News Colm O'Rourke

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Teachers' bad behaviour just lets Quinn off the hook

Colm O'Rourke shares many of the serious and genuine concerns of teachers about the new directions in education

Published 27/04/2014 | 02:30

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Heckling: teachers give Ruairi Quinn a poor reception. Photo: Patrick Browne
Heckling: teachers give Ruairi Quinn a poor reception. Photo: Patrick Browne
The bad manners displayed by some teachers towards Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn at the teachers' conferences didn't do them any favours
The bad manners displayed by some teachers towards Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn at the teachers' conferences didn't do them any favours

IT seemed a bit like feeding time at the zoo last week, especially when watching the Asti conference.

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The minister is entitled to a bit of respect, and the teachers involved in the bad manners have not helped their cause at all by focusing the public's attention away from some of the serious issues involved to the conduct of a small minority.

It seems an annual occurrence and makes many wonder how teachers expect to be treated with courtesy and respect in their classrooms and yet cannot manage it themselves with Ruairi Quinn.

In some ways too it lets the minister off the hook when there are very serious and genuine misgivings from all teachers about the new directions in education. If the minister was flying a kite about honours maths being needed for primary teachers, it was unnecessarily provocative.

It would be absolutely stupid to proceed on this basis. Some of very best teachers in the profession at the moment have not got and never would manage honours maths at Leaving Cert level but are outstanding in their work. Why on earth would they need maths at this level when it is only a minor part of the skill set they possess? Personality more than maths is far more important. It is a ridiculous suggestion.

The same can be said for the blanket imposition of extra points for honours maths irrespective of the course a student wants to pursue at third level.

It is fine to entice more into honours maths who are going to need it for careers in science, computers and engineering – but again it does not make any sense that it is applied across the board, especially in courses which have no maths content.

Some people just do not get maths but are disadvantaged in going for courses which suit them and – where no maths is involved – by students who get the bonus accruing from honours maths. Perhaps the minister would be better off looking at this, and getting rid of the extra language needed for entry into some of the universities as well. Forcing students to study a language – which they may never use – just to fulfil entry criteria for some colleges is discriminatory.

Junior Cert reform is badly needed. Nobody disputes that. However, serious concern is expressed by teachers about marking their own students. As a school principal, I would very much share these concerns of teachers in general.

Of course there are those at third level who say that they are doing this all the time so what is the big deal. Well, it is entirely different.

There is not the same intimate knowledge of students at third level as at second; you don't know the parents; and are perhaps not involved outside school in their football team, the band or the debating society. It would be very hard to mark down these students whom they know well and whose parents they maybe socialise with.

It is not a case of questioning teachers professionalism, just the facts on the ground. And what teacher will mark down their group when they will be concerned that it looks bad for their teaching? These are some of the genuine fears. The idea of having 2 to 3 per cent vetted from outside is not a runner at all – and of course there is the other rider thrown in that it is only the Junior Cert.

Well the thing is a national exam, and it is either important or not. If it is, then it must be done right – and at least the present system, for all its flaws, stands up to outside scrutiny in terms of independent marking.

Now we are all to embark on a new journey without knowing where we are going. Throw in the ball, but nobody knows the rules and how the game finishes. That is why teachers are hostile even if their methods of demonstrating this are questionable.

Yet it is worrying for me that I almost fully agree with the Asti position in relation to the Junior Cert, and I can see the same route for the Leaving Cert.

It is probably even more disconcerting for Asti to have me on its side, but the integrity in the awarding of grades must be protected. Anyway, students are doing plenty of project work at the moment and are being marked by outsiders as part of the normal State exam, so why should that practice not continue with the new Junior Cert?

At a recent meeting of school principals that I was at, there was universal approval for the overhaul of the Junior Cert but no one to my knowledge felt that the new marking system was the way to go. Maybe that message is not getting through to the minister. It is not teachers against change; change is an integral part of school life anyway.

For my part the introduction of new courses with on-going inservice training is the most disruptive part of school life. If the minister had all inservice training in August as part of the extra hours needed under Croke Park instead of the same course repeated over and over again for small groups of teachers during the year, it would make me think that somebody in power was thinking along the right lines.

The Government talks of greater efficiencies all round, but this is the most expensive inefficient waste ever and is not being tackled. More new Junior Cert courses on this basis only add to that waste.

So if teachers are a bit prickly I can fully understand – as all principals are too. Cuts in wages, pupil:teacher ratios, career guidance, special needs etc, have left many of us at breaking point in putting together timetables without time to look at the bigger picture. And nobody is crying wolf because we all know sacrifices have to be made.

Every minister deserves time to make his mark without being overly critical. Yet even I am beginning to think Minister Quinn is losing the plot. Perhaps his experience of education is of a different type, smaller classes, plenty of resources, everyone able to do transition year. That is not the reality of the vast majority who are under pressure and the minister has been less than gracious in acknowledging teachers' contributions to some of the recent improvements in standards of science and maths.

Changing the number of grades at Leaving Cert is also only window dressing. There is success and failure, as in every walk of life – and this now applies to the minister. His vision of education is quite unclear, having cut frontline resources while doing nothing about many inefficiencies. And last week he completely lost the teachers.

Sunday Independent

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