FINE Gael's education policy, to be published today, will receive an enthusiastic welcome from thousands of parents who will endorse the proposal that second-level schools should be obliged to publish their results in the public examinations.
Controversy has surrounded this question for several years. On one side are ranged the parents who want a better way of assessing their children's progress; on the other, as always in Ireland, vested interests.
The teachers' unions vehemently oppose the publication of exam results. But caution is necessary when looking at their views. The case for publication is overwhelming, and support for it from within the system is probably much higher than the attitude of the unions would suggest. In any case, when reforms are introduced any government will need support from the school authorities and the teachers.
And reform, on a scale much wider than that relating to examinations, is critically needed. There are severe strains in a system that once gave rise to so much self-congratulation. Their economic and social implications cannot be ignored.
An appalling figure: one in four teenage boys cannot read and write. There is no need to dwell on what that means for their prospects in life or the impact on Irish society in the future.
Spokespersons for multinational corporations have expressed misgivings, in some cases extreme dissatisfaction, with the system. They point to the prevalence of rote learning and the failure to teach teenagers to think. Remedies for these problems and a multitude of others cannot be found at university level. Wide-ranging reform must begin at a far earlier age, in fact at pre-school age.
It must also take into account the unresolved disputes over the funding of third-level education, church control, and the Irish language. It all adds up to a daunting agenda for an incoming minister, but it can no longer be long-fingered.
One has to ask whether an election campaign is a good time for the necessary debate. One answer might be that there can be no better time. The politicians are at their most vulnerable, and they are most amenable to public opinion.
Fine Gael's policy, and the education policies of all the other parties, should be closely examined. Not all of it deserves as rapid an endorsement as the publication of exam results.
One Fine Gael pledge in particular, not to increase class sizes, is very questionable. In the first place, in the present campaign contenders for office should refrain from costly promises. Secondly, the aim may simply be unachievable. Thirdly, it does nothing to suppress the commonest method of overcoming a school's deficiencies.
If parents resort to grinds, children get more rote learning and less true education. For them and the system to flourish, we must reverse that.