Sunday 21 July 2019

Teachers have a golden opportunity to do what is right on assessment

Members of ASTI, one of the unions representing secondary teachers, have just rejected even the watered-down proposals tabled by the Department of Education
Members of ASTI, one of the unions representing secondary teachers, have just rejected even the watered-down proposals tabled by the Department of Education
Eddie Molloy

Eddie Molloy

Given that they don't dispute the educational merits of the proposed reforms of the Junior Cert programme, there is something profoundly troubling about some teachers' continuing refusal to fully embrace the reforms, specifically on the grounds that assessing their own students for exam purposes could result in questions being raised about their professional integrity.

Members of ASTI, one of the unions representing secondary teachers, have just rejected even the watered-down proposals tabled by the Department of Education.

During their union conferences last Easter, teachers said they feared being pressurised by parents regarding their children's assessments. This pressure would be particularly acute in small, close-knit, rural communities.

Also, teachers who happen to have a child of their own in their class might be open to suspicions of favouritism towards their own. These fears are not without foundation and, in fairness to teachers, they warrant serious consideration.

Deep in the Irish psyche is the expectation that first and foremost we look after our own, even if that means bending the rules and disregarding principles of impartiality and fairness.

Sure, why wouldn't a teacher - or a local garda, rate collector or HSE manager for that matter - look after their own? And what's wrong with putting in a word for your child with your good neighbour, his teacher, if that will help get him over the line in his exams? Isn't this how things are done in Ireland?

Niamh Hourigan, in her book 'Rule Breakers: Why Being There Trumps Being Fair in Ireland', expertly traces how this moral vision, which places "circles of intimacy" ahead of "a model of good citizenship based on conformity to rules", became one of the most profound elements of the Irish post-colonial legacy.

The late Peter Mair cited the same origins for the "amoral localism" that infects Irish political and social life when he spoke at the MacGill Summer School in 2011. He referred to a "very deep and long-term problem" that has produced "the culture of cute hoors and strokes". Both authors add that this ambivalence towards rules and standards is not the preserve of elites who enjoy membership of the golden circle of politicians, big business, senior civil servants and other insiders.

"Being there for our own" pervades Irish society and the dilemma is that it is not just a destructive gene. As Hourigan says:

"This intimacy lies at the heart of the celebrated warmth and friendliness of Irish culture" and for this reason it is a characteristic to be valued. However: "It also lies at the core of every corruption scandal that has bedevilled the Irish economy since the 1960s, corruption which eventually brought it to its knees in 2010" and which polluted the culture of many vital institutions.

This, then, is the social environment in which teachers, civil servants and gardaí have to work, where the espoused values of their profession - impartiality, fairness, upholding the rule of law and serving the public good - are under constant pressure.

Just as gardaí were routinely inveigled to erase penalty points, some parents are indeed likely to put pressure on teachers, and teachers who teach their own children cannot avoid suspicion of favouritism towards their own.

But to resist reforms that every stakeholder in education believes are justified on educational grounds, because of these societal pressures, is unworthy of the teaching profession.

In this context, among all those who provide public services and dispense public goods, teachers occupy a very special place.

As educators, they play a unique role in forming the minds and value systems of the next generation. Teachers are uniquely positioned to impart what Hourigan sees as the most critical lesson of our recent national trauma: "While 'being there' is valuable, 'being fair' is an even more important part of 'being good'."

In the stance they take on this matter, teachers could make a singular contribution to mitigating the malign influence of "amoral localism" on Irish life. They have a golden opportunity to lead by example, making it loud and clear that they fully embrace the new reforms and will carry out assessments of their pupils (without fear or favour) because it is the right thing to do. Were they to adopt this stance, the long-term benefits to their pupils and to Irish society would be incalculable: if they don't, the losers will be their pupils and Irish society.

The Irish philosopher, Philip Petit, says in his book 'Freedom, A Moral Compass For A Complex World', that a "free man in the republican tradition does not cow-tow… but walks tall and looks the other in the eye without deference out of fear of interference. They do not have to walk on egg shells, they are their own men and women."

Teachers might take inspiration from this vision should they come under pressure to compromise their principles.


Eddie Molloy, Ph.D. management consultant.

Irish Independent

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