Life Learning

Friday 29 August 2014

So, who is Enda Kenny? Talking politics in the classroom

Ruairi Quinn wants Politics on the curriculum for the Leaving Cert. So why is he dropping CSPE for younger students?

Kim Bielenberg

Published 12/02/2014 | 02:30

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Facepalm: Most Junior Cert students in 2006 were unable to identify Enda Kenny (pictured here outside Leinster house). Photo: Tom Burke

Those advocating the teaching of politics in Irish classrooms probably don't know whether to laugh, cry or heckle loudly from the sidelines.

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On the one hand, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has announced that a new subject, Politics and Society, will be introduced at the Leaving Cert, after years of discussion.

On the other hand, CSPE (Civic, Social and Political Education) is being dropped as a compulsory subject in the new Junior Cycle curriculum. It will be downgraded to a short course.

Critics of education policy believe that the Minister may not have put the cart before the horse, but he has made the horse optional. As a result, generations could grow up completely clueless about our political system.

Jeanne Barrett,Chairperson the Association of CSPE Teachers, said: "We welcome the introduction of Politics at the Leaving Cert, but it makes no sense to downgrade CSPE at the same time. It's an absolute disaster."

For the first time since Donogh O'Malley introduced Civics as a compulsory subject in 1966, there will be no compulsory subject that deals with the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen.

Civics, and its successor CSPE, may have been commonly regarded as "doss" subjects, and a timetable filler for teachers, but their supporters argue that they at least gave students a basic grasp of how democracy works.

Every day when the Dáil is in session, there are CSPE students trooping through the Oireachtas , and holding mock debates. In the current syllabus there is a strong emphasis on active citizenship and issues such as human rights, the environment and racism.

Jeanne Barrett, who teaches CSPE at Loreto College, St Stephen's Green in Dublin, said: "Now it will depend on principals whether the subject is taught in a school. They might decide to go with a more fashionable subject such as Computers. A less well resourced school might choose not to do CSPE."

In a recent article in The Sunday Times, former Maynooth education lecturer Dr Gerry Jeffers pointed to research showing that civic awareness among Irish 14-year-olds was high in comparison with many other countries. He said the International Civic and Citizenship Study confirmed the value of CSPE, with Ireland ranked seventh.

Politics as a Leaving Cert subject has been discussed by education mandarins for at least eight years. Late last month, Ruairi Quinn indicated that a draft syllabus will not just gather dust and will be implemented.

Quinn announced his move in a reply to a parliamentary question from Fine Gael Cork South West TD, Jim Daly, formerly a school principal and Outreach education officer for the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Daly said there was an enormous appetite among second-level students for information relating to how their country was governed, particularly since the start of the recession.

In 2006, near the end of the boom, Ireland's Chief Examiner reported that "relatively few" CSPE students could identify senior politicians such as Enda Kenny, Pat Rabbitte and then-cabinet minister Mary Harney, in a Junior Cert paper. But they could recognise Bertie Ahern.

Jim Daly, who regularly visits schools and gives talks to students, says: "I think students are much more aware now, because in the recession families started talking more about politics and economics. The pupils recognise who the politicians are.

"I recently met a student in Bandon, and he asked me why government projections for economic growth were wrong for the fifth year in a row."

While James Daly supports citizenship education in schools, he does not believe CSPE should be compulsory."I believe it works better if students are engaged with the subject."

The Houses of the Oireachtas have a tailor-made programme for groups of CSPE students who visit. It generally lasts for two-and-a-half hours.

The pupils sit in the chamber, often meet their local TD, and then have a seminar about the workings of the oireachtas, and how legislation is passed.

Usually they are asked to debate a mock bill, which is a measure to impose a tax on Facebook.

One oireachtas official said: "The students can get very passionate about it and some of them think the tax is really going to happen."

The minister has not yet named a date for the introduction of the new Leaving Cert Politics course.

As well as learning about different political beliefs and topics such as globalisation and the role of the media in democracy, students will be given guidance on how to get on in small groups.

Perhaps some TDs could learn something if they studied the course.

According to the syllabus "students learn about developing good relationships with others and a sense of well-being in the group".

The course says students should be able to:

* Listen carefully to other points of view.

* Express emotion in appropriate ways.

* Help others to feel included in the group.

Mr Quinn has now asked officials to review the content of the Politics and Society syllabus to see if it needs updating before being introduced.

Curriculum planners could decide to highlight the role of social media in politics in the updated version. Twitter and Facebook were only in their infancy when the draft syllabus was being devised.

Leaving Cert Politics: What will they teach?

On its website, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment gives a summary of some of the key themes in the new Politics curriculum.

"(Students) will explore, for example, democracy in their local sports club and in their school , the potential for conflict between part-time employees and their employers, and the global reach of television and of video sharing sites such as YouTube."

"Through this, they will be exposed to the ideas of key social and political thinkers like Kate Millett, Karl Marx, Milton Friedman, John Locke, and Edward Said."

There is no mention of learning about the teachings of Bertie Ahern, Enda Kenny or the Healy-Raes' philosophy on drunk driving.

Students will also get an opportunity to complete a Citizenship project, which will enable them to apply their learning in action.

Their report on this Active Citizenship Project will account for 20pc of the final examination.

Irish Independent

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