Government's inertia on education results in vested interests ruling the roost

Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Taoiseach Enda Kenny - the former teachers won't reform education

Ivan Yates

This Government came to power amidst expectations of significant education reform. Ruairi Quinn challenged vested interests. Half our 3,100 primary schools would be divested from Catholic Church control towards secular multi-denominational patronage.

Curriculum, syllabus and exam reforms meant wider learning experiences by introducing school-based assessments, rather than 100pc written exams. A value-for-money review was to rationalise smaller national schools into minimum viable sizes, abolishing one/two teacher schools. Four years later, these plans have run into the sand. Instead of impetus inertia is now the mark of Marlborough Street.

Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan is a nice person - polite, self-effacing, sincere, non-combative. Too nice, methinks. Vested interests rule the roost. The teachers unions, the ASTI and TUI, have thwarted changes to the Junior Cert. The Church has yet to hand over a single primary school to another patron. Last week, without debate the Cabinet retained national schools with fewer than 50 pupils. Forty-four one-teacher schools will continue to have eight classes in one room. One third of these tiny schools are in Mayo. The Taoiseach's short-term need for votes outweighs optimal education or efficiency savings of €20m, relocatable to disadvantaged schools.

Since the 1980s, educationalists have advocated new models of student rating at post primary level. Ireland (with France and Slovenia) forms a small minority of EU states totally reliant upon rote set exams to evaluate pupils. Luxembourg, Austria and Germany ask teachers to rate their own students.

Employers groups, along with the National Council of Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), propose a more rounded education through a continual process of ongoing teacher-based assessment. In the three-year junior cycle, it's possible to provide better student interaction in year two through constant appraisal.

Government plans to revamp the Junior Cert are in tatters. Two one-day strikes in December and January closed all 730 secondary schools. Despite the row centring on a narrow cohort of students, all 350,000 pupils were denied schooling.

Ruairi Quinn trumped union resistance to a revised State exam, by proposing a 100pc school certification process. Despite Ms O'Sullivan's acquiescence to revert to the original NCCA proposal of 60pc of marks based on a written exam and 40pc on teacher assessment, unions didn't budge one inch. They didn't even re-ballot members on this significant compromise. Proposed assessment changes exclude maths, English and Irish. Already 10 to 14 subjects in the existing Junior Cert have considerable portfolio/oral components, which are assessed by - guess who? Their own teachers.

Mediator Dr Patrick Travers' latest compromise separates written exam from teacher assessment with two distinct parchments: 'Profile of Achievement', set out in terms such as "merit" or "distinction"; and regular marks from written exams.

Ask little Johnny or Mary what grade they got in Junior Cert biology or history? No doubt it'll just be the exam result. This two-tier formula emasculates the teacher appraisal element. Even this complete climbdown was accepted by the Minister and instantly dismissed by ASTI/TUI leaders, again without a ballot.

A right to veto has been conferred on the executives of the teachers unions. They won't even consider a trial period of experimentation.

The reasons for such intransigence don't stand up to scrutiny. Apparently individual teachers are so devoid of integrity, they're incapable of not showing favouritism to friends' and relatives' children.

Compromising teachers' fairness and popularity exists everyday in classrooms. Who corrects mock papers? Who writes school reports containing criticisms of pupils? Who disciplines students, irrespective of parental displeasure? Leaving aside reputational smears on post-primary teachers, how come representatives of school principals/deputy principals (NAPD) don't have the same issues of supposed exposure to risk of suspicion?

They're able to cope with allegations of prejudice. Either way, Independent Assessment Support Service can readily review particular perceived injustices.

Perhaps this dispute isn't about what it's ostensibly about. Supervision and correcting of Junior Cert exams costs €39m, averaging €2,200 per teacher involved. The Department of Education doesn't propose any salary adjustment for school-based assessments. All secondary teachers get the month of June off, while exams are on (unlike abroad). Could diminution of exams ultimately mean more classroom tutoring activity in early summer?

This row could be resolved with a cash offer to conduct ongoing appraisal. Resistance to change may have a price tag for taxpayers; principles can be bought through national timetable renegotiation, along with reversal of pay cuts. Meanwhile, College lecturers and TUI members happily assess advance PLC students and graduates.

Teaching unions successfully resisted transparent tables to assess school and teacher performance. The Teaching Council is supposed to deal with a minority of bad, ineffective teachers; yet there is little individual accountability in most teaching staff rooms across the country. OECD tables indicate poor ranking for Ireland in maths, problem-solving ability and science literacy amongst 15-year-olds. Leaving Cert subjects such as economics and agri-science mostly operate on the same syllabus as applicable 40 years ago.

Who runs Ireland's education? The teachers unions. No political party sides with all other educational stakeholders in this dispute: National Parents Council Post Primary; Irish Second Level Students Union; NAPD; boards of management; international experts. The OECD and industry groups consistently support modernisation.

What do Enda, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin have in common? All were primary school teachers/INTO members. Expect further Cabinet weakness, resulting in total capitulation in advance of elections. Government doesn't govern, it merely seeks re-election.