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Education Minister Ruairi Quinn weathers the sneers of Asti teachers.

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn weathers the sneers of Asti teachers.

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn weathers the sneers of Asti teachers.

There are three very good reasons to become a teacher, goes the old chestnut – June, July and August.

Sadly, for parents up and down the country trying to pay for childcare, summer camps, anything to keep the kids occupied during those long, and often rainy months, Minister Ruairi Quinn hasn't yet set his sights on tackling this ancient anomaly.

Meanwhile, the teachers of Ireland would seem to have an awful lot of time on their hands (well, it is the Easter holidays) as, in the manner of bored, spoilt students, they hissed, booed, heckled and waved badly drawn caricatures at their Education Minister during their annual conferences. Or at least the INTO and Asti did; for variety, the TUI preferred the tactic of a threatening, combative silence. Rather odd, when you consider that it was the TUI who invited the minister in the first place.

But they're angry, and they're fed up, and they're not going to take "it" anymore. That was the message which came, loud and clear from the teachers' unions last week.

In the other corner sat the minister – calm, stoic, implacable. Insisting bluntly that the public service agreement must be passed; that he is passionately committed to reform of the Junior Cycle and of current school enrolment policies; and that he is not for turning.

Hooray, said students, bored to stultification with the two years of rote learning of 11 or more subjects prior to sitting their Junior Cert.

Thank god, say tutors in universities who correct first- year essays (I've been there) and wonder why kids who qualified for college can't string together a basic sentence (or an original thought).

Hear, hear, say parents who can't get their children into local schools because of elitist enrolment policies that favour the old-school-tie network.

Even Gina O'Brien, chairwoman of Impact's Education Division, called on education workers to accept the deal. It gives much-needed protection from pay cuts to the lower paid, she said.

But many teachers aren't playing ball. As TUI president Gerard Craughwell said: "The Government is hell-bent on taking our pay and driving a coach and four through our conditions of service."

Teachers seem to have three main gripes: loss of hard cash; more working hours; and interference by the minister in the way they work and teach. (The loss of teaching staff is the inevitable result of their refusal to accept pay cuts –in other words, it's their own choice.)

A Central Bank report from last August shows that it was those over 40 and working in education who obtained the highest average-value equity release loans during the period 2005-2007. So, mature teachers partied hard in the boom, they're up to their ears in debt and every cut hurts.

But by walking out on Croke Park 2 they're fighting the wrong enemy – it's debt co-responsibility they should argue for, not elitist retention of boom-era pay, perks and pensions which results in cuts to frontline staff.

And then we come to the row over the new Junior Cycle. Exams will be replaced with a school-based model of assessment. Teachers will have to correct their pupils' work. They don't believe that they're unbiased enough (or paid enough) to do that. They think the status quo is grand.

As Asti general-secretary Pat King said: "The Junior Cert is seen as having a high status by students, parents and teachers. It is this 'high status' which provides a focus for student motivation, learning and achievement at Junior Cycle level. Students from all kinds of backgrounds and with a diverse range of interests, abilities and talents, are proud of their achievements in the Junior Cert."

The above comment shows what is wrong with attitudes to education in this country. This "high status" is about garnering as many top grades from as many subjects as you can cram in, and having a nice harp-stamped certificate to show off for your efforts.

It's all about rote learning, which starts just when a child should really be getting to grips with critical thinking, with analysis and investigation, but instead is forced to memorise pages of notes on what the teacher thinks will "come up" in the exam.

This is the sort of "focus" we're talking about. The "motivation" is not about the joy of learning how to think for yourself and assess information analytically, but about notching up marks in what is, ultimately, a fairly useless exam.

The lack of continual assessment means that many young students will procrastinate and leave the bulk of their study until the last minute (I know I did), causing terrible, sometimes dangerous stress to themselves and to their parents. Inevitably, kids whose parents can afford to send them to expensive grinds will do better.

So, on the reform of the Junior Cycle, I have to say that the minister is totally in the right, with a vision, commitment and passion for real education – teaching our students how to think rather than what to think – that is badly missing from our secondary education system.

And while I'm in the rare position (has it ever happened before?) of praising a minister, I may as well continue to be hung for a sheep etc ...

Our local secondary school, a 10-minute walk away, has no place for my eldest child. Why? She is not a member of a specific church (although it's a multi-denominational school) and neither of her parents attended the school. So even though she is listed as coming from a "feeder school", she is so far down on the list she will not get a place. She is devastated and doesn't, naturally, understand how a school could discriminate against her on grounds of religion and the "old school-tie" network.

Though it will come too late for her, I still say "bravo" to Minister Quinn for taking a courageous stand to end this elitist policy of schools picking and choosing their pupils. Kids should go to their local schools where possible.

The minister's enthusiasm for diversity (more Educate Together schools) and common-sense insistence that the Catholic Church relinquish some of its stranglehold over education is both admirable and brave.

And now, after extolling the virtues and policies of one of our current ministers, I need a stiff drink and a lie down. It won't happen again soon, I can assure you ...

Irish Independent