INTO calls for high speed broadband and increased ICT investment

Earlier this week, the Department of Education announced that it had sought €66.5 million from the Next Generation EU fund and National Recovery and Resilience Plan 2021 to provide digital infrastructure and funding to schools.

The Department of Education’s proposal to the EU comprises two projects in the digital area: Project A aims to support high speed broadband connectivity in all primary schools and Project B plans to fund interventions to address the digital divide, particularly access to digital devices and relevant ICT infrastructure.

The INTO notes that the objective of the Department’s proposal is to ensure that all learners are equipped with appropriate skills for the digital age. The vision of the Draft Primary Curriculum Framework seeks to embed digital technology across all curricular areas, striving to ensure that pupils develop the key competency of ‘being a digital learner’. To achieve that vision every primary school pupil must have access to a rich digital learning environment, including modern technology both at school and at home.

The INTO recognises the acceptance by Minister Foley that during the pandemic:

For some students, a lack of infrastructure impeded their ability to engage with remote learning and this digital divide will also impact their capacity to engage fully with digital technology and development of digital skills.

We welcome the second aspect of the government’s proposal, which seeks to provide enhanced digital infrastructure for schools and to address learners at risk of educational disadvantage through the digital divide by providing funding to schools.

However, the INTO is deeply concerned that the proposal from the Department to the EU is limited to providing high speed broadband to only one third of primary and special schools.

Government previously promised that Under Project Ireland 2040, the use of digital technologies in teaching, learning and assessment through the Digital Strategy for Schools will be supported. This union believes that if government fails to prioritise the installation of high-speed broadband in every primary and special school – in tandem with investment in digital technology – another generation of Irish children will be denied the opportunity to develop essential digital literacy skills. Ireland simply cannot afford to make that mistake again.

With limited resources, often at their own expense, school leaders and teachers in primary and special schools have demonstrated commitment and creativity in incorporating digital technologies into their planning to support teaching. They recognise its potential to enhance quality of learning and its importance in promoting essential skills for our young people in the 21st century. The emergency closure of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic saw teachers embrace technology to allow learning to continue remotely in the most challenging circumstances. In many cases, our members were forced to upskill rapidly and source distance-learning courses in ICT.

Whilst teachers have exhibited admirable determination and flexibility in adapting to these developments, their experiences were not uniform. Despite long-awaited investment in technology for schools as part of the existing Digital Strategy (2015-2020), many schools still do not have access to appropriate resources, digital devices or adequate broadband connectivity. Consequently, they are not in a position to create the digital learning environment required to meet the needs of a modern primary school curriculum and to cultivate digital literacy among pupils.

The INTO commends the ongoing work of teachers in the area of digital learning and acknowledges the potential of ICT. We note that government will enter discussions with teacher unions on a proposal that our members will support the use of technology to the greatest extent possible to maintain teaching and supports to children during unexpected closures.

In advance of these discussions, we strongly urge the Department of Education to reflect upon and learn from the challenges experienced by primary school teachers and principals as outlined in our submission on a revised digital strategy and to implement our recommendations to support the development and progression of digital technology in primary and special schools.

This union’s recent submission to the Department of Education serves to underscore the discrepancies that persist in Irish primary and special schools. It emphasises the need to address these inadequacies in order for the ambitions of a revised digital strategy to be realised.

The concerns raised by the INTO include:

  • The unavailability of resources
  • Poor connectivity
  • ICT maintenance and centralised technical support for schools
  • Large class sizes
  • Failure to provide continuous professional development
  • Cyber-safety
  • The lack of posts of responsibility

The INTO recommends that a revised digital strategy addresses the following:

  • The need for increased investment in ICT at primary school level to ensure all schools are equipped with the necessary infrastructure to allow pupils access to all required devices;
  • The provision of high-speed broadband to all primary schools, with a reliable network that extends to all areas of the school;
  • The development of digital content both in English and as Gaeilge by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) to support the redeveloped primary curriculum and meet the diverse needs of pupils in Irish primary schools;
  • The adequate resourcing of the Professional Development Support Service for Teachers (PDST) to provide a range of upskilling opportunities for teachers in ICT including sustained support, enabling them to engage with digital technology and to provide digital learning opportunities for their pupils;
  • The provision of assistive technologies and ICT resources (with the relevant continuous professional development) by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) to facilitate the inclusion of children with special educational needs;
  • The re-establishment of middle-management posts in primary schools to enable a coordinated approach to the integrated development of technology usage across the curriculum in all classrooms;
  • The development of an integrated approach to procurement and technical support for all primary schools.

INTO President Joe McKeown stated:

It is imperative that high speed broadband is installed as soon as possible in every primary and special school to ensure that Irish children and teachers can access 21st century teaching and learning resources. If the government secures funding from the EU to support one third of schools, they must augment that funding so that all schools have high-speed broadband installed quickly. For far too long, we’ve witnessed a piecemeal approach to the development of digital literacy. The pandemic has taught us that without the dedication and improvisation of teachers the neglectful approach of successive governments would have denied our pupils vital learning experiences. The present government must invest heavily in ICT to ensure our primary and special schools are never left in such a precarious position again.