16 September 2011 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Many children in Co Monaghan will now be embarking on their first days at school – an experience that tends to be both daunting and thrilling, for themselves, their parents and their teachers.
It would be interesting to know, even if only from the perspective of folk tradition, just how many – if any – of the new students observed the old tradition of bringing with them an apple for their teacher.
It is doubtful whether this quaint practice has survived in any widespread way into the 21st century, but it was, in rural communities at least, once a scrupulously observed tradition.
Its origins are obscure, and its symbolism complicated, bound up in the Biblical association of the fruit in question with knowledge and the figurative planting of its first seeds in the new school-goer by their educators.
Whether actual apples rested on the desks of Co Monaghan infant school teachers this week, a valuable offering of a different sort came the way of their second-level brethren at Monday’s meeting of Co Monaghan Vocational Education Committee.
This was in the form of praise and appreciation, endorsed by all present after being initiated by a heartfelt contribution from parents’ representative Michael McGinn, who cited the outstanding Leaving Certificate results obtained by his own Castleblayney College as evidence that the VEC was offering “top of the range education right across the board in the county”.
This merited adulation not only applies to the vocational sector but can also be extended across the spectrum of secondary education options available in Co Monaghan.
The examination performance recorded by all our schools stands comparison with anywhere in the country, and seems solid testament to the academic calibre and professionalism of their educators.
Exam results are not, of course, the whole story and it was perhaps more informative of the modern second level school environment in our county when the VEC discussion in question broadened out to paint a picture of a shared investment in education being made by parents, students and staff at all school levels in increasingly challenging circumstances.
It was very encouraging when one saw people who had the ability, and cared enough, to put in extra time at a time when it was unpopular to do so, VEC Chief Executive Martin O’Brien remarked, going on to refer to how teachers and other public servants could become “downtrodden” by the negative perceptions that have been attached to them in the current economic climate.
At a time when pay and working conditions have deteriorated for all sectors and morale is low, limits on the sympathy of those in traditionally less remunerated employment can be expected towards the protests being made by those in the public sector at the strictures being imposed upon them.
But this inclination, which has undoubtedly been stoked by the biased inflection of some media commentary, should not obscure the recognition that an “above and beyond the call of duty” service is often being delivered in our schools in a climate of cutback that would test the dedication of the most committed professional in any sphere.
Beneath the surface acclamation for our VEC schools that Mr McGinn prompted on Monday, a more unsettling picture of the modern education climate was delineated – again, one applicable beyond the vocational sector to form common experience in all education environments in the county.
Members spoke of students who had emerged from second level into the higher educational realm only to be confronted with severe financial difficulties in sustaining their studies – to such a degree that Mid-Monaghan public representative Jackie Crowe could point to instances where young Co Monaghan people were contemplating abandoning their academic ambitions and leaving the country in search of work.
If that is the prospect a section of our young people are contemplating, then a crisis situation is confronting us.
It is a crisis being cultivated by unfair and ill thought through reductions in the allowances granted to students for travel to distant places of study.
These penny-pinching measures do not have any equity of impact, and have affected a number of students in this county pursuing studies in Dundalk and other centres particularly severely, especially those who began their studies in receipt of a particular allowance and now have to factor the additional costs of a reduction into budgets which would have had very tight margins to begin with.
The VEC’s call on the Minister to review this imposition is admirable, but it is unlikely to have much positive effect.
It seems clear that the very qualities of selfless dedication praised at Monday’s meeting – the willingness of education professionals at all levels and parents and other volunteers to go the extra, unpaid mile in the interests of students – is not being esteemed by the Dept of Education.
Rather it is being used against its practitioners.
The current Government is continuing the practice set down by its predecessors of inflicting severe budgetary cuts and other strictures on our schools in the knowledge that the deficit will be supplied by the conscientious and unremunerated efforts of teachers and school support bodies.
This gives an element of distasteful cynicism to the cutbacks being experienced by the education sector that is bad enough.
But it is also policy that is inherently bad in itself, privileging the achievement of dubious economies over the fostering of the sort of educational standards that we are told are integral to national recovery.
In some countries the ‘apple for the teacher’ tradition referred to above is said to have originated from the practice of parents providing educators with foodstuffs and other necessities to supplement their meagre earnings.
Thankfully we are not yet at the point where the tradition will have to be revived on that score.
But have we not reached the stage where the enormous investment of unpaid effort made not just by teachers but a range of other professionals and volunteers in the interests of our children is deserving of some meaningful recognition and reciprocation by the Minister and the Government?

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