News Sarah Carey

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Sarah Carey: Snobbery, not religion is the problem in our primary schools

Published 25/04/2014 | 15:44

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Students Answering Teacher Question
More cuts could be on the way

THE “debate” on school patronage kicked off by the teacher conference season is as predictable as ever.

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The default argument is that the priests must be ejected, even though our national schools are extremely well run.

Ireland features high in OECD rankings on literacy. In Europe we’re second only to Finland. So yes, 95pc of primary schools are in Catholic Church patronage, but they seem to be doing a pretty good job of it.

Last year, the Department of Education conducted surveys in 38 towns on this apparently controversial issue.

The most striking result was the dismal response rate; less than 10pc in many cases. This shows that despite media focus, parents aren’t that interested in wrestling control of schools from the church.

Also odd is why the hand-wringing over “inclusivity” is largely directed at Catholic schools even though my children’s friends at the local national school are Nigerian, Russian and Asian.

But there isn’t a word about the rather obvious lack of ethnic diversity at the Gaelscoileanna. Why is that?

But what I find most odd is the universally accepted principle that the most important priority is to provide parents with a choice of whichever private patron suits their cultural or religious desires.

This choice is guaranteed under Article 42.2 of our Constitution, which further states that no parent will be forced to send their child to any state run school.

It’s private patrons all the way, be they Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Gaeilscoil, multi-denominational and for all the complaints about religion, only a sprinkling of non-denominational.

I say odd because whatever weaknesses there are in the system have been exacerbated not by religion, but snobbery.

That’s because once you introduce choice; inequality is inevitable. What do I mean?

What effect would it have on our health system if every management grade civil servant and every TD were prohibited from taking out private health insurance? Don’t you think that would provide an urgent incentive to improve it?

What effect would it have on education if article 42.2 of the constitution was abolished? If pupils had no choice about what school to go to, I’d say we’d get a pretty radical increase in investment and by extension, standards – wouldn’t you?

A non-denominational, non-culturally separatist, comprehensive school system could be the best thing for Irish primary education. We should retain the independent boards of management, which clearly work well.

But unfortunately to drive out the inequality that allows too many pupils to slip through the net, I regret to conclude that private patronage may have to go too. The role model for this is highly regarded Finland. It has a similar population size and distribution to Ireland. Twenty years ago it was bottom of the league tables. Now it’s one of the top. How?

First, they closed one third of the schools: mostly the small rural ones. Parents love those small schools with just a few teachers. They’re charming, innocent and intimate places.

But centralisation of teaching skills was the cornerstone of the overhaul. Compare it to the Centres of Excellence in cancer care.

Secondly, there are hardly any private schools. Everyone is forced into larger schools in the local town. By reducing the number of schools, the Finns could invest in small class sizes and importantly – teacher training. All teachers are trained to Master’s Degree level.

You won’t find journalists there complaining about politicians being teachers. Teachers have status and there’s intense competition for places in training colleges.

It’s a left wing solution and therefore is never mentioned by our pseudo-left wing parties. That’s because Irish parents, accustomed to ruthlessly pursuing what’s best for their own child would go ballistic at such a proposal and defeat a referendum. Instead everyone quotes the money thrown at Finnish education, without explaining the structural differences.

If the people want a choice so be it, but they should know it comes at a price.

Lister here for Sarah discussing the topic on Newstalk

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