Saturday 16 December 2017

Ruairi's on the naughty step for using the f-word

Teachers give a rousing response to a speech by Sheila Nunan, INTO general secretary, yesterday.
Teachers give a rousing response to a speech by Sheila Nunan, INTO general secretary, yesterday.
Lise Hand

Lise Hand

THERE was skin and beards flying in the hall as around 450 choleric secondary school teachers angrily sent Ruairi Quinn to the naughty step.

The heckling began almost as soon as the Education Minister opened his mouth to address the ASTI conference in Wexford, with one hopping mad individual down the back (the bold ones are always at the back), keeping up a continual diatribe until he exited upon that lofty vehicle, high dudgeon.

Much more inventive was the delegate who began to barrack Ruairi through a large megaphone he had smuggled into the hall (under what must've been a most capacious jumper).

"You won't listen to us; can you hear me now?" he hollered, eventually handing it over to a security cigire once his point had been made at a suitably high decibel.

Infuriated teachers roared "Rubbish!" "Lies!" "You're insulting us!" throughout, in one of the more turbulent teachers' conferences of recent years. At one stage, ironic applause drowned out his effort to plough on regardless.

However, Ruairi wasn't in a placatory mood. Although he hadn't quite taken to the stage to the theme tune from 'Rocky', this was a pugnacious speech nonetheless.

And the bone of contention was his plan to radically transform the Junior Cert – and these plans have sparked widespread displeasure among the teachers. He told them the exam "was not an idea that the role of teachers is simply to delete imagination from the desktops of out young people".

More boos. Then he wanted to know why the teachers' union had what he described as a "fear of change – it begs the question: does your union have less faith in the professional capacity of you as teachers than I do?" Fighting talk, that.

Afterwards, he was sanguine about his rocky reception. "I didn't intend to be provocative, but I did want to be open and honest," he shrugged.

But if he picked that scrap, he certainly didn't choose the one in which he became embroiled at the INTO conference earlier that morning.

Ruairi's been around the block a bit – this is his fourth successive ministerial Stations of the Cross, aka the round of teachers' unions conferences. Therefore, he really should've known better than to invoke the f-word in a room packed predominantly with disgruntled women.

The Education Minister had been motoring quite nicely up until that point – unlike last year's Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) conference in Cork when his speech was enlivened by giant red cards and noisy heckles.

This year, he had been greeted by restrained applause from the 800 delegates in the Lyrath Hotel in Kilkenny, having been warned in advance of taking the stage by INTO President Brendan O'Sullivan that while the minister would be treated "with the respect and courtesy which is due your office", he shouldn't "misinterpret politeness for affirmation".

That was Ruairi told. But still he did what no government minister should ever do when addressing a crowd of beady-eyed citizens – he deviated from his carefully worded script.

Grumbles rose when he stated that he wanted to see higher level maths in the Leaving Cert becoming part of the minimum entry requirements for primary school teachers, but then he added that he wanted to explain his reasons "to a highly feminised audience and profession".

"OOOOOooo!" gasped the roomful of predominantly disgruntled female delegates, rearing up in outrage.

Amid the horrified hubbub, Ruairi continued doggedly, explaining that his department's "evidence-based" research shows that female students drop higher level maths after the Junior Cert, as it's not a requirement for entry to the teaching profession.

Cue prolonged shouty indignation; in fairness, it was more an unwise and silly use of the f-word by the minister than any deliberate insult to his audience.

But teachers, sick to the back molars of hearing that hairy old patronising balderdash that "girls' heads aren't the right shape for maths" or some such tripe, reacted with instinctive rage.

But they all still applauded him politely at the end. However, Ruairi wasn't out through the gap yet, for INTO general secretary Sheila Nunan took feisty advantage of the open goal before her.

Taking the podium after Ruairi, she got stuck in. "Sisters – hell hath no fury," she proclaimed to rapturous roars and a standing ovation.

"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," she declared to more noisy delight.

And then Sheila delivered the coup de grace on behalf of the sisterhood. "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 led the country to ruination," she concluded.

The minister has one more bunfight – or fight – to go, when he addresses the Teachers' Union of Ireland this afternoon.

But perhaps he's keeping an eye on the other looming scrap that may affect him, what with all the talk of an impending cabinet reshuffle.

Ruairi has made it clear he doesn't want to go anywhere, and even as the dust settled in Wexford, he was insisting: "I am finding it absolutely stimulating, very, very interesting and I would like to continue and see through some of the projects I've initiated."

Including the controversial new Junior exam? What would happen if – heaven forfend – he was shifted from his gig before his plan was implemented?

"I would hope to be in the position to have pushed the boat out so far that it can't be recalled," he declared.

Buachaill dana, Ruairi . . .

Irish Independent

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