Jim Clarke: Education must move forward - not look back
IN January I wrote an article for The Irish News under the headline `Put education at the centre of the next Programme for Government'.
I identified several areas for change in the structure of government and policy and operational delivery of education.
The catalyst to some extent was the commitments in New Decade, New Approach, which underpinned the return to devolved administration.
Amongst its proposals were to "establish an external independent review of education" and "an expert group to examine the links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background".
However, the minister announced that these reviews would be delayed because of the impact of coronavirus.
In addition, work on the department's `transformation' agenda has largely ceased for resourcing reasons.
At one level these are understandable but I would contend that the shock to all aspects of our lives caused by the virus makes review both urgent and essential. This is not, however, a time for despair.
I don't know when schools will return to a full service. The deficits in learning, social development and mental health are both incalculable and uneven but government, teachers and parents will make the best provision possible in their specific circumstances.
It is impossible to know if the next series of external examinations in 2021 can go ahead in any traditional format. In short we are in a crisis but the world is not unused to crises or to emerging from them. The trick is to have a plan.
Franklin D Roosevelt, speaking in 1936 as America began to emerge from the Great Depression, said: "Nationwide thinking, nationwide planning and nationwide action are the three great essentials to prevent nationwide crises for future generations to struggle through."
The vehicle for developing and delivering that thinking, planning and action is an imaginative, connected and evidence-informed, outcomes-focussed PfG - for the next assembly in 2022.
The current body is and will continue to be focussed on fighting Covid-19 and its social and economic consequences but they must find the time and space to take a step back and look at what has happened over the past few months, what that has taught us and that which we need to learn from it.
It is recognised that a review of education is long overdue so any reports would contribute to the evidence base needed for the next PfG but there are things we already know, there are things which the current crisis has and will continue to tell us and we have the current programme with many ambitious strands that have yet to be realised.
The agility and unity of the executive responding to Covid-19 has shown that the business of government can be accelerated and responsive while maintaining accountability.
This needs to be the attitude going forward with more emphasis on building a consensus on long-term, sustainable and affordable structural change across government. That work needs to begin now.
If the response to the pandemic has forced change in things which seemed almost sacrosanct then with thinking, planning and action many other things can be changed for the better.
Real and meaningful progress can only occur when there is unity of purpose and agreed objectives with tangible outcomes. Education does not exist in a hermetically sealed box.
It can only succeed and be effective if the connections with other departments and services are acknowledged and formally utilised which is why the next PfG must be agreed in advance of a new executive being formed so that high-level cohesion is built into the business of government, regardless of which party holds any given portfolio.
Principal amongst the connections to lend support to and benefit from education are health, economy, justice and communities.
The cross-cutting priorities are many including:
:: An overarching review of inequalities and a funded strategy to address these.
:: A comprehensive childcare strategy to cover 0-5 year-olds to include pre and post-natal care, parenting skills, Sure Start and two years of nursery education.
:: Access for children and parents to appropriate early interventions to ameliorate disadvantage and provide early responses to identified special needs, as well as stronger connections between schools, youth services and the justice system to avert emerging issues.
:: A review of teacher education and in-service support to better equip schools to provide for `blended learning', and prepare for the inclusion of `coding' as a core element of the curriculum.
:: Revise the assessment and qualifications system to reduce reliance on end-of-course, knowledge-focussed examinations and increase the assessment of skills through practical applications of learning through projects, team exercises, research and simulations evaluated by robust moderation of school-based assessments.
:: Retention of English, maths and digital technologies as core elements of the curriculum to age 18.
:: Revision of area planning to significantly enhance collaboration between schools in an area and include a guarantee of equity of access and opportunity to all young people to an appropriate curriculum and a major review of school transport.
And this is only the start. At first glance this might appear overwhelming but it is incremental and essential to a longer-term structural plan based on a whole of government approach to social and economic prosperity.
And yes it may have a cost but collaborative working with agreed outcomes and pragmatic accountability also generates savings.
Perhaps the most widely recognised is the economic payback of early intervention in health, underachievement, reduction in poverty and criminality.
The Covid-19 experience has changed many things. We should not ignore the tough learning of this experience by believing that we should try to go back to how things were, especially in education where the need for change was firmly in the New Decade, New Approach agenda.
We need to look forward - not look back.
:: Jim Clarke is a former chief executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.