Quinn sparks fury of women teachers over honours maths claims
Day of disaster for minister as he upsets ASTI and INTO
Published 23/04/2014 | 02:30
EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn sparked uproar by linking the need for a better standard of maths among primary teachers with the high number of women in the profession.
The minister got a furious reaction when he suggested that girls make a conscious decision to drop honours maths before their Leaving Cert, regardless of their ability.
His linking of maths qualifications and gender, in front of a room of mostly women teachers at the INTO conference, prompted an angry response – forcing him to interrupt his speech for 34 seconds.
His unscripted comment came as he outlined how he wants higher level maths to be compulsory for entry to primary school teacher training college.
Mr Quinn described the profession as "highly feminised", reflecting the fact that 85pc of primary teachers are women.
The connection did not go down well with the 800 delegates at the Irish National Teachers' Organisation conference, who jeered the minister.
Mr Quinn was later forced to clarify exactly what he meant, claiming he was complimenting the ability of young women.
It was a disastrous day for the minister, who was later heckled by secondary teachers in the afternoon while talking about the thorny issue of junior cycle reform.
Mr Quinn would have been expecting a frosty reception from the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) conference in Wexford, but his earlier comments to the INTO in Kilkenny proved most controversial.
He told delegates: "Our research shows that young women who do the Junior Certificate and take higher level mathematics comfortably in the Junior Certificate exam drop higher level mathematics when they do their Leaving Certificate because it is not a requirement."
The rising rumbles of disapproval then forced him to interrupt his speech, and INTO president Brendan O'Sullivan had to ask for quiet.
At the end of the speech, apparently becoming aware of the hostile reaction, he said he "saluted" the work done by primary teachers.
Later still, he was forced to give a further clarification and said he had meant to compliment young women who were "very smart" and got good Junior Cert maths results.
"Then they realise they want to be a teacher, they realise they don't need higher level maths for entry into the teacher education system and that requires more work than ordinary level so they drop it," he said.
their Leaving Cert exams.
Before the conference session finished, INTO general secretary Sheila Nunan seized the opportunity to give Mr Quinn a good lesson in maths.
Her "hall hath no fury" opening line addressed to her "sisters" brought the hall to its feet.
Then, to the further glee of her members, she said: "I'm quite agnostic about honours maths, but the sisterhood know well the simple sums of the primary school are 30 into one teacher doesn't go very easily.
"Forty-six per cent cuts in assistant principal posts do not make for a good running of a school: 20, 40 and 86 pupils in a two, three, four-teacher-schools are not easily divided.
"So whatever way you multiply it, add it, subtract it, do the Pythagoras theorem, I have one message, minister – the sum we're looking for is an increase in the money that goes into education.
"It wasn't the honours maths that made the Irish women the way they are today, let me tell you. It was the boys who did the honours maths that led the country to ruination."
The minister's comments appeared to suggest a belief that the uptake of higher level maths among girls still lags behind that of boys, but the figures tell a different story.
Historically, higher-level maths was indeed dominated by boys and boys tend to do better in the subject, scoring more high grades.
However, nowadays, girls almost match the boys in the uptake of higher level.
Girls accounted for 47pc of honours candidates in last year's Leaving Certificate. And at Junior Cert level last year, slightly more than 50pc of candidates were female.
Mr Quinn came under fire within political circles – including one member of his own parliamentary party. Ireland South MEP Phil Prendergast said Labour election candidates would have to do some explaining on the doorsteps.
"Teachers will be annoyed at these comments, which shouldn't have been made," she said.
Former school principal and Fine Gael TD Mary Mitchell O'Connor said that female teachers had proven their ability in all subjects.
"There is no doubt in my mind that female teachers are equally as good, if not better, than their male counterparts at maths," she said.
Fianna Fail Education spokesman Charlie McConalogue said: "I have no problem agreeing with Minister Quinn on the need to encourage more men into teaching but we're not going to do that by insulting the thousands of female teachers we have at the moment.
"I think the minister's comments today were extremely ill-judged and bordering on sexist."
The maths row was just one incident on a nightmare day for Mr Quinn who was forced to stop another address to the ASTI four times due to heckling.
Teachers shouted "disgrace", "you are destroying us", "rubbish" and "Thatcherite" as Mr Quinn, suggesting the union lacked faith in its own teachers over controversial Junior Cert reforms.
Mr Quinn insisted last night that he was not frustrated or insulted by the ASTI's angry reaction to his Junior Cert stance.
"I accepted their invitation to address them and I spoke deliberately about an item of which there is some controversy. I wanted to communicate that to them.
"I did not intend to be provocative but I did want to be open and honest," he told the Irish Independent.