The Government’s new Action Plan for Education is a very welcome document that contains clear aspirations and detailed actions to be achieved over time. The overall vision is that we (Ireland) become the best education and training system in Europe. This is excellent news and like many others who work in education, I think it is a highly commendable goal; it is realistic and achievable and the Action Plan is an important statement of intent.
In that spirit I would like to make some suggestions and identify areas of improvement. This is not to overlook all of the good stuff and positive actions contained therein. Rather, it is to contribute to our thinking so we can achieve the goals to their fullest extent.
In the preamble to the document the plan sets out what it means to be the ‘best in Europe’, it means:
“Harnessing Education to break down barriers for groups at risk of exclusion; delivering a learning experience to highest international standards; equipping learners of all ages and capacities to participate and succeed in a changing world; and allowing Ireland to be a leader across a broad range of fields, scientific, cultural, enterprise and public service.”
I couldn’t agree more and particularly welcome the emphasis on ‘learners of all ages’ and ‘capacities to participate and succeed’. It is right that we identify learning and education as important means of dealing with exclusion and alienation of certain groups in our society.
Given our big vision you would imagine then that aspiration of ‘lifelong learning’ would feature prominently in our Action Plan. Furthermore, you would expect to find some form of analysis of what we mean by ‘learning for life’ and significant details on how we intend to support all our citizens to ‘participate and succeed’ in our ever changing world. Sadly, there is little by way of detail provided for both these areas.
Throughout the document we find only strategy and policies that regard the purpose of education as meeting the needs of the labour market and hence ‘lifelong learning’ as wholly concerned with the provision of economically viable skills for the working-age population.
And yet, at the high level of aspiration there are laudable goal statements such as:
Education and training services support people throughout their lives. They play a huge part in developing their mental resilience and personal wellbeing. They equip people with the ability to adapt, to work with others, to think critically and to be creative. They give people the skills and knowledge to fulfil their personal goals.
This seems to be a case of wanting it both ways; goal statements that envision education as a universal process, supporting people of all ages, encouraging adaptability and equipping people with the skills and knowledge to fulfil their personal goals, while the action statements overlook everyone beyond working age and neglect the personal fulfilment needs of carers, stay-at-home parents, community leaders, voluntary workers and the numerous activists and contributors to our sense of citizenship and culture.
One of the most troublesome sections of the Action Plan is that which deals with “Goal 4 To Build Stronger Bridges between Education and the Wider Community”. I would have though this would be the section that would espouse the big vision of education for all. Instead it seems to miss the point entirely. It’s as if there is no community out there other than employers and big science, and the only education that seems to matter is tertiary education. There is nothing there for alienated communities, isolated individuals and those who cannot contribute economically. There is nothing about the values of education to contribute to creativity, democracy, or our sense of justice and community. There is nothing of our identity, culture, our heritage, our shared past or sense of attachment to the land in which we live.
It is not sufficient to teach wellbeing in schools without practising it in society. We will not succeed in nurturing critical thinking in young people unless we ourselves challenge prevailing views and question the forces that shape our world. Creativity in people of all ages will flourish when we share a common sense of identity and belonging.
Put simply, education is a means of participation in society. Participation often includes, but always goes beyond, finding employment. Participation involves giving people a sense of purpose and the feeling of being valued and included.
In many areas the Action Plan gets it right and there are numerous welcome developments. However, if we are to achieve the vision contained therein we will need to extend our thinking. It is worth the effort as the prize is an education system that has meaning and value for everyone and helps us achieve a better, inclusive society.