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Teachers still not making any real effort

THERE were two occasions in 2011 on which I felt glowingly proud of our Government -- both collectively and through the individuals who spoke.

The first was when the Taoiseach stood in the Dail and delivered a deliberately, unapologetically plainspoken condemnation of the treatment of helpless children by the religious who for generations had been revered as their natural carers and mentors.

Enda Kenny, a father and a practising Roman Catholic, spoke with rage and love, the emotion controlled by his acceptance of his position as the leader of the State. It was a gleaming moment of shining honesty and hope.

The next occasion was perhaps less spectacular, but it offered the same kind of hope.

It was when Ruairi Quinn, an elder statesman of the Labour Party who had been expected by many to occupy a period of well-earned time-serving, determinedly told his party leadership that not merely was he not ready to retire, he wanted a core, vital Department.

And in almost his first speech as Minister for Education, he told the unvarnished truth. He took a clutch of papers that carried the shaming international statistics which had been ignored for so long and he thundered the evidence: our education system, far from being among the shining lights of Europe, was a disgrace, and had been for generations.

It failed our people as sentient rational human beings, and it failed them in their preparation for the world of work and learning.

Those who didn't actually leave the education system without being able even to read and write (23 per cent of the adult population) were, apart from the very few of exceptional ability, products of a numbing system of rote learning which prevented provocative thought, intellectual exploration and critical analysis. They were uneducated, taught what to think, not how to think.

It was, and is, a system of parroting of received prejudice. It was time, the minister said, to begin the long road to adequacy in education.

He has continued relentlessly to deliver that message, but Ruairi Quinn now seems to have found himself between a rock and a hard place when it comes to teachers' retirement.

The majority of people in the country are howling -- justifiably -- for a reduction in the public service pensions bill. But they want to deny the minister the mechanisms to reduce the same bill.

Early retirement packages have been offered to teachers, allowing them to live extremely comfortably from their mid-50s onwards. And quite a lot of our "dedicated" teachers -- whose unions spend their time telling us of teacher selflessness, commitment, and risibly low salaries -- rushed to apply for the package.

(By the way, how is €69,500 for a job that ends at four in the afternoon and has three months' holidays "risible"?)

But because of the new regulations on public service pensions, retiring teachers (and other public servants) will suffer a small reduction in their hugely generous terms if they don't go by the end of February. So Ruairi Quinn, despite the honesty with which he has faced our educational problems, is now faced with yet another problem.

Given what he has been saying so repeatedly, his long- term aim has to be to reform, possibly revolutionise, the way we train our teachers -- a revolution which will only be complete when an entire generation has gone through the system from pre-school to university and vocational training, being taught radically differently from the current system.

But the current system is what current school-leavers have to deal with. And that has allowed complacent time-servers aiming at a quiet life, rather than a roomful of lively questioning minds, to dominate our classroom culture.

They are the teachers whose unions protest their dedication and brilliance, but whose howls are always on their own behalf: more money, less responsibility, fewer teaching hours.

And bad though they are, they are the best our current school-leavers have. And nearly 1,000 of them (despite their self-proclaimed "dedication") have applied for early retirement before the end of February. This breaks down to 584 in primary schools, and 367 at second level, with room for the lists to grow.

So, many hundreds of young men and women facing a major educational crisis by way of the Leaving Cert in June, are to be abandoned in mid-course by the teachers to whom they have become accustomed, however inadequate those teaching ministrations have been.

Secretly, Ruairi Quinn may be delighted to see the back of them. But he needs time to replace them.

As things stand, a teacher aged 54 with 34 years' service, based on 2009 arrangements, will receive a pension of €28,322. It will be accompanied by a gratuity of €88,655. That's if the teacher goes in February.

If the teacher waits until the end of the academic year, in deference to the needs of the pupils about which they claim to be so passionate, the pensions would be slightly reduced under the new pay guidelines.

Maybe it is expecting too much of them to put the pupils' needs before their own selfishness. But the chances are that they will do even worse by their pupils: school principals have been given the right, under pressure from the teachers' unions, to extend pro tem, the employment of these teachers on a temporary contract basis, so they can "see their pupils through" the State exams.

Extend the employment on a nod and a wink of people who have been publicly proven to have failed society's needs, but who continue to deny their own failures?

Nearly 1,000 teachers are reputed to be on the list for retirement in February. There are 2,000 or so qualified young teachers without permanent employment. At the very least, the young teachers, despite the inadequacy of the system under which they have been trained, have enthusiasm and possibly even idealism. (Admittedly, that is taking the optimistic view: it's possible that the majority of them, like their predecessors, have an eye to a high salary, the impossibility of being fired, and three months' annual holiday.) But they deserve a chance; just as the pupils deserve a chance of some energetic teaching.

Ruairi Quinn is facing a gargantuan task, blockaded as he is by the shortsightedness of the parents as much as the defensiveness of the teachers and the education programmers. So far, even the minor change of accepting a teacher switch in mid-year is being resisted because young adults might have to wake up and think outside the box (which is what education is supposed to be about).

Do we want our education system to continue to be despised and dismissed internationally? Or are we prepared to give the necessary tools for making change to the first Minister for Education in generations who has faced the truth and wants to change things? It has to begin somewhere.

Sunday Independent