Roadmap to education return unveiled as thoughts turn towards autumn reopening of schools

Now I know we’ve had two major plans, one the July Stimulus Package, but the plan I want to focus on today in this column is the plan for Education and the Roadmap to get it.

I am sure that many of the Advertiser readers will remember the phrases “by hook or by crook” and “come hell or high water”. To what do they refer? Well of course they refer to the previous Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, when he was commenting on would there or wouldn’t there be a traditional Leaving Certificate, way back some time ago. In the end, there wasn’t the traditional Leaving Certificate, and I feel sure that there is huge trouble ahead when all those results come out.

I always felt Joe McHugh was a good Minister for Education, but in this case he dawdled and delayed. There was plenty of time to get the Leaving Cert in order, with schools empty but for the written exams.

Be that as it may, we now have the Roadmap for Education plan laid out this week by Norma Foley, the new Minister for Education, clearly with the blessing and supervision of An Taoiseach Micheál Martin.

The re-opening budget, €375 million, was a surprise all round, welcome though it was. I was delighted to notice that over the last few weeks, when there wasn’t a word from Norma Foley, she was in fact busy having a full programme of meetings with the various teachers’ unions, the parents’ groups, the principals and vice-principals, and all of the various interests in education. This has paid off because it was necessary to tell them what their plans were in the Department of Education.

My gripe would be that that Department, though staffed by very fine public-minded civil servants, has always been a secretive one. They carry out their work in that fashion, and it may well be that they more or less told the new Minister to keep quiet about all of the work that she was doing, until they had all the meetings held and until they had the necessary finance obtained from the Department of Public Expenditure.

All that prior work, and continuing work, came to fruition on Monday evening in Dublin Castle when the plan, all €375 million of it, was laid out. Imagine, one million children will be going back into school at the end of August/beginning of September.

It is a huge logistical exercise, and there is no doubt whatsoever that there will be bumps on the road, there will be mistakes made, there will be mishaps, there will be difficulties of one kind and another. But they all pale against the overriding wish of everyone in this country to see the schools open and the students, young and old, back learning, mixing and behaving as normal children and students can do in the circumstances.

There will be finance available for immediate small works in schools where extra space will be needed. I hope there will not be the usual departmental delays in looking for builders to submit different estimates, and then looking at all the estimates, and then going to and fro. There just simply is not the time for that kind of carry-on. Now is the time for immediacy in all the actions which must be carried out.

In most schools, both at primary and post-primary level, the role of the principal in devising and carrying out all the many changes within their schools will be pivotal. I’m sure readers will have heard many of them being interviewed on radio and TV, and in the main they are positive, full of get-up-and-go, and wanting to do what is necessary as quickly as possible. The primary teachers appear to be working on the back-up quota system of making a number of teachers available to a number of schools, to enable them to overcome the need for more teachers. It will be more difficult to obtain the teachers at second level, but already there are moves afoot which I feel will be of great benefit, in that the Department is looking at the students who are in second year of the Masters of Education (previously the H.Dip ) and all of these students will have been Garda-vetted and approved by the Teaching Council. They number several hundred, and should make an input into the 1,000-plus extra teachers which will be needed at second level.

All of these matters are huge problems to be tackled and to be overcome in the month ahead, but with good will, good planning and determination, I am satisfied that it can happen.

We will hear much talk of ‘pods’ and ‘bubbles’ as the days proceed. Who ever thought we would be talking about a school environment in those novel terms?

I have really only one overriding wish, and it is that the changes which will come about through the extra resources, particularly in the teaching area, can be retained when all of this is over. There is no doubt that the Department of Education is always in need of more teachers and more resources, and perhaps if some of the gaps which have long been there can be filled now, and then retained, it will make a huge difference to the running of education.

I thought it very interesting that on the same day that the Education Plan was laid out, we had the announcement by Amazon of 1,000-plus new jobs in Dublin, and equally Pat McDonagh’s plan for the opening of the Portaloise Plaza with 150 jobs. So all of the plans of last Monday were bright and hopeful for the future of Ireland.

Meanwhile, we are hearing some stirrings of hope in the coronavirus vaccine realm. We don’t know yet how advanced they are, but it appears that much work has been going on with the development of a vaccine, with research being done in Oxford University. If that were to be realised coming to the end of 2020, it would be such a relief to all of us. Meanwhile, we trundle on with our nightly health report from the Department under their new acting chief medical officer, Dr Ronan Glynn.

Thoughts and prayers are still with Dr Tony Holohan, as he and his wife and family battle their own personal dilemmas.

As I am writing this, it is bright sunshine outside and I am filled with hope for the future of our young people, and for all concerned in education, as they work to surmount the many difficulties which lie ahead.

That’s my lot for this week. Hope to talk with you all next week.

In the meantime, my advice continues to be: stay at home as much as you can, and above all stay safe.

Slán go fóill.

Mary O’Rourke


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