News Politics

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Reforming zeal ruffled feathers but also won the minister plaudits

Katherine Donnelly

Published 03/07/2014 | 02:30

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Ruairi Quinn's decision to resign from the front bench was clearly a pre-emptive strike
Ruairi Quinn's decision to resign from the front bench was clearly a pre-emptive strike

EVEN those who didn't agree with everything he did were warm in their tributes for the minister who dared to venture where others feared to go.

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Ruairi Quinn's reforming zeal was evident from the start of his time in the job that he wanted more than anyone else.

The usual departmental briefing to a new minister contained an invitation to address the annual meeting of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association (CPSMA) within 48 hours of taking office.

There was an incorrect presumption that, at such an early stage in his tenure, he might choose not to go or, at very least, avoid making any policy pronouncements.

The new minister assured them that he knew exactly what he wanted to say and, so, he chose the CPSMA conference to announce the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector to loosen the control of the Catholic Church on the education system

His role as Labour education spokesperson in the period immediately preceding his appointment gave him an insight into the issues and once he sat in the seat in Marlborough Street, he set the political ball rolling.

Ruairi Quinn had high ambitions for the pace of the move to a more pluralist education system, but had to eat his words when confronted with the reality that tinkering with anything in education requires, at the very least, time and consultation.

His forum announcement set the tone for 40 roller-coaster months of initiatives, policies and proposals for reform. His breathtaking pace was sometimes too much for those tasked with implementing change, such as principals and teachers, who simultaneously had to deal with the minister's other hand stripping staff and cash resources from schools.

That such cuts happened because, as the minister kept repeating, "we have lost our sovereignty, we are not writing our own cheques", was of no comfort to those who daily had to deal with overcrowded classrooms or the loss of a guidance counsellor. Many wondered did the minister fight hard enough at the cabinet table to protect education.

His wide-ranging agenda stretched from loosening church control on the education system to long talked-about reforms in the curriculum at second level, for which previous ministers had shown little appetite.

For over 20 years, experts have been saying that the reform required at Junior Certificate level must include teachers taking on a role in assessing their own students, rather than a reliance on a state exam.

The current system encourages a "learning off by heart" approach to get through the exam that does not serve the needs of students well. The view is that if the system of assessing students does not change then there is no hope of the necessary teaching reforms in the classroom.

Mr Quinn took the advice of the experts, but, in a move uncharacteristic of an otherwise collaborative approach, announced the abolition of the Junior Cert without consulting with the unions.

Many teachers are uncomfortable with taking on that responsibility, and the unions have told Mr Quinn that they are having none of it. So he leaves office with much unfinished business on that front.

At Leaving Certificate level, there was general agreement that the points system was putting too much pressure on Leaving Certificate students. But there was a nervousness about tinkering with something that was regarded as blunt but fair. The minister took on that challenge and painstaking work is under progress.

Sometimes he got it wrong and he had to come out with his hands up and reverse his decision, like the time he cut teachers from disadvantaged schools, or, on another occasion, resource teachers. And he was never allowed to forget that he went back on his promise not to increase third-level fees.

Irish Independent

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