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Sarah Carey: Why do we assume parents are always right on schooling?


Teachers on the ASTI\TUI picket line in Dublin

Teachers on the ASTI\TUI picket line in Dublin

Teachers on the ASTI\TUI picket line in Dublin

Listening to debates on the teachers' strike I'm struck by a number of things.

First, it's taken for granted that our second-level system is "underfunded". It's not.

For spending on education relative to national income, Ireland is above OECD average. For spending per student at second level we're 8th out of 31 countries in the OECD in 2013.

So the question is not how much we spend, but how spend it. And no one's talking about that at all.

Secondly, the selection of continuous assessment as the source of conflict is odd. Teachers are striking because they don't want to correct their own students' work.

They say it's their job to be advocates for their students and they shouldn't be asked to be impartial judges.

That's a very dodgy argument. They'd be better off if they just said they didn't want to do the extra work because they have enough to do already.

What amazes me, yet again, is that even though people keep complaining that nothing in this country ever changes, any time you try to change something, the people are against it.

While more than half of teachers have no interest in this industrial action (only 45pc of ASTI members bothered to vote), most parents are supportive of independent assessment.


Parents want independent assessors. Parents want a Junior Cert. Parents want league tables. Parents want a choice of schools for religious, language or class reasons. Parents want small rural schools on their doorstep. Parents want inspectorates.

Is it possible that parents are completely wrong? Because the funny thing is that the country with the best educational system in OECD has none of these things.

Over 20 years ago Finnish students were bottom of the league tables for educational achievement. At the same time, Finland was undergoing a horrible recession and radical cutbacks had to be made.

Major decisions were made; some on a cost basis and some on an educational basis. The result? An education system that spends less than Ireland in many key areas but achieves better results.

And the sad thing is that if we tried to make similar reforms here, the teachers and the parents would fight them all the way.

The first thing Finland did was close 1,000 small rural schools and forced everyone into one school in the nearest town. There's none of this Catholic/Gaeilscoil/Educate Together/fee paying choosing business.

All resources are poured into the school, which saves a fortune. With all the teachers together, training could be improved.

In another move, some primary and secondary schools were merged, which saved money and made the transition from one school to another more comfortable.

Students don't start school until they're 7 and they have a shorter day than in Ireland. There's no inspectorate, no performance rating and no exam system with published results. That saves loads more.

Teachers are only paid an average wage, but they have high status in Finnish society. Highly educated, they are respected to the point where they can choose their teaching methods depending on what suits them and their students.

Schools are autonomous with little interference from Government.


I interviewed a Trinity College education expert, Maija Skolakangas, about this on Newstalk last Saturday and she warned against cherry picking aspects of the Finnish system.

Taking one issue and implementing without looking at the whole system was dangerous. A good point.

Another good one was made by a Finnish county councillor to my then county councillor father at a conference.

When he asked how they managed to make such radical reforms with the agreement of the people in a democratic country (for it would never happen here), she looked at him rather archly and said: "We agree with democracy of course. But only up to a point."

It occurred to me (again) that the people can have what the people want, but that doesn't mean they're right.