Educate Together, Working Together: A Partnership Approach

Article submitted to journal of PAI February 10 2010

Educate Together is an educational charity that sets up and manages schools based on a legal commitment to provide equality of access and esteem to children irrespective of their social, cultural or religious background.  Established 30 years ago as a number of school projects, this schooling model has now matured and moved into the mainstream. Over the past 10 years, parents have increasingly sought out our model for the education of their children. In 2010, Educate Together runs 56 primary schools with 45 primary and 3 second-level school applications pending. It is now embarking on a five-year plan during which it hopes to establish a world-class support service for its expanded network.

This progress has been driven by the commitment of parents and volunteers and the dedication of our staff. It has only come about as a result of very high levels of assistance from the Department of Education and Science. From this point of view, the partnership approach envisaged in the 1998 Act has worked well and from its earliest beginnings, Educate Together has seen that maximum benefit to the children it aims to serve accrues from a constructive engagement with the DES at all levels.

Thankfully, there is now almost universal recognition of the strategic importance of education for the future economic and social prosperity of the country. Ireland will only thrive if we can educate the current generation of children in our schools to the highest possible standards. Science and mathematics, the social skills to work in teams, and an emphasis on critical awareness, creativity and innovation  have all come into sharp focus. To meet the modern demands of society, the system must recognise its weaknesses, adapt and innovate. To do this at a time of fiscal constraint, our society should explore the efficiencies available to it from independent initiative and the deep tradition of volunteerism within the education system. It is still a remarkable statistic, that uniquely in the developed world, our primary education system is managed by 23,000 volunteers. A conservative estimate of the replacement cost of this social capital exceeds €250m pa.

The Department of Education and Science has worked well with independent educational bodies over the years. In the educational field, this supportive relationship is underlined by a constitutional obligation to support ‘private and corporate initiative’. At a time when there is an acknowledged demand for choices of school type in many areas, it is important that the concept of independent initiative does not become a victim of the debate. Quite apart from the educational and social benefits, partnership relations with independent school providers offer significant advantages at a time when state resources are severely constrained.

Over our years of work with the DES, this approach has provided considerable dividends. Constructive engagement on policy matters has seen the process of provision of school buildings revolutionised and considerable advances in school management and service delivery especially in the areas of quality of teaching, learning supports for children and provision for special needs.

One of the greatest improvements we have seen is in the emergence of evidence and criteria based processes that are beginning to replace the culture of decision-making only through local political pressure. The growing transparency and accountability in departmental decision-making is also to be welcomed and deserves wide encouragement and support.

However, today we see this relationship undermined by the manner in which the State is attempting to balance its books. We see vital institutional knowledge being lost through the lack of replacement of senior staff in government departments, middle management being damaged through the same process and significant undermining of morale through strongly perceived inequity in the implementation of pay reductions. From a service providers point of view, these factors overlay a number of years  disruption caused by the decentralisation program.

In schools themselves, we are facing similar pressures in the interface between teachers with reduced salaries at a time of rising mortgage interest rates and parents who are similarly stressed. Indeed, we are seeing daily an increasing number out of work. The moratorium on posts of responsibility is effecting schools disproportionately. One school, quite by chance, can be unscathed whilst another can see its middle management team decimated by a run of statutory leave and retirements.

It appears to us that a mature partnership approach between independent management bodies and government departments should allow us to manage this situation better; to be able to ensure that as the State retrenches its costs, it keeps to the minimum, collateral damage to quality of its processes.

To do this, we all need to communicate better. All recessionary times provide policy dividends if we can identify them through the noise of conflict and grasp them. In particular, we need to confront any unwillingness to publicly engage in debate on major issues. In education, such issues include, the future of school patronage and second-level reform.

We feel that now is the time to redouble efforts to make constructive partnership work. In this regard we feel that process should flow from this partnership and not obstruct it.

In building Educate Together into a substantive provider of primary education we have introduced our ethos to many thousands of parents nationwide. These parents have embraced our approach to education and are enthusiastic for its development into second level. Accordingly we have crafted a blueprint for second level education that has been received positively by the department and widely endorsed by industry experts and commentators. However we have no process whereby we can progress this programme into life. We have encountered similar difficulties with our primary programme. Getting information on the progress of the decision process has been slow and the mechanism has become opaque. Parents awaiting clarity on their children’s future interpret this unexplained delay as disinterest in their need. Respect for government and public service suffers accordingly. This is being seen as a regressive step for a country with progressive expectations for its governance.

Ireland’s education needs are changing. The Department of Education and Science has to provide new schools to meet growing demand. In Educate Together, the DES has a ready partner, willing to provide the governance and management resources to facilitate this programme. A partner should do no less.

Paul Rowe

Chief ExecutiveEducate Together