MINISTER for Education and Skills Richard Bruton is a great man for the plans. In the last government, as Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, he came up with the Action Plan for Jobs which was very successfully implemented, as its actions helped create the conditions for the provision of tens of thousands of jobs, almost doubling the set target.
It involved co-ordinating a lot of actions across a multiplicity of departments and agencies and worked very well. Minister Bruton’s initial Action Plan for Education 2016-19 is no less ambitious, aiming ultimately – as he declared at the launch – to give Ireland the best education and training service in Europe by 2026.
Again, there was widespread consultation with stakeholders, including some 125 organisations, members of the Oireachtas and of the public who made submissions in relation to the plan. It contains hundreds of actions and sub-actions to be implemented across 2016-19, with responsibilities assigned and deadlines set.
Included are plans to tackle disadvantage, offer more pertinent subject choice, relevant skills training, guidelines on mental health and wellbeing, a greater say for parents in their children’s education and controlling of the costs to families, better leadership mentoring for principals and more continuous professional development for teachers, better support for children with special educational needs, greater access to teacher education by students who are members of the Irish Traveller community, students with disabilities and students from under-represented socio-economic groups and communities, a school building programme and the publication and implementation of an education strategy for the Gaeltacht.
As with the Action Plan for Jobs, implementation progress reports will be published quarterly and the Action Plan for Education will be updated annually in consultation with all the stakeholders. A lot of the proposed actions are, however, subject to budgetary constraints and what the Minister has in mind to achieve will require a lot of co-operation – which his two predecessors failed to get from stakeholders such as some of the teachers’ unions – and a major investment in resources over the next ten years.
For his latest action plan’s aims to be achieved, Minister Bruton will need to engineer a substantial increase in funding for the education sector. Anything extra within the tight parameters of Budget 2017 looks like going towards legacy issues such as redressing the pay differential between longer-serving teachers and those recruited on lower pay scales since February 2012; teachers’ pay and pensions account for more than 70% of the entire education budget.
For 2017 also, in order to meet growing demands, an extra 650 teachers need to be recruited to cater of the expected 11,000 more students entering the system. An OECD report, entitled ‘Education at a Glance 2016’ showed that we still have a lot of catch-up to do with all the other countries they cover, given that our spend on education during the recession years between 2008 and ’13 fell by 7%, while it rose in those countries by 8% during the same period.
There is also a major funding crisis in the third-level sector, where expenditure in Ireland stands at just 1.2% of GDP, compared to the OECD average of 1.6%. This is not addressed in any detail in the Action Plan for Education and the options for third-level funding outlined in the Cassells report – including a student loan scheme, which is a political hot potato – still need to be scoped and debated properly.
For those not going to college, as part of his Skills brief, the Minister plans to increase the number of apprenticeship schemes with a target of 50,000 new apprentices by 2020.
What is clear however is that, if the hard cash is not made available by this and future governments over the next ten years, then Minister Bruton’s plucky Action Plan for Education will be seriously undermined. He deserves our plaudits for putting a measurable set of initial actions, with accountability attached, into the public domain, but a lot bigger and more difficult issues will have to be addressed by the evolving plan if it hopes to achieve the Minister’s lofty ambition of becoming the best education and training service in Europe within the next decade.