Monday 16 September 2019

Shaping education history

John Walshe reviews two new books that trace the story from the birth of national schools in the 1800s to an era of 'lifelong learning'

Prof John Coolahan (second left), Sonia O’Sullivan and Labhrás Ó Murchú, who were recently awarded honourary doctorates by DCU for outstanding contributions to education, sport, culture and music, with (on left) DCU chancellor, Dr Martin McAleese and DCU President, Prof Brian McCraith. Photo: Nick Bradshaw
Prof John Coolahan (second left), Sonia O’Sullivan and Labhrás Ó Murchú, who were recently awarded honourary doctorates by DCU for outstanding contributions to education, sport, culture and music, with (on left) DCU chancellor, Dr Martin McAleese and DCU President, Prof Brian McCraith. Photo: Nick Bradshaw

John Walshe

The Budget boost for education is welcome, but the sector's slice of national spending is still not as generous as it should be, given that there are around 1.1 million full time students and staff in our schools and colleges.

In fact, the share taken by health and social protection has been rising much more rapidly and is now far greater than that for education where increases in spending have been much more modest.

In 1981, education was the second biggest area of government spending as Prof John Coolahan noted in his seminal work Irish Education - History And Structure, a book with which every teacher trainee is familiar. The funding issue is just one of many topics he returns to in a worthy follow-up, Towards The Era Of Lifelong Learning - A History Of Irish Education 1800-2016, published by the Institute of Public Administration.

It's in three parts: the first deals with Irish education from 1800 to 1960, and the second with developments from 1960-1980. The third, taking up half the book, brings us bang up to date. It is the one in which most readers will initially be interested, as many of the personalities and events referred to are still fresh in people's memories. But it is worthwhile reading the earlier chapters, which set the groundwork for subsequent developments.

Coolahan is both an educational historian and shaper of that history. He has been involved in preparing most of the major official policy papers over the past few decades, covering everything from early childhood education, teacher training, the arts, school divestment, school leadership, curricular reform, and higher and adult education. Green papers, white papers, position papers, convention reports, discussion papers etc - he has been involved in most of them. which is a testimony to how successive administrations have recognised his abilities. His expertise has also been called upon by the education division of the international think tank, the OECD.

He has a deep love and understanding of the arts, which was why former education minister, Ruairi Quinn, asked him to chair the implementation group for the Charter for the Arts Education, launched in 2013. The Department of Education had a track record of ignoring reports about the arts in education and Coolahan was apprehensive about history repeating itself. But, once he was convinced of the bona fides of officials in both departments he readily agreed to chair the group. Despite the limited funds available in this area, a lot has been achieved since, as the website readily shows.

Professor John Coolahan. Photo: Nick Bradshaw
Professor John Coolahan. Photo: Nick Bradshaw

The charter and the implementation group are dealt with in a single paragraph in this fine, crowded book. This is not a criticism, but an acknowledgement that so much has happened in education and so many reports issued in recent decades that it would take several volumes to give each development the space it deserves. Yet the author manages to mention them all in a narrative that flows along in a deceptively easy way.

As well as giving overviews of developments, the author devotes individual chapters to what has been happening at the different levels, from early childhood education through the primary system, into post primary, higher and adult education and in teacher education. He has a useful chapter on further education and training (FET). Anyone who wants to understand the dramatic changes taking place in that sector, including the new apprenticeships, would do well to read it.

The final chapter tracks the changes in the way the Department of Education operates from the days in the early 90s, when the OECD wryly observed it was not operating under any strain "because of an attempt to overreach its powers. On the contrary, despite the masterly inactivity of ministers in the past and their frequently short tenure of office, it seldom sought to acquire a policy-making or even a major advisory role". How times have changed as various agencies have since taken over tasks previously exercised by the Department, which is much more pro-active in policy formulation.

Coolahan also chaired the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, which recommended a process of divestment of Catholic primary schools to other patrons. The Catholic Church has been very slow in transferring schools, but he avoids the trap of Church bashing, instead simply observing, with masterly understatement, that "the inherited tradition of primary schooling which evolved from 1831 is proving difficult to restructure".

If you want to know how we ended up with 96pc of our primary schools under direct church control, there is another very timely book, entitled Stanley's Letter - The National School System And Inspectors In Ireland 1831-1922. It's written by a former inspector Patrick O'Donovan and has a foreword by Coolahan. Both authors collaborated previously on a history of Ireland's school inspectorate from 1831 to 2008. O'Donovan's latest work is certainly not a dry-as-dust academic tome. It begins, as it goes along, with a breezy introduction: "Stories fascinate. It is the lot of humankind to be obsessed by narratives, none more so than the people of Ireland."

The original letter, written in October 1831 by the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Edward Stanley, to the Duke of Leinster heralded a new plan for education in England's oldest colony. The book contains a lot of new information about many aspects of the national school system, including material on its foundation, the Famine, links with workhouse schools, inspectors' reports, denominational factors, curricular features, dysfunctional aspects, including governance, the development of the profession of teaching, the position of the Irish language etc. It's published by the Galway Education Centre

The author makes good use of quotes, including one from Commissioner for Education WJM Starkie, who was regularly seeking more resources for reforms and who wrote in exasperation that "the rule of the Treasury in dealing with us is invariably that of the White Queen in Alice Through The Looking Glass - jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today". Sounds familiar.

Irish Independent

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