focal point of all our education activity, the Institute of Education itself, will be located on the St Pat’s campus.

“But we’ve also trying to ensure that all students get a full university experience. So we are looking at all issues around that. This is of value to students who will be teachers in schools, the broad experience of a university enhances their learning experience. We are looking at the development of the whole individual. We have to look at how we adjust the various components of the two campuses in that regard,” he said.

The new Institute would also be "the largest centre for teacher training in Ireland." It will look at education "fully along the continuum(from)early childhood, primary, second level and third level as well. Increasingly, if one looks at policy internationally particularly at European Commission level, there's a focus on third level teacher education."

He said that “if you are trying to develop individuals to flourish in 21st century society, it’s more about the rounded individual not just the disciplinary content. But if you’re educating teachers along the continuum and looking at the coherent build up of values, you get a much better approach rather than the traditional silo-ing - they’re primary, they’re secondary.

“Some of the biggest problems we face are in the transition from primary to secondary level and in particular from second level to third level. The value system is not the same. The educational strategy is not the same. So if we can start doing this in one location and look at the education of teachers along this, then the transitions start to become seamless. That’s a very important point,” he said.

He emphasised that “early childhood education is perhaps the most influential in the future of young people. That continuum has to start at early childhood.”

Areas such as special needs , "that's a particular strength of a number of the constituent institutions coming together here. The whole area of stem education for a knowledge society - science, technology, engineering, maths - is an important area, ethical and values-based education is hugely important, the sustainability of education. We've just been designate by United Nations University as a regional centre of excellence in that area here, bringing together all of these.

“The fact of it being research-intensive means that teachers will be emerging from these programmes at the cutting edge of knowledge. That’s hugely important. Also, we believe that such an Institute can be involved in policy development as well,” he said.

He would argue that “one of the biggest issues in education is the absence of any expertise in assessment. One of the fundamental problems in junior cycle reform, and certainly in any changes to the Leaving Cert, is that we don’t have expertise in assessment. And there’s a fundamental principle of assessment that what you test is what you get. If you test memorisation that’s what you get.

“And students and teachers will respond to the assessment modalities. Unfortunately we have a one dimensional terminal examination at the Leaving Cert and it’s driving teacher behaviour and learning behaviour and not always to the best interest of the student.”

He continued "we would certainly have a centre for assessment research in education in the Institute. In fact I just got private funding for Ireland's first chair in assessment. You take the big issues and you create expert professors in these areas. You build up loads of expertise. It's a four year programme now to become a qualified teacher so all that exposure to knowledge and exchange of knowledge in that sort of environment, you really produce excellent teachers in that environment. And the quality of students we're still getting coming into teacher education degree programmes is still extremely's the envy of Europe in fact. So this is really about creating a visionary Institute that actually reflects that."

Where reform of the Junior Certificate was concerned he noted that "the teachers have been largely supportive" but that "what they haven't been so pleased about is the degree of preparation for it and in particular some lack of clarity around assessment."

He felt you could “ address some of the assessment challenges by getting more sophisticated about it. Teachers are justifiably worried about breaking down the very strong relationship they have with their local communities, particularly when you get outside the heavily urbanised areas.

“So if you have teachers assessing students and that’s affecting their overall progression on a national basis, they are worried, justifiably. I think there are approaches, more sophisticated assessment approaches, using online approaches, and circulation of material around schools, using online modalities that can address all of these,” he said.

But “the biggest single thing we need to change is the combination of the points system and the assessment at Leaving Cert level, to drive a new form of teaching in learning behaviour. The universities are actively embracing change in the points system.

“The movement to common entry is much more about taking the pressure off students. The nature of the assessment and the high points is the biggest driver of learning behaviour. It’s that combination of the two. If you can actually agree principles of learning all the way through, what’s coming through second level should be well matched with third level. A lot of first year is wasted in trying to adjust,” he said.

The universities “ own and run the CAO system. We’re going through a process of consultation about changing the system itself. What’s important is that the seven Irish universities have agreed certain principles in terms of trying to take the heat out of the points system itself, take pressure off students. But it has to happen in parallel with changes in assessment modality at Leaving Cert level.”

Coming back to the Institute of Education again, he said that DCU currently has 12,000 students. “By 2016, allowing for all these changes, we expect to be above 16,000 and the vast majority of that increase will be around education and we expect the number of students involved in education as a discipline will be somewhere around 3,000 students,” he said.

He said “there’s a €15 million building development at the moment (at St Pat’s) which will form part of the Institute of Education, (from) a combination of exchequer funding that was a long term commitment plus funding raised by St Pat’s...So it’ll be a sizeable complex.”

As to the relationship of the patron bodies of the integrating Catholic and Protestant Colleges, with the new Institute of Education, he said “we will be a secular university and fully autonomous.”

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times