Saturday 20 January 2018

Goodwill can't be taken for granted

John Greene

John Greene

T his is the time of year when extra-curricular activity in our secondary schools is at its peak, especially for those students in an exam year because it is far enough away from June to allow other interests outside the classroom get some attention.

Just last week, the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght played host to three days of intense competition for the schools cup finals and, of course, the Gaelic football, hurling and rugby competitions in the four provinces are now off and running. Most will reach their climax in March, allowing students to re-focus in plenty of time for exams.

Not that all this activity is the exclusive preserve of sport -- far from it in fact. Music, art, drama, science, and much, much more are catered for in schools. Indeed, a study last year found that Irish second-level schools are engaged in 85 separate extra-curricular activities, and sport -- and team sport in particular -- leads the way.

Many of our most famous sports people still place success at schools level high on their list of achievements. In Gaelic games especially, a Hogan Cup or a Croke Cup can rank up there with an All-Ireland medal. Kerry manager Jack O'Connor has seen it all, yet in his autobiography one game he singles out is a heartbreaking All-Ireland colleges semi-final defeat. And O'Connor (pictured), in another reference to his involvement with schools football, admits he "can get misty-eyed just talking about it".

But away from the blaze of publicity currently surrounding the country's political and financial meltdown, thousands of secondary school teachers will this week vote for a second time on the Croke Park agreement, which among other things will add an hour to their working week. On the face of it, the ballot appears almost anachronistic -- the Croke Park horse has after all long since bolted. Having been in the minority last year among public sector workers, there is an element of face-saving in this exercise to in effect endorse the lengthy consultation process that followed last year's rejection.

Nevertheless, there is still an important observation to be made on the matter, and it is this: nowhere in the agreement as it pertains to education is there a reference to extra-curricular activities, or more specifically in this context, sport. Ironic really, given where the deal was brokered.

Teachers, in the course of the talks, did push strongly to have this changed but it appears that department officials held firm. This may not seem like a big deal right now but it may well become just that in time. In some respects we are fortunate here in that we have evolved an holistic approach to educating our teenagers over time where schools -- unlike in Britain -- do not see the classroom as the be all and end all of education. There has been a more rounded approach, in the main, and there have been enormous benefits accruing from this. This situation though arose as much through the organic growth of the schools -- and the goodwill of teachers and parents -- and not through any structured policy emanating from central government. By refusing to incorporate it now in this deal, it can be argued that a glorious opportunity to secure the future of sport in schools was missed.

After all, the benefits are undeniable. Last year, the ASTI -- the union currently balloting members -- surveyed teachers on their attitude to extra-curricular activities and found that those involved in sport or other skills got a greater sense of well-being.

And for pupils various studies in recent years have identified the following as among the principal benefits of involvement in extra-curricular activity at second-level schools: better attendance at school, higher grades, higher self-esteem, less likely to display behavioural problems, lower drop-out rates, lower substance abuse rates and more likely to attend further education.

The question is: how long can the goodwill of teachers be relied upon? In 20 years' time, will we still have the same commitment from schools to sport outside of class time -- to training teams, taking them to matches, coaching athletes or golfers and taking them to competition? Our policy-makers are taking a big risk in leaving this to chance.

In a profession where morale is low at present, there is a feeling among teachers that their efforts are being taken for granted. It is said that many have become disillusioned with the system and there must be a genuine fear that the threat to sport in our schools is very real.

Britain in the Thatcher era cut education to the bone, almost wiping out extra-curricular activity, and it took several generations to rebuild. Then, an attempt last October by prime minister David Cameron to cut off funding for school sports partnerships backfired and was reversed, such was the outcry. Great care is needed in this country to ensure we don't end up down that same road.

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