Educational Disadvantage – What’s Next?

It is inevitable that a Programme for Government will be agreed sometime soon. As An Taoiseach has said, Ireland will return to normal – and then the contents of the new Programme for Government will be of significance for us all.

— By Dr Brian Fleming

Dr Brian Fleming, School of Education, University College Dublin

Dr Brian Fleming, School of Education, University College Dublin: “It’s important for our own peace of mind not to allow the current crisis to dominate our thoughts completely”.

It seems likely that the coronavirus crisis will prompt more active and determined moves to form a government in the next few weeks than might have been the case otherwise. While all have more pressing concerns now, it is inevitable that a Programme for Government will be agreed.

Proposals for Education

As An Taoiseach has pointed out, it’s important for our own peace of mind not to allow the current crisis to dominate our thoughts completely. In that context, I thought it might useful to have a look at the manifestos of the major political parties to discern what proposals for education might make their way into a programme for government. The parties have a range of proposals for improvement in educational provision, but my focus is on the issue of educational disadvantage at post-primary level.

Two notable weaknesses of DEIS Programme

The DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) programme was launched in 2005. It is the State’s response to educational disadvantage at primary and post-primary level. The initiative has two notable weaknesses. Firstly, it is under-resourced and so, while it has definitely narrowed the attainment gap, large differences in outcomes remain. Secondly, it is a fairly blunt instrument in that, at post-primary level, it fails to recognise and respond to the reality that there are grades of disadvantage. In fairness, the DES is aware of this deficiency and its Social Inclusion unit is using small area data emerging from the CSO to devise a more focused programme.

So, in reading the manifestos, I’m on the lookout to see whose plans address either or both issues.

Manifesto plans regarding DEIS

Fianna Fáil:
“Expand and reform the DEIS programme. While DEIS has been effective in narrowing the gap between disadvantaged students and those from more privileged backgrounds, more work needs to be done to bring the most disadvantaged urban DEIS schools in line with all other schools.”
Sinn Féin:

“Increasing funding for the DEIS scheme by 20%, enabling approximately 200 additional schools to avail of supports. Re-establish the Statutory Committee to advise the Minister in initiatives to address educational disadvantage.”
Fine Gael:
“Our programme to tackle educational disadvantage includes developing more tailored assistance for DEIS schools, so schools can get the right help to meet their needs, starting with schools with higher levels of disadvantage.”
Green Party:
“We will support excellence in education by: Reducing pupil-to-teacher ratios at first and second level with a particular focus on DEIS schools.”
Labour Party:
“Labour will reduce DEIS class sizes in proportion to reductions in regular class sizes and increase capitation to DEIS schools.”
Social Democrats:
“Ensure that class sizes in DEIS schools are reduced proportionately. Expand the DEIS scheme throughout the country. Establish multidisciplinary teams in and across DEIS schools to support students at risk of early school leaving.”

Issue of additional resources

So, on the issue of more resources for the DEIS scheme as it stands, Fianna Fail is somewhat vague, though clearly sees the need for change.
Sinn Fein commits to spending more money to expand the scheme, but the figure provided would suggest little or no additional funds for the current participants.
There is no sign of Fine Gael committing more resources.
The three smaller parties make proposals that imply significant extra funding but don’t specify amounts.

Grades of Disadvantage

Only Fine Gael seems to be willing to address the grades of disadvantage issue though such a possibility seems to be implied, albeit unspecified, in the FF proposal.
Three parties, FF, SF, and the SocDems, talk about expanding the scheme which suggests a change in the criteria for being admitted to it. At a time when the economic prospects seem less positive, this implies a less targeted approach, which is probably bad news for the most disadvantaged.

Pupil-Teacher ratio

The Greens and Labour are also committed to spreading resources more thinly in their pupil-teacher ratio proposals and, while they commit to prioritising DEIS schools, they are somewhat vague. In any event, cutting the ratio in all schools is so expensive that DEIS schools are unlikely to see any significant benefit from this approach. So, the overall picture would suggest little determination to tackle educational disadvantage in a determined and well-resourced way.

Two Other Ideas

In addition, there are two unusual proposals that might be worth considering.

Schools generally, and in particular those in the DEIS scheme, are struggling to deal with what seems to an increasing problem in relation to student wellbeing. In that context, the SocDems’ proposal of multidisciplinary teams, if properly resourced and used to address the wellbeing issue, could prove to be very valuable. However, they provide no costings.

The second proposal worth consideration is the SF proposal for a Statutory Committee on Educational Disadvantage. Under the terms of the 1998 Education Act, it became incumbent on the Minister to appoint such a committee. The legislation specified that it was to an expert rather than a representative committee. The first one was appointed in 2002 under the leadership of Professor Áine Hyland. During its 3-year term, it produced a number of well-researched reports on aspects of the issue.

The launch of the DEIS programme in 2005 was clearly a pre-emptive strike, as the policymakers took action to regain control of the agenda and resist the more comprehensive and radical ideas emerging from the Educational Disadvantage Committee (EDC).

In a clear breach of the legislation, successive Ministers for Education (Hanafin, O’Keeffe, Coughlan and Quinn) declined to appoint a replacement EDC after the first one completed its term of office.

Seven years later, as part of a larger piece of education legislation, a section removing the requirement for an EDC to be appointed was introduced by Minister Quinn and passed without controversy.

The SF proposal, if the committee that is appointed consists of a majority of genuinely expert and independent people and is properly resourced, would represent a major step forward.

PS On a completely separate matter, the lesser paid teachers issue needs to be sorted immediately. It was a bad idea at the start and now is a running sore.

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