Innovation in Education: Gamechanger Dialogue 8-10th May 2019


By Michael Barron

“This gathering of key stakeholders and innovators was unique in both its approach and outcome. The event encouraged and supported broad information sharing and deep collaboration as well as out of the box thinking that I feel could yield real outcomes to benefit student access” –participant

On the stunning West Coast of Ireland between May 8 – 10th we were delighted to bring together an extraordinary group of 70 education innovators and leaders to address urgent issues and to support change in our education system.

We had an inspiring few days at the Burren College of Art, in beautiful Co Clare. Our aim was to create a respectful and creative dialogue for Ireland between education innovators,  policymakers and exceptional individuals who work across the system every day in order to address urgent problems in the existing education system.

The Gamechanger Dialogue was created in partnership with The Teaching Council of Ireland, The National Association for Principals and Deputy Principals and Trinity College Dublin – deeply credible stakeholders with long histories of supporting positive developments in the system.

Participants included representatives from The Department of Education and Skills, The Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Tusla, The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, Education and Training Board Ireland, The National Youth Council of Ireland and The National Council for Special Education

Social Innovation Fund Ireland funds a number of pioneering projects in the Education sector, which have developed some exciting insights into enhancing learning opportunities for a wide range of students in both in-school and out-of-school settings. Throughout the three days, these projects presented their work and the context for wider conversations about approaches to inclusive education.

“The opportunity to interact with colleagues from the education spectrum is invaluable. The use of the cluster groups provided an opportunity to develop ideas into actions to be explored.” – Participant

Most of our time together was spent in three thematic cluster groups, which engaged in particular areas of work to foster a more inclusive education system. These were:

  1. .‘Pathways and Inclusion’ (Establishing and supporting viable pathways to and through Basic, Further and Higher Education for people from marginalised communities).
  2. ‘Getting to College’ (Improving progression rates from under-served communities, Junior and Senior Cycle Reforms, integrated working across Departments and new partnerships).
  3. Alternative Education’ (Giving appropriate priority to young people not in mainstream schools, building on models that work and exploring the potential for funding to follow the young person)

Throughout the three days participants worked creatively in these groups to deeply consider issues which are ‘stuck’ in our education system. They moved on to identifying potential area ‘acupuncture points’ and ways to move forward together in these areas.

So what happened?

The value of collaboration should never be underestimated, this event gave me such motivation as I understood that so many others shared the same goals and values” – Participant.

On the first day, we heard about education policy change from international perspectives.

Mark Fuster, Education Policy Analyst from the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) spoke about the need for schools to work together with social services and local communities to make sure interventions are developed to address the underlying causes of poverty and marginalisation, as well as the physical and mental health needs of students and their opportunities for structured learning beyond formal learning time. Here Marc emphasised the need to bring together students, schools and their communities and spoke of the complexity of education systems – whereby the same intervention doesn’t work in every context and hence the need to offer different support alternatives in different national contexts.

Anastasia Crickley – Former Chairperson of UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and founder of Pavee Point, spoke of the problem with discussing educational ‘disadvantage’ and proposed that we place greater emphasis on education as a human right. In her talk, Anastasia highlighted Ireland’s obligations to provide education  – drawing on international treaties and also highlighting the Sustainable Development Goals. She also spoke about the need to see education as ‘life-long’, an approach which would better support learners to enter and exit the system in response to the reality of their lives. She emphasisedalso spoke of the need for greater parity of esteem between policymakers, teachers, learners, families and communities – a theme which emerged throughout the event.

Michael Salvatori is the Registrar and CEO of the Ontario School of Teachers. He spoke about transforming the education system in Ontario through a number of phases. These include teacher wellbeing, focusing on mental health (including addiction) across the school system and celebrating diversity. Ontario has introduced an innovative teacher education module that incorporates contextual knowledge, health, indigenous communities, transitions, diversity and collaborative school culture.


We also heard from Professor Pat Dolan, Dr Cormac Forkan and Dr Tanja Kovacic from the National University of Ireland Galway, who presented early findings of an evaluation of Social Innovation Fund Ireland’s Education Fund and awardees. The researchers emphasised that they are taking an ‘Emancipatory Research’ approach, where the focus is on making the research user-friendly, producing usable knowledge and evidence. Key messages from the research with awardees to date include 1. Alternative ways of learning are being used effectively; 2. Mentorship is key – particularly by those who have had similar experience; 3. The focus is on personal development skills; 4. Caring and supportive relationships with staff and other participants is a key; 5. Projects act as sanctuaries for learners.

On the final day participants worked with facilitators to develop a series of 14 action points and plans to be brought forward from the Game Changer Dialogue.  In identifying these actions, participants highlighted a vision for inclusion in the area, the challenges faced and the structure or vehicle needed to deliver the change. They also established who the relevant stakeholders are and committed to working together further to realise the change. These 14 action points will form the basis of the forthcoming Gamechanger Dialogue Action Report, which in turn will be used to develop further actions.

We will leave the final words to participants at the event, who said the following:

“This event enabled a much needed discussion about crucial societal topic by bringing together all key actors in the area of education. Respect, dialogue and appreciation for other people’s views and experiences were key drivers of this event. Walking the Burren, discussing and thinking made this event special!”

“The Gamechanger event provided a real opportunity to feel and witness the passion that exists in our country to do the best we possibly can for every single person within our education system; pupil, learner, teacher and policy maker alike”.

“The Gamechanger Dialogue in education event was exactly as it promised – an opportunity to change the dialogue in education . “leave no one behind” was a stand out comment for me from the 3 days and an aspiration that with the will and cross sectorial support is very possible”.

“The event and location gave us the time and space to step out of our respective corners of education, have a meaningful dialogue about what positive change is needed and take the first steps together before leaving. It was hugely encouraging”.

“An enlightening handful of days, the game changer dialogue delivers on the experience of facing the difficult truths of the education system head on”.