The history of Irish education shows us that ambitious, large-scale decisions, where they are underpinned by the vision to create a system that truly includes all young people and learners, yield significant, transformative impacts for our country and society.
An exemplar decision of this kind was announced on Saturday, 10th September 1966 when the then Minister for Education, Donogh O’Malley, an NUI Galway (University College Galway) graduate, declared that secondary education would henceforth be free in an unprecedented announcement directly to the media. His famous (and famously unauthorised) speech, roughly 10 minutes long, signalled the introduction of free secondary education in Ireland. It was a truly remarkable moment, not only in our educational history but in the historical narrative of the Irish State, which was that year celebrating the first half-century of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. He may have said to the media that day that he was not a radical, but his announcement effected a radical change in educational opportunity in Ireland, then and to this day.
Free secondary schooling, with its free bus/school transportation network, book scheme and funds for building schools, changed utterly Irish education. As Prof Dermot Keogh has noted, ‘Free education was liberation for an entire generation of Irish school children, and successive generations’. The broadcaster, Joe Duffy, in the brilliant RTÉ documentary, The Classroom Divide (2019), likened free education to a ‘miracle’, which enabled him to go on from primary to secondary education, from where he would go on to university.
In more recent times, the reform of the Junior Cycle in the last decade has shown us what is possible in successfully redesigning assessment, as a major step forward in making education more engaging and inclusive for more young people in our schools. For example, the Classroom Based Assessments (CBAs), a central part of the new Junior Cycle assessment process, enable pupils and teachers to devise school-based assessment that aligns with learners’ interests and talents, while helping pupils to develop key skills, such as research competence and numeracy, digital literacy and oracy, which will benefit them in school, university and the world beyond.