📷 Irish Times

An exciting new development is promised for Irish education in 2024. The Programme for Government (PfG) in 2020 stated: We will establish a Citizens’ Assembly on the Future of Education, ensuring that the voices of the young people and those being educated are central.’ It is widely expected the process will begin early in the New Year.

Ireland has had many successes in hosting Citizens’ Assemblies on important social issues and topics.

What is a Citizens’ Asembly?

A Citizens’ Assembly brings citizens together to discuss and consider important legal and policy issues in Ireland. It then makes recommendations and reports back to the Oireachtas. Over the last decade citizens’ assemblies have been established to examine issues such as the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, population ageing, gender equality, biodiversity loss and drugs use.

The assemblies have been very successful, allowing an opportunity for experts with a range of opinions to address the citizens. There is reasoned and rational debate on topics with extensive informed media coverage on the various issues.

Such an assembly to consider the future of Irish education represents, according to the Minister for Education Norma Foley, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-imagine education and to consider Irelands education needs.” 

Extensive preparations and engagements have already taken place by the CAFÉ support group under the auspices of the Burren College of Art over the last five years. I was privileged to attend one of the symposia. Representatives from all sections of society were consulted and they discussed the possible issues, questions and processes by which the potential of the CAFÉ may be realised. Central to all the engagements was the voice of young people.

Shared Understanding

The PfG was clear about its aim.

We are committed to supporting the development of a shared understanding of the value of education which addresses how education can prepare people of all ages to meet new societal, environmental, technological and economic challenges which face us all.

We are all aware that the challenges to which it refers have only gained momentum since the programme was written in 2020. Since that time the world experienced the Covid pandemic, the reality of climate change and biodiversity loss are becoming ever more real and the potential and pitfalls of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are looming ever larger. In the past year, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated a migration crisis and more recently, a war has erupted in the Middle East. In the midst of numerous national and international challenges, it is more than timely now to take stock and to consider if and how the Irish education system is serving its citizens by preparing people of all ages to meet the challenges of a very complex world.

As a result of the widespread consultation of the CAFÉ support group, many common issues and questions have surfaced, some of which may, hopefully, underpin the future work of the assembly:

21st Century Skills: It is obvious that the Irish population will need a different skillset to deal with the challenges that will emerge in the next one hundred years. The question raised is how the Irish education system will embed the 21st century skills that will be needed to address the challenges.

Vision: As an island nation in Europe, agreement needs to be reached as to the unique principles and values that should inform a distinctive vision for Irish education. We need to articulate our aspirations for the ideal system.

Structure and Governance: The governance structures of schools and other places of lifelong learning that are currently in place were established at a very different time in a society with a strong monoculture. When the assembly agrees the principles and values for the system, it will then be necessary to recommend the changed structures that would best support those principles.

Teacher Empowerment: Teachers and school leaders need to be trusted to have the skillsets and the expertise to exercise professional judgements and have some latitude as to how and what they teach. The importance of initial teacher education, school leadership development and continuous professional development (CPD) cannot be overstated. Educators will be tasked with meeting a wide variety of emerging needs in relation to pedagogy, curriculum and assessment.

Whose Voices Will be Heard?
The commitment in the PfG is to keep the voice of young people and those being educated central to CAFÉ. This will require some new and creative facilitation processes. The voice of those on the margins of both society and of the current education system will be especially valuable in this context. 

There is no doubt that 2024 will bring many more challenges. However, for all of us who are passionate about education, it is heartening to know that the CAFÉ process will undertake its work and I sincerely hope that a world-class and unique shared vision for Irish education will emerge.


By Kathryn Crowley
Education Specialist
Emu Ink Publishing