This week the government launched the Action Plan for Education aimed at making the Irish education and training service the best in Europe by 2026.

The Irish Second-Level Students’ Union has reviewed the strategy and welcome actions that will have a positive impact for our members. In particular the aims to strengthen the role of the student, enhance the TY Programme, the introduction of the Wellbeing Programme for Junior Cycle and Wellbeing Guidelines for schools, reduction of hidden costs, increasing the school-leaving age, introduction of new Leaving Certificate subjects, fairness in admission policies and the enhancement of guidance counsellors.Click here to read the full document.Strengthening the Role of the StudentThe ISSU welcomes the actions that will strengthen the role of students as partners in their education. Student voice can play a hugely important role in the school community and young people are fully capable of articulating their views and providing knowledgeable insights into the world of education from a student’s perspective. The ISSU also welcome aims to develop an education ombudsman and introduce a stronger complaints procedure and charter for parents and learners. We would welcome the opportunity for further consultation with the DES and with our colleagues in the National Parents’ Council post-primary to develop this charter.

“Strengthen the role of parents and students and provide greater school choice Parents and students are key stakeholders in the teaching and learning process. We will develop a Parents and Learners Charter to give parents and students a stronger voice at school level.”“Strengthen the role of parents and students, and deliver progress in providing greater school choice.”“Introduce a stronger complaints procedure and charter for parents and learners; Bring the heads of bill to provide for a parents and learners charter to the Oireachtas Committee on Education. The proposed legislation will take account of developments in relation to an education ombudsman”.

  Enhancement of the TY ProgrammeIn our submission to the strategy, the ISSU stated that we support the enhancement of the Transition Year programme and the proposed increase of programs in industry and in colleges for Transition Year students.

“We will evaluate transition supports available to young people at all levels of the education, with a view to promoting initiatives which support young people at critical points in their lives. Transition Year, in particular, will be used to prepare young people with key skills before they make the transition to higher education or work. We will work with industry and colleges to open up new opportunities and programmes in transition year.”

 Wellbeing Programme for Junior Cycle and Wellbeing Guidelines for SchoolsThe ISSU welcomes the introduction of the Wellbeing Programme to the Junior Cycle and the aims outlined in the strategy to improve services and resources to promote wellbeing in our schools. We hope that measures are taken to ensure that the wellbeing guidelines are implemented in all schools and that schools are provided with the resources to do so, as committed in the strategy.  

“Improve services and resources to promote wellbeing in our school communities to support success in school and life.Schools will be assisted in embedding wellbeing guidelines. A mandatory area of learning entitled Wellbeing will be introduced in Junior Cycle in 2017. The National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) will be expanded.”“Commence and roll out, as resources permit, a national programme to support the implementation of wellbeing guidelines to all primary and post-primary schools. The guidelines will provide a clear and rational structure to support the promotion of positive mental health and wellbeing in all schools.Wellbeing programmes will be available to all students.”

 Reduce Hidden CostsIn the ISSU’s submission to the strategy, we expressed concern with the hidden costs of second-level education, such as the extravagant and disproportionate costs of school books and uniforms. We welcome the new circular regarding school uniform policy and other costs, stating the need to reduce the cost and increase financial support for book rental schemes.

We will issue a new circular to school authorities and ETBs regarding school uniform policy and other costs and the need to put a greater emphasis on reducing the cost of school uniforms and other costs. The views of the National Parent Councils and other education partners will be considered and will feed into the development of the circular.”“Increasing the financial support for book rental schemes, as resources permit, in order to reduce/eliminate school book costs for parents.”  

 School Leaving AgeThe ISSU welcomes the increasing of the mandatory school-leaving age to 17 as well as the proposals for extra educational programs aimed at improving school completion rates in disadvantaged areas. The ISSU believes that equality of opportunity in the education system must be realised for all second-level students and so additional supports such as those outlined in the strategy must be delivered in order to achieve this equality.

14.1.8 The new Government will seek to increase mandatory schooling to age 17 and examine how we can further improve school completion rates, particularly in disadvantaged areas.”

 Increasing Leaving Cert ChoiceThe Leaving Certificate is increasingly becoming a more unjust assessment method for disadvantaged students who, in contrast to wealthier, more supported students, do not have access to “grinds schools” who charge high fees in exchange for completely exam driven lessons with high quality teachers, and also to ‘grinds’ themselves, lessons outside of school to aid a student’s understanding and knowledge of a subject. Irrespective of how hard disadvantaged students work, the student who can afford these resources is more likely to achieve higher results.To quote the students who attended an event held by the ISSU in the past few months, it is “completely unjust that one student could score higher than the other purely because one had money to fund private lessons”. The Leaving Certificate is a system which is neither fair nor equal, and we see it becoming more of a business and more as an opportunity for capital each year, which puts vulnerable students at even more of a disadvantage.

A new grading system and common points scheme will be implemented from 2017 as part of improvements to the transition from second level to higher education.”“Increasing subject choice for students is important for student motivation and engagement and for ensuring curriculum development continues to respond to the changing needs of learners, society and the economy”

 New Leaving Certificate SubjectsThe Irish Second-level Students’ Union believes that the introduction of subjects such as the arts, Politics and Society, entrepreneurial education, mental health and the new Leaving Certificate subject of P.E. are very positive changes and we support these subjects. We are concerned however that they may be poorly implemented in certain schools and that implementation will be dependent on school resourcing, the support of the school management and the interest and motivation of teachers. This may mean that students in certain schools miss out, as their students may be under resourced or their parents may not be able to fund additional costs associated with certain modules and subjects.

“The introduction of a new Leaving Certificate P.E. syllabus, as a full optional subject.”“It is both significant and appropriate that a new Leaving Certificate Politics and Society syllabus will commence roll-out this Autumn in the centenary year of the Easter Rising”

 Fairness in Admission PoliciesThe Irish Second-level Students’ Union welcomes the transfer of some Catholic Schools to new patrons and the School Admissions and Excellence Legislation which will should ensure that there is fairness in admission policies for second-level schools. However, we believe that the legislation should be amended to completely prevent schools from discriminating against certain students on the basis of religion. The ISSU believes that admission to school should be based on proximity and there should be no discrimination in admission policies.

“The principles laid out in the equal status (admission to schools) bill 2016, but believe there are issues that require scrutiny, as laid out in the motion proposed by the government and passed by the Dáil. these include possible impacts on minority religions, the issue of mandatory catchment areas, impact on school transport, and issues of competing rights and the constitution. We will consider proposals on this issue following consideration by the Oireachtas committee.“

 Enhancement of Guidance CounsellorsWe would request that the Department put in place a structured plan and a detailed strategy on how the level of guidance counsellors will be increased and how guidance counsellors should be further trained to equip them with the skills to adequately provide mental health, emotional and wellbeing supports to students. All guidance counsellors should have suitable training and / or qualifications to fulfil their role and guidance must be included in Whole School Evaluations. We believe career guidance counselling is an imperative part of second-level education, due to restrictive subject choices and third level admission policies and believe that it is increasingly clear that adequate mental health and emotional supports are required for all young people and that these should be provided in schools through increased access to quality guidance counselling. The ISSU believes that this should be a priority in the Strategy for Education.

“We will enhance guidance counselling at second level, as resources allow.” “Increasing the take up of Mental Health Programmes, strengthening guidance counselling and strengthening NEPS with a new focus on whole-school policies.”