— By Dr Brian Fleming
The recently released new DEIS plan has sought to address some of the deficiencies of the previous plan introduced just over ten years ago.
The first DEIS (Delivering Equality in Schools) plan, announced over ten years ago, was introduced at a time when the Education Disadvantage Committee was coming to the end of its first term of office. Devised by Micheál Martin when he was minister, that Committee was an independent expert statutory body (which never reappeared – but that’s another story).
There were a number of weaknesses in the original DEIS plan. It failed to recognise that, within the post-primary sector, there are grades of disadvantage. Also, there was no evidence of any real understanding, on the part of the DES, of the reality of life in an average school in a severely disadvantaged area.
The inclusion of ‘schools’ in the title meant that the important role being played in tackling educational disadvantage by groups in the non-formal sector was ignored. It is also ignored to a large extent in the current plan even though some of the most educationally disadvantaged young people are outside the formal system.
Finally, the resources it proposed to employ to implement DEIS, although significant, were not commensurate with the scale of the problem.
However, it had one overall redeeming feature in that it was a serious effort to shift onto an objective basis the identification of schools that need additional assistance to tackle educational disadvantage.
New DEIS plan: five goals
The recently released new DEIS plan has sought to address some of these deficiencies. It proclaims five goals, the first of which is ‘to implement a more robust and responsive Assessment Framework for identification of schools and effective resource allocation’. This should allow for a differentiation in the allocation of resources to DEIS schools based on need.
Three others goals promise support of school leaders, increased inter-agency working and ongoing research and evaluation. All very worthy but should be in place already, and not just for DEIS schools.
The second goal, ‘to improve the learning experience of pupils in DEIS schools’ is hardly an objective to set pulses racing. Of course, since it was first introduced there have been advances and it’s important to acknowledge this. Yet it has failed many thousands of young people. Bearing in mind that most of these do not get a second-chance at education, the implications for them are hugely significant.
In fairness, there are specific targets outlined in the body of the current plan that promise a good deal more rigour. Minister Bruton has employed the same strategy that served him well in tackling unemployment, by setting down targets and timescales within which they are to be achieved. Yet he is now in a completely different department. The track record as regards targets set for our education system is not reassuring.
It’s acceptable, of course, that challenging targets may, from time to time, be missed. What’s important in that eventuality is that the reasons for failure are investigated thoroughly and addressed and there have been repeated failings of that nature.
In a short piece it’s possible to look at only a few of the specifics.
Concentration of resources to create smaller classes at junior and senior infants’ level in disadvantage areas is a welcome step. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that early intervention pays off both educationally and economically.
School Excellence Fund
Also, the proposed School Excellence Fund to encourage innovative approaches has interesting possibilities. Staff in DEIS schools are usually quite innovative and it will be interesting to see what emerges.
Using what has proven to work
A willingness to learn from the experiences of the ABC initiatives and to extend availability of the Incredible Years Programme is also a positive move. On the other hand there is no mention of reviving the Guidance Enhancement Initiative.
Minimum school leaving age
A proposal to raise the minimum school leaving age to seventeen looks odd as young people usually have not reached a terminal course point at that age.
Also resources are promised to help monitor school attendance. Schools are usually very well-informed as to who the poor attenders are. What’s needed is an educational welfare response.
There are some striking items missing. As with the initial plan there is no evidence of any understanding of the reality of life in a post-primary school serving a disadvantaged area.
Also there is only a vague recognition of the need for a comprehensive set of measures to ensure that DEIS schools are enabled to recruit and retain the most gifted and committed staff.
In particular, there is no significant strategy included for reaping the great benefit that results from young working-class people returning to teach in their own or similar areas.
Targets for third level uptake
Finally, targets are contained in DEIS 2017 for improvements in third level uptake.
In the past twenty years or so, third level institutions have established access schemes. So, the DEIS plan and the access programmes share an objective.
With a mix of significant resources, both private and state, the mission of the access schemes is to improve the uptake of college places by disadvantaged pupils and to that end they identify schools with which to work in order to bring about improvements. Whether they are well-equipped to identify accurately the most disadvantaged schools is a moot point.
So, it is entirely possible that state resources are being used in one school to close the achievement gap between its pupils and the norm, while in a neighbouring school these same state resources, together with philanthropic donations, are being used to maintain or even widen it.
Indeed many believe this is already happening. Yet there is no sign that the DES envisages for itself an overseeing or accountability role to ensure that what’s happening with access schemes is consistent with the DEIS initiative. A commitment to assess the impact of access schemes by the end of 2019 seems somewhat lackadaisical.
Resourcing and Monitoring
DEIS 2017 is an improvement on its predecessor which, given the DES’s tardiness in devising a successor to the 2005 plan, it would need to be.
The question is, will it be resourced sufficiently and how will it be monitored. There is no indication in the current document that the resources provided will be proportionate to the need.
A Programme Steering Group, consisting of the DES and representatives of the various vested interest groups, rather than an expert group, is to be appointed to oversee developments. Aside from the obvious lack of transparency, the record indicates that this is unlikely to be effective.
In the course of the consultation phase the suggestion was made that an Education Disadvantage Committee be re-established on a statutory basis and assigned the task of overseeing the process. It’s a great disappointment that the Minister did not act on this advice.
DEIS 2017 is likely to lead to incremental but not substantial improvement. A century after 1916 we are still not cherishing the children equally.
Dr Brian Fleming is a retired post-primary school principal and author.