Interview With Minister Ruairí Quinn

by admin on 12/09/2011

Seomra Ranga is particularly appreciative of the fact that Ruairí Quinn, the Minister for Education and Skills, has taken time out of his busy schedule to mark the beginning of the school year by agreeing to answer interview questions submitted by visitors to the website.

Ruairi Quinn is a Labour Party TD for the Dublin South East constituency. He represents Donnybrook, Sandymount, Ranelagh, Rathmines, Rathgar, Milltown, Terenure, Harold’s Cross, the south east Inner City, Ringsend, Irishtown and Ballsbridge. Ruairi has been a public representative for the area since 1973, and lives in Sandymount. He is a former Minister for Finance, Leader of the Labour Party, Chairman of the European Council of Finance Ministers (ECOFIN) and is currently Vice President and Treasurer of the Party of European Socialists. Earlier this year, after the General Election brought together a Fine Gael / Labour coalition government, Ruairí Quinn was appointed Minister for Education and Skills.

Seomra Ranga: Many Newly Qualified Teachers (NQT’s) have emerged from the Colleges of Education in the past couple of years. Given the current situation with the panels nationwide and the apparent lack of teaching jobs, many NQT’s feel that their chances of securing any meaningful long-term employment have been seriously diminished. Indeed, many believe that they have no option but to emigrate, resulting in the loss of new, young talent to the profession. Can you offer any hope to these highly qualified young professionals?

Ruairí Quinn: Ireland is facing difficult economic times; there is no doubt about that. As I have said before, we have lost our economic sovereignty and we must work very hard in order to get it and control of our own cheque book back. I can understand the frustration of many newly qualified and young teachers, who having studied hard for their degrees and are now finding it difficult to find work. Since I became Minister, I have been tackling the issue of unqualified and retired teachers working in the classroom as substitutes. Legislation is on the way, and in the meantime, the Department has issued guidelines which restrict the hiring of unqualified and retired teachers. In turn, I would like to see these positions filled by young and newly qualified teachers. Also, teaching is one of the few areas in the public service where the moratorium on recruitment is not in force, so when vacancies arise they can be filled. There is also the fact that the numbers in our primary and secondary schools are rising as our population grows – this too means that the number of teachers in our school system is rising. I would hope our newly qualified teachers will be able to avail of some of these opportunities for employment. Simply put, I would like to see them and their talents remain here.

Seomra Ranga: If, as you admit, that modern technology has transformed the ways in which we function and live, how will the amalgamation of the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), as outlined in the Programme for Government, further enhance the place of technology in schools?

Ruairí Quinn: The merging of the National Centre for Technology in Education with the National Council for Curriculum and Assesment is currently underway. The Programme for Government seeks to end the stand-alone treatment of ICT in education and ensure it is an integrated part of all proposed reforms in education policy. The NCCA has been asked to review the Junior Certificate and advise on the scope for reform designed to strengthen literacy and numeracy, embed key skills, promote active learning and enhanced creativity and innovation, and ensure appropriate ways of generating evidence of learning.

Given that the NCCA has been tasked with improving the quality of education at primary and secondary levels through curriculum reform and reform of assessment, we believe the expertise of the NCTE in the area of ICT integration in the curriculum will assist this process in a positive manner. The school-focused functions of the NCTE, such as the maintenance of will be integrated with other similar such functions, such as the Professional Development Service for Teachers, based in Dublin West Education Centre

Seomra Ranga: Given the current moratorium on promoted posts within schools (Posts of Responsibility), with many schools having lost middle management posts, how do you envisage the development of schools in the future without such support structures in place for principals, many of whom are already overburdened?

Ruairí Quinn: As I mentioned above, unlike other areas of the public service teaching vacancies continue to be filled. Indeed the number of teaching posts is increasing due to demographics and the allocation of the additional posts in the renewed Programme for Government. When the moratorium was introduced, the Government exempted Principal and Deputy Principal posts in all primary and post-primary schools and these continue to be replaced in the normal manner. The impact of the moratorium is therefore limited to the Assistant Principal and Special Duties allowances payable to teachers on promotion. Vacancies at Assistant Principal and Special Duties level arise due to retirements in these specific grades and typically also from the knock on effect of filling Principal and Deputy Principal posts. What the school loses is the capacity to make a promotion by awarding the extra pay allowance to another teacher. The position whereby around 50% of all teachers have promotion allowances is simply not sustainable given our stark financial situation.

Some further limited alleviation was announced in July 2010 for schools that are acutely affected by the impact of the moratorium at Assistant Principal level. The alleviation arrangements were set out in the published Department Circular 42/2010. It provided some delegated sanction for post-primary schools to fill Assistant Principal vacancies if they fall below certain minimum thresholds. There were about 140 posts of responsibility filled under these limited alleviation arrangements in schools that were acutely affected by the impact of the moratorium.

A new Circular (53/2011) was published on Friday the 26th August 2011 which deals with a further limited alleviation of the moratorium on the filling of posts of responsibility for the 2011/12 school year. Since March 2009 the overall number of posts of responsibility at Assistant Principal and Special Duties level has reduced by about 4,100 which is resulting in an annual saving of the order of €24m per annum. Prior to the moratorium over 50% of teachers had post of responsibility allowances. The current figures are circa. 45% at primary level and circa. 42% at post-primary level.

Seomra Ranga: The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector is due to present its interim report to you in the autumn. Without wishing to pre-empt its findings, how do you envisage this change in patronage will occur in real terms on the ground? Do you have a percentage of Catholic schools in mind which you wish to see devolved? Will schools be devolved to existing patron bodies? What lessons will take place during the 30 minutes patron time each day in these newly-run schools?

Ruairí Quinn: I announced my intention to establish a Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector on 28th March, 2011. The Forum is a key objective of the Programme for Government. On 19th April, I officially launched the Forum chaired by Professor John Coolahan, who is assisted by Dr Caroline Hussey and Ms Fionnuala Kilfeather. At the launch, the Advisory Group sought written submissions on key themes. Over 200 submissions have been received. The Advisory Group will receive and distil the various views and perspectives, will engage in further consultation and will draw from research reports and relevant literature. There was a three day open working session of the Forum on 22nd, 23rd and 24th June. This involved dialogue between the Advisory Group and thirteen main stakeholders plus the Department of Education and Skills. A recording of the three day session is available on my Department’s website

It is planned to hold a plenary session of the Forum on 17th November where the interim considerations of the Advisory Group can be presented. Subsequent to this, the Advisory Group, which is independent of the Department of Education and Skills, will prepare a final report to be submitted to me by the end of the year. No decisions have been made and it would be inappropriate for me to comment further in advance of this report.

Seomra Ranga: There has been a commendable push to include pupils with special educational needs (SEN) into mainstream primary schools during the past number of years. However, will the loss of so many Special Needs Assistants (SNA’s) to schools in the coming year not have a detrimental impact on the inclusion of pupils with SEN in schools?

Ruairí Quinn: First of all it is important that everyone is aware that all schools which enrol children with significant care needs, as identified in professional reports, will have SNA support, and all such children will have access to this support. I am committed to ensuring that the valuable work of SNAs can continue to support students with significant care needs, but at the same time ensuring the resource is not misused and that the best value for money is achieved from Exchequer funding.

A recent Value for Money Review of Special Needs Assistants showed that while the SNA scheme is supporting schools in meeting the significant care needs of students with disabilities, the purpose is not well understood by parents and teachers and has lead to some problems with the allocation of SNAs. It also showed there was an over-allocation of SNAs, of 27% in primary and post primary schools and 10% in special needs schools. This study also shows that some professionals feel they have been pressurised into identifying care needs which many not meet the criteria for SNA support. It further shows that the number of SNA posts has risen dramatically from 2,988 in 2001 to over 10,500. Expenditure on the scheme has increased by more than 922% since then and currently stands at €348 million.

The previous government decided in December 2010 to cap the number of SNAs at 10,575. This cap still stands and must be met by the end of this year, as per the Employment Control Framework. The number has recently been exceeded and stands at just over 10,800 posts. This is because the Department of Education and Skills has provided an additional 230 SNA posts in 13 new schools for children with autism, which were previously ABA pilot schools. As the 10,575 cap must be met by the end of the year, there will regretfully have to be a reduction of 227 posts off the current number in the new school year.

In order to prudently manage this valuable but limited resource, the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) and the Department have decided to retain 475 of the 10,575 posts in order to allocate them over the coming school year in cases such as emergency, appeals, acquired injuries or new entrants with special needs care. The existing levels of SNAs in special schools will be maintained, in order to assist and protect the most vulnerable children. The remaining posts will be allocated based on priority criteria identified by the NCSE and are aimed at prioritising the most vulnerable children.

Seomra Ranga: You have told teachers that there are “difficult and painful decisions” to be taken in the area of education. However, you confirmed during your address to the annual congress of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) in April, that despite recommendations by the report of “An Bord Snip Nua” to close schools of less than 50 pupils, that this recommendation was not part of the Programme for Government. Can you confirm that this is still the case?

Ruairí Quinn: The value for money review is part of the normal review processes undertaken by all Departments on an annual basis on selected areas of expenditure and is being conducted in line with the standard procedure for value for money reviews. These procedures require that the views of stakeholders be obtained and the public consultations were designed to achieve this aim. This was done by issuing a direct invitation to relevant interest groups to provide a submission. The interest groups included the school patron bodies, management bodies, teacher unions, national parents’ council, Irish language groups and other groups who operate in the area of social inclusion.

A letter issued on 8th February 2011 and a deadline for reply was given for 18th March 2011. As these groups represent a wide spectrum of membership it could be reasonably expected they would communicate with their membership in regard to the review. In addition to the direct letter of invitation issued to these groups, a general invitation for submissions was posted on the Department’s website at the same time. Indeed the large response of in excess of 1,000 submissions seems to support the view that there is high general awareness of the review and a lot of interest in it.

The review is expected to be completed by the end of the year and a report should be available to me then at which stage I will consider the outcomes and proposals of the review. The review will attempt to explore the general policy options for re-organisation of small schools including the sharing of resources and clustering arrangements towards small schools. It is important to clarify that this study is part of an overall requirement across all Government Departments to have a rolling programme of such studies. This review was initiated last October by the previous Fianna Fail – Green Party Government and is not driven by any ideology. The study is simply about ascertaining the facts to inform future policy. It does not mean that any policy decision has been taken at this point or that any particular outcome is sought. Given that the Government has recently announced a Comprehensive Review of Expenditure, all Government expenditure and programmes will come under similar scrutiny.

The terms of reference acknowledge the important role primary schools play in their local communities. In considering any policy change in relation to small schools, the Department of Education and Skills is conscious that there is a wider dimension to be considered in addition to the cost of maintaining small schools. Among the issues that will need to be taken into account are questions such as availability of diversity of provision, ethos of schools, parental choice, language of instruction, travel distances, transport costs and the impact of schools on dispersed rural communities. The review will examine the locations of small schools relative to each other and to other schools of a similar type. It will also examine the costs of running small schools and the educational outcomes associated with small schools.

Educational quality for the students must be one of the main criteria in any consideration of primary school size. We must also consider the needs of local communities and wider social and cultural factors. Decisions on school provision and reorganisation must be widely perceived to be cost-effective, equitable and reasonable. These decisions need to be based on a rigorous evaluation of requirements and needs, not just at a local level but also at both regional and national levels.

Seomra Ranga: You recently launched a National Strategy to Improve Literacy and Numeracy. You are urging schools to maintain a strong focus on both literacy and numeracy and have instructed them to increase the time allocation to be spent on these areas. When will the promised circular effecting these changes arrive in schools? What curricular areas are teachers expected to curtail to allow for the increased time allocation to literacy and numeracy? Is there not a danger that teachers’ focus will be diverted to increasing pupils’ attainment in standardised tests to the detriment of the holistic principles underlining the primary school curriculum?

Ruairí Quinn: I have asked the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) to provide advice to me on a recommended timeframe for tuition across the areas of learning in the primary curriculum, taking account of the measures and revisions in the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy. In the meantime, a circular will issue to all primary schools at the start of the new school year, setting out changes to time allocation which are to be implemented with immediate effect. Under the circular, schools will be required to increase the time available for literacy to 90 minutes per day and to increase the time available for Mathematics to 50 minutes per day (up from 36 minutes per day). Schools will have discretion as to how to achieve the increases in time proposed, for example through better integration of literacy and numeracy across the curriculum, the use of some of the discretionary curriculum time for this purpose, through reduced time on other curriculum areas, or deferring some aspects of subjects other than the first language and mathematics to a later stage in the primary cycle, or through a combination of these approaches.

Literacy and numeracy skills are critical life skills, and are essential for access to learning in virtually all areas of the curriculum. The use of standardised testing will provide an objective benchmark which will supplement other forms of assessment in the school, and will help to ensure that pupils with additional needs are identified early, and appropriate strategies are put in place to address those needs. Data from standardised testing will also assist in school self evaluation, reporting to parents on their children’s progress, and in ongoing school planning.

There is no intention to depart from the holistic principles of the primary curriculum. What is intended is that children are given every opportunity to develop critical life skills which will open a world of learning to them, so that they can fully access the richness of the curriculum. There is well established research to show that poor literacy and numeracy skills can lead to an increasing cycle of under achievement, disengagement and alienation which can lead to early school leaving. Research shows that high stakes testing can lead to teaching to the test, a narrowing of the curriculum, and some distortions in assessment. However, the introduction of a third point of standardised testing in primary level is not intended to be “high stakes”. The standardised tests and reporting mechanisms that are being implemented are for the benefit of students and will provide important information to parents and to schools. However, they will not be used in any way which would enable league tables to be created, nor will they determine resource allocations to schools.

Providing test results to second level schools will provide important information which will assist in planning pupils’ learning. However such data will not be shared until after the enrolment of the child has been confirmed. It is important to note that pupil performance in standardised tests is only one of a range of indicators and factors in assessing a student. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has developed reporting templates for schools to enable them to report in a holistic way to parents’ on the full range of children’s development and learning. The Government passionately believes that no child should leave an Irish school unable to read and write and that is at the heart of this literacy and numeracy strategy.

Seomra Ranga: What are your views on the current models of initial teacher education? Do you concur with the Teaching Council that initial teacher education should take place over four years? Are there too many colleges turning out too many teachers? If you are attempting to devolve schools from the patronage of the established churches, should this not also be done with the colleges of education?

Ruairí Quinn: I recognise that quality teaching in classrooms is directly related to the quality of teachers and that teacher development is inextricably linked to school development and improvement. The experience of student teachers at initial teacher education level is crucial if we want them to see themselves throughout their careers as reflective, enquiry-oriented, lifelong learners, responding to the learning needs of the students in their classes. The Colleges of Education have served us well over the years. They have always strived, and continue to do so, to evolve and update courses to address the changing environment of the modern classroom. The teaching profession in Ireland is respected both at home and internationally, but there are challenges and there is always room for improvement.

For these reasons, and so that teachers are well-prepared to meet the challenges facing schools in 21st century Ireland, I welcome the opportunities provided by the recently published national literacy and numeracy strategy and by work of the Teaching Council, on its policy on the continuum of teacher education, to drive the change agenda. Combined, these recommend significant changes to the structure and focus of initial teacher education programmes. The Council’s setting of standards within its policy will ensure that the highest calibre of person is recruited into the teaching profession; a “best evidence” approach is taken to the design of teacher education programmes at each stage on the continuum from initial teacher education through induction and continuous professional development; and appropriate systems are in place to quality assure the inputs, processes and outcomes at each stage. Certain proposed changes to current teacher education programmes complement measures already in place at system level to promote school improvement [e.g. Inspection process, National Induction Programme, Section 24 procedures, provision of CPD etc.].

Generally speaking, the advent of the Teaching Council within the last decade has added substantially to the ways in which we can drive the quality agenda in teaching, including in initial teacher education. The Council has already conducted reviews of 8 programmes of initial teacher education, at both primary and post-primary level, and further courses will be reviewed over time. My Department is fully committed to working with the Teaching Council and with the Universities/Colleges in bringing about the changes in teacher education which are now required. The significant current and future long term investment in the development of our teachers is one which will reap rewards at the level of the individual and of society. Implementation of changes which are resource-dependent, will, of course, be subject to the financial constraints within which the Department and government policy operate at any particular time. I don’t need to remind people that this is a particularly difficult time. Nonetheless, the implementation of change is a key priority for me and my Department.

Among the significant changes under consideration for primary initial teacher education programmes are:

•lengthening the Bachelor of Education degree programme for primary teachers.

•lengthening of postgraduate courses for primary and post-primary teaching to two years;

•longer and more structured teaching practice sessions.

A guiding principle underlying the education of teachers is that it is the learner who is at the centre of educational endeavour. Another guiding principle is the creation of a profile of a teacher which reflects the knowledge, skills and capabilities appropriate to teaching in today’s classrooms, and a shared understanding of what constitutes good teaching and learning in classrooms. Improvement of literacy standards is a key action of the Programme for Government. The strategy sets ambitious national targets which I believe must and can be achieved while keeping costs to a minimum.

The implementation of these measures will be an exciting phase in the history of education in our State. With discussion, debate and careful preparation among the stakeholders in teacher education, in particular schools and teachers themselves, the Teaching Council, the Colleges of Education, and my Department, who share a deep understanding and commitment to education, I look forward to the achievement of a quality of education, at all levels, of which we may be justly proud.

Factors affecting supply and demand of teachers are monitored by my Department. In the past the supply of fully qualified teachers was insufficient. In recent years, this situation has changed with higher numbers of graduates from the teacher education institutes and reductions in teaching posts in certain areas. However, Irish birth rates continue to be high and it is anticipated that the overall numbers of primary teachers required in the short-medium medium term will increase. It is also important that there is a pool of personnel that can be called on for employment to respond to unforeseen vacancies. There are also other opportunities for teachers now to work in areas related to education but not necessarily in classroom teaching in primary and post-primary schools.

As I said, when I launched the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector just after I was appointed as Minister earlier this year, I want the Forum to produce a clear road map that every citizen can follow. This road map will inform future decisions in relation to teacher training also. What we all want are strong schools that provide good quality education to current and future generations of pupils. We have to produce practical solutions that will work over time.

Seomra Ranga: In the recently published Draft Policy on the Continuum of Teacher Education, the Teaching Council argues that Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is both “a right and a responsibility”. In light of your plans to increase the focus on literacy and numeracy in schools, what is your vision of how CPD for primary school teachers will evolve in the coming years in order to ensure that they are equipped with the most up-to-date pedagogical principles for 21st century classrooms?

Ruairí Quinn: My vision of how CPD will evolve recognises the important role and the responsibility of the principal in leading learning in the school; in considering the strategies needed to develop teachers’ skills and motivation so that they are supported in creating professional knowledge, in sharing it with their colleagues and in integrating research and development into their work; and, critically, in acknowledging the professional responsibility of a registered teacher to take all reasonable steps to maintain and develop their professional knowledge, skill and capabilities throughout their career.

Against a background of significant support and investment by the system in school development planning and professional development in recent years, schools and teachers have been empowered to drive improvement themselves, in line with their roles and responsibilities as set out in the Education Act 1998 and, in particular, agreed procedures under Section 24 and the Croke Park Agreement. I wholeheartedly support a philosophy of teacher education in which teachers develop as reflective, enquiry-oriented practitioners – and I recognise that improved learning outcomes for students and the development of a teaching profession which has the capacity to respond to the ongoing needs of students and the education system are at the heart of proposed teacher education reforms.

The methodologies of delivery of CPD for literacy and numeracy, as well as for other areas where support will continue to be provided, will need to adapt to the technology of today. Whilst there will remain a place for the traditional face to face interaction, today’s technology allows for blended learning, web seminars (webinars), on line learning etc. Technological development has opened up a fresh capacity for our CPD providers and they will have to embrace the challenge. The national strategy, Literacy and Numeracy for Learning and Life, is a key priority for CPD for the coming years.

The challenge for my Department is to meet the demands within the economic parameters that currently exist. Despite these constraints, I have secured additional personnel to be made available to the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST), which will increase their capacity to address the CPD elements of the strategy. The Strategy aims to ensure that teachers and schools maintain a strong focus on literacy and numeracy skills, within a broad and balanced curriculum. It sets out a wide-ranging programme of reforms in professional development for teachers and school principals, and in the content of the curriculum at primary and post-primary levels, in order to achieve these vital skills. The strategy sets challenges for teachers and principals in identifying their own needs. In this context it will be important for schools to implement robust school self-evaluation, focussing in particular on improvements in literacy and numeracy. This will allow for CPD support for teachers to be more focused to the needs of the school and sector.

Seomra Ranga: What decisions can we expect in the coming year that will affect our classrooms? Will the pupil-teacher ratio be increased? Will the school starting age be increased to 5 years of age? What other areas of education provision are under review by the Department of Education and Skills?

Ruairí Quinn: No decisions have been made in this regard. However, I can confirm that the school starting age will NOT be increased to 5 – this was never a consideration of mine and has caused undue distress to parents. However, all areas of education spending are being considered in the context of the ongoing budgetary deliberations. These deliberations are being informed by the terms of the EU-IMF agreement, under which savings must be made either in payroll costs or classroom sizes.

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