Monday 20 January 2020

Children must come first in school reform

Ruairi Quinn has made clear his desire to remain Minister for Education longer than expected. Previously it had been thought that he would retire after little more than two years in office.

That would not have been a surprising move for a man in his mid-sixties. But his intention to stay in for the long haul is equally understandable. At this crucial time in Irish education, the system needs someone at its head who can prevail in the face of countless difficulties and at the same time nurture the long-term reforms which he has set in train.

The difficulties are all too familiar. As with all other sectors, the Government has had to impose spending cuts. That means, for example, bigger classes in primary and secondary schools, and abandonment or postponement of improved teaching aids and other facilities.

And these -- as teachers at their post-Easter conferences this week are certain to point out -- are not just optional frills.

Ireland lags badly in international tables for class sizes and other criteria.

Good teaching can help to make up for many defects, but unquestionably we risk allowing many primary and secondary pupils to fall behind.

In such a scenario, as in all such scenarios, the greatest burdens will fall on the disadvantaged.

As to reform, as in so many other areas it proceeds at a snail's pace. An overhaul of the out-of-date Junior Certificate is in train, but completion of Leaving Certificate reform is not due until the distant date of 2013.

For the present, the thorniest question for the minister is the transfer of control of Catholic primary schools to other "patrons". In discussions to date, the church's representatives have strongly opposed Mr Quinn's radical proposal to take control of 50pc of the schools.

However, a viable alternative is far from clear. The existing system, initiated nearly two centuries ago, is over-ripe for change. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has described it as "not tenable" and said that "the current almost monopoly is a historical hangover and does not reflect the reality of the times".

That reality is unlikely to grow any more favourable to church control.

The dearth of personnel in secondary education passed crisis point long ago. It has made itself felt in the parishes too. A time may come when the church cannot cope with managing even 50pc.

It is therefore not too early to debate, and decide on, prospects in the near future. Revolutions do not always bring the expected results.

Children will still need moral and practical guidance and a confident start in life.

In any system, we must put their interests first.

Irish Independent

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