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Education Reform: Following Thatcher’s Lead?

Planned education ‘reforms’ in the Republic bear a close resemblance to damaging measures introduced to the UK by the Tories in the 1980s, reports Mark Walshe.

There have been many headlines about the new Junior Cert but very little analysis on the implications of the proposed changes. The Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, has claimed that the changes will lead to an improved education service for students. However, the opposite is more likely the case: the changes to the Junior Cert are part of larger plans to radically reconfigure the post-primary education system in Ireland, based on the model of education reform introduced by Thatcher’s Conservative Party in the late 1980s.

Current education reform in Ireland is inextricably linked to the Government’s ongoing reform of the public sector. In January, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, launched the Government’s ‘Public Sector Reform Plan 2014-2016’. The overarching strategy of the plan is to create a market of public sector ‘providers’ which compete for central Government funds to run various public services, based on the delivery of specified outcomes.

As the Plan states, “Central to this strategy will be the creation of a new framework of competition for public services. The Public Service must begin to transition away from the traditional system of block grants to organisations providing public services and move instead to a new approach based on releasing funds in return for delivering specified outcomes.”

This new approach is supported by ‘performance budgeting’, which “allows the Oireachtas and members of the public to more closely view the relationship between Government objectives, budgets, performance and outcomes.”

In order to make such data available to the public, the Government has set up the IrelandStat website (irelandstat.gov.ie) to provide statistics on the performance of different sectors of the public service.

At present, there is no information or data under the education section of the IrelandStat website, begging the question, “where is the data going to come from?”

The likely answer is that some form of publicly accessible school league tables will be necessary. Further, if funding is to be linked to the delivery of specified outcomes, then there has to be some mechanism to increase or reduce the budget of individual schools or education service providers based on their performance.

The whole issue of league tables of school performance may appear to be in the realm of speculation at this point in time.

However, comparison with the English experience of education reform helps us to see recent policy initiatives from the Department of Education and Skills as an integrated package, designed to lay the basis for school league tables, and to help create a market of competitive education service providers.

The new Junior Cycle is the first step towards a new prescriptive national curriculum, where Maths, Irish and English will be the only core subjects.

The British Conservative Party passed the Education Reform Act in 1988. According to Bill Anderson and Richard Hatcher, this “inaugurated a dual strategy of increased marketisation, in the form of de-centralisation of powers to school management… and increased centralised control in the form of a prescriptive national curriculum, national tests at age 7, 11, and 14, and the establishment of a new and punitive schools inspections regime administered by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted).”

This led to “the creation of a quasi-market of competition among schools fuelled by an element of parental choice.

The market was constructed and maintained by the state through the mechanisms of pupil-led funding and the publication of performance indicators, supplemented by state intervention, principally in the forms of financial incentives for success and Ofsted sanctions for failure.”

The similarity with what is happening in Ireland is striking. It was reported in early January 2014 that schools are to be given their own budgets as part of a pilot scheme. Reacting to the report, the INTO said it “smacks of a failed policy championed by the Tory party in Britain and teachers will be shocked hearing such a proposal from a Labour minister”.

The new Junior Cycle represents the first step towards a new prescriptive national curriculum. It is proposed that Maths, Irish and English will be the only core subjects, supplemented by short courses and other subjects. Standardised tests will be introduced in Maths/numeracy, English/literacy, Irish and Science.The results from the subjects, short courses and standardised tests will be used as input for another policy initiative known as ‘School Self-Evaluation’.This is the process by which schools (teachers, principals, deputy principals, and boards of management) will collect and analyse the data generated from the results in Junior Cycle subjects, short courses and standardised tests. To many teachers and schools, it may seem like simply a variation on the existing system of ‘Whole School Evaluation’ (WSE) and ‘Subject Inspection’(SI), which have to date been based on a collegial approach to indentifying strengths and weaknesses in a school or subject area with a view to encouraging a school to improve.

However, WSE and SI inspections are gradually being superseded by a more ‘robust’ inspections regime of unannounced inspections, which have increased dramatically since 2008.

The punitive element of inspections will come into play once the Inspectorate has the performance data on schools, generated by the Junior Cycle results and standardised tests. The Literacy & Numeracy Strategy (which will be integrated into the new Junior Cycle) makes clear that the data from standardised tests can be used “during the inspection process and in the targeting of under-performing schools”. This new approach has been highlighted and praised by the Chief Inspector of the DES, who has described the Literacy & Numeracy Strategy as “ground breaking for the Irish system. The inclusion of very specific targets for improvements in students’ learning is also novel.”

The reference to ‘specific targets’ brings us back to the Public Service Reform Plan which insists that in future public service funding must be linked to the delivery of ‘specified outcomes’, or targets. We do not yet know what sanctions will be imposed on ‘under-performing schools’ for not meeting their targets but it is reasonable to assume, based on the Public Sector Reform Plan, that they may include financial penalties, such as reductions in school budgets.

The new data is expected to be made available to the public, a step the Chief Inspector sees as almost inevitable: “Irish schools have a considerable degree of autonomy. In the future, their willingness to be open with their communities about the quality of their work may well be an important determinant in whether the public feels it has adequate information about students’ progress. This is bound to affect the demands made about public availability of data.”

Indeed, making more information publicly available starts with making information available to parents. This is “A great campaign access to more information when choosing a school for their family. A new system of self-evaluation will be introduced, requiring all schools to evaluate their own performance year on year and publish information across a wide range of criteria.”This is precisely how league tables were introduced into the education system in England. As Steven Ball wrote last year, “[L]eague tables… were introduced in 1992 with the avowed purpose… of providing market information to parents in their choice making. They were quickly taken up by national and local press.” The negative consequences inevitably followed: “[T]he public discourse around such tables brought the notions of ‘good schools’ and ‘bad schools’, as defined by performance, into common parlance, making them a vehicle for further policy.”

The ‘reform’ of the Junior Cert has some positive educational elements. On the whole, however, it is simply the visible part of a radical, regressive ‘reform’ of the post-primary education system in Ireland, inspired by the UK Conservative Party’s approach to education ‘reform’. There is almost a complete absence of serious debate about the implications of replacing the relatively well-performing existing Irish system (Ireland ranks fourth out of 34 OECD countries in literacy in the latest PISA rankings) with the failed and discredited English system. Industrial action by teachers may help to highlight these issues to the public.

The author is a member of ASTI Fightback.

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