Analysis

Saturday 26 July 2014

Ruairi Quinn should teach these wolves a lesson

Teachers need to worry less about themselves and more about the future of education

Emer O'Kelly

Published 27/04/2014|02:30

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Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn
Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn

A good vocabulary is a wondrous thing. It's quite possible that even some schoolteachers would agree. And during the past few days, I've heard a wide vocabulary being employed by many people to describe a certain group: hooligans, gurriers, guttersnipes, thugs, louts, morons, idiots.

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Those are the nouns; then there were a few adjectives: infantile, contemptible, disgraceful, outrageous, self-serving, ignorant, despicable. Not surprising really: ordinary members of society, who believe in a certain level of decent behaviour, can be expected to condemn disruptive, threatening behaviour when it's indulged in by cudgel-wielding casual dock labourers, even if those labourers are on starvation wages with no union to protect them.

Oh, sorry. We don't have casual dock labourers on starvation wages anymore. Anyway, history has shown that such people are more than capable of behaving with dignity.

The terminology I've heard used so widely over the past few days referred to the 27,000 Irish men and women (mostly women) to whom Irish parents are forced to entrust the second-level civic and academic formation of their children's lives (not to mention their "faith formation"). They earn more than €60,000 a year on average, take three months' paid holiday, have protected pensions, and jobs for life.

The behaviour of the members of all three teachers' trade unions, especially that of the supposed cream level, the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (Asti), was aimed at the democratically elected Government minister in charge of our education system.

They invited him to address their conferences, an invitation particularly dear to a man who as a convinced socialist has a lifelong commitment to trade unionism. And like a pack of baying wolves, they howled down Ruairi Quinn, who behaved with extraordinary dignity and grace. In the circumstances many of us would think he should have replied in kind, but he has the disadvantage of being a civilised human being.

He is also arguably the best Minister for Education since the late Donogh O'Malley, the man who introduced universal second-level education. Quinn is prepared to tell the truth rather than uttering congratulatory platitudes (our system is not fit for purpose, he has dared to say, not at all the much-vaunted "best in the world"). He also wants to ensure that blanket control of the education system by religious authorities (effectively the Roman Catholic Church) is ended in favour of the inclusiveness of religious, even secular, choice.

The past week's display of reactionary spite and bloodymindedness has been the teachers' response to his "failures".

National teachers howled down the Minister in Kilkenny when he announced plans to require those planning a career in teaching to have honours maths in their Leaving Certs. This from the people who howl equally loudly about their own academic brilliance. And Mr Quinn was wilfully misunderstood when he spoke of the female-dominated profession as being high achievers quite capable of dealing with such an entirely reasonable requirement.

In Wexford, at the Asti conference, the "man with the megaphone", Andrew Phelan, justified behaviour that most parents (among others) later described as utterly unacceptable.

What the minister was suggesting to the Asti conference was that the reforms to the Junior Cycle, which will require them to do a bit of work, will assist young men and women in later life to display innovative and analytical skills, rather than regurgitating facts which they have absorbed without thought or interest.

It was noticeable, however, that Sally Maguire, the President of Asti, defended her members as being in favour of many of the reforms envisaged by the minister; except the plan to have pupils assessed by their own teachers in the Junior Cycle rather than sitting the Junior Cert exams.

A lot of people will have decided, perhaps unfairly, that far from being on the side of the youngsters in wanting to be "their advocates rather than their judges" as Maguire said on radio, what teachers are resisting is the prospect of having to do a bit of extra work. And the Teachers' Union of Ireland, united with Asti in opposing the Junior Cycle reforms, was making hay while it had the minister on the platform: its president John MacGabhann warned that "not too far from now" all teaching unions would be "reinstating" pay claims. The lord help us all.

I have a piece of advice for Minister Quinn if he remains in Education after the reshuffle (I hope the Taoiseach has the sense to leave him and his vision for a better, more mature school-leaving cohort right where they are).

He should follow the example of Alan Shatter, and tell the teachers' unions that until they grow up, as well as learning a modicum of restraint and manners ... they can shove their invitations to address conference.

Because if we have learned anything last week, it is that the current education system and its current points structure attracts entirely the wrong kind of people into teaching.

Sunday Independent

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