CEO blog

So much can change in 90 days

When I was appointed as CEO of Educate Together at the end of last year, I didn’t imagine my first 90 days would look like this. Since I started in the role in February, all our lives have changed utterly. 

School buildings are closed because of Covid-19 and will remain so until the end of the school year. This has prompted really important questions about the role of schools, and what really matters. In Educate Together, our Charter commits us to supporting all children to explore their full range of abilities and opportunities. Ensuring every child gets the support they need is now a bigger challenge than ever. 

Tusla has reported that referrals to their child protection services are significantly down, which is not surprising since schools make up a quarter of reports each year regarding children at risk. While there are some children and young people who – for different reasons – will relish time at home, for some of our most vulnerable, school provides stability, support and important relationships that will be sorely missed at this time. 

For the teachers and school leaders now working from home, the way they support their students has had to fundamentally change. There has been much to admire in the way schools and teachers have altered their practice and found ways of connecting with students and scaffolding learning. From virtual assemblies, to creative ways of delivering food, to online debates about the ethics of lockdown, I have been heartened by the amazing examples of innovation I am seeing in our schools. 

This has required enormous efforts, and all while facing the same challenges of remote working that we are all facing – whether that involves coping with isolation or juggling childcare. 

To suggest that schools can simply shift teaching to an online platform is to overlook the complexity of the learning process, the importance of relationships and the need to adapt to the changing needs of diverse families. To provide continuity of learning for all students, without causing undue stress for children and parents, and without increasing existing inequalities, is incredibly challenging. Much of the work that is going into this transformation of learning is invisible. All of it requires considerable educational expertise, as well as support. To all our teachers and school leaders: we are in awe of your efforts, and we are here to support you. 

The national office too is adapting to an unprecedented working landscape. We are working from home, and with reduced resources. Because of projects that ended in 2019, and because Covid-19 has wiped out our fundraising plans, we have had to say sad goodbyes to some of our colleagues, and remaining staff are on a reduced working week. But the work goes on and our amazing team has found new ways of representing and supporting our school network in these challenging times. 

Behind the scenes, work has continued apace on expanding the network to meet the ever-increasing demand for Educate Together school places. In April the Minister awarded patronage of three new primary schools to Educate Together. Whilst the celebrations around these announcements have been overshadowed, this is fantastic news for the families in Cork and Dublin who campaigned for these schools. 

Getting a new school off the ground in five short months is always challenging, and this year we are having to reinvent the process. Instead of holding public meetings in local halls in these communities, the team are having to find new ways of providing information, processing enrolments, and recruiting staff. The challenge of ensuring the schools have suitable accommodation ready is also increased. But we will work with our partners in new ways too to meet these challenges, and are looking forward to welcoming the junior infants of Owenabue ETNS, Cherrywood ETNS and Rathcoole ETNS into the Educate Together community when schools reopen in September 2020. 

Adapting to our new reality, with much of the noise of modern life stripped away, requires us all to focus in on what really matters.* Our Leaving Cert and Leaving Cert Applied students deserve all our support and sympathy for the impossible situation they find themselves in – it is depressing that our narrow exam culture is such that we can’t come up with a better alternative than extending their torture by two months, and forcing them into exam halls together in situations of heightened stress. 

This, and the intense media and public focus on the exams forces us to ask if this is what really matters to us as a society? The exam – rather than the learning. And the preservation of the myth of objectivity and fairness – rather than the wellbeing of our young people.   

As a newly appointed CEO, I have been working with the team to refine and implement our strategic plan. This involves a lot of listening – listening to the concerns of our teachers and school leaders; listening to the students and parents who choose Educate Together schools, and those who want to. And listening to our partners so that we can build stronger relationships and work together to achieve our mutual aims. 

While that listening would normally have taken place in schools, or at conferences and congresses, it is now happening through virtual meetings and online surveys and I want to thank everyone who has generously shared their views on Educate Together’s work. Through these conversations, however they happen, we are zeroing in on the best and most efficient ways to achieve the commitments in our Charter – to respect every child’s background equally, to support all children to explore their full range of abilities and opportunities, and to promote a future where equality-based education is as freely available as any other educational option. 

In Educate Together we need to ensure that our limited resources are put to work where they are most needed. And the same is true of the education system, and the country at this time. It been encouraging, therefore, to see our public representatives talking about avoiding another era of austerity in navigating the country out of the inevitable economic difficulties it will face due to Covid-19. 

As we proceed though the coming months to reopen our workplaces, services and schools, we need our new government to prioritise education, and within that to prioritise our most vulnerable. Cuts to front line education services at this time would serve only to jeopardise the wellbeing of Ireland’s children and young people. Now is the time for the state to safeguard and invest in children, their future and the future of our society. 

Let’s hope the next 90 days see us all working together to do just that.

Emer Nowlan

CEO, Educate Together



*This blog was published on 2 May 2020.