9 April 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

One of the more onerous duties allotted to the incumbent of the Education portfolio in Government is to address the various teaching union conferences that take place at this time of the year.

Given the cuts the education sector has had to cope with in the austerity period, there has been a heightened sense of running the gauntlet about these occasions for recent Ministers of the day, and Jan O’Sullivan will have had the “trial by ordeal” experience accentuated for her this week by the still live Junior Certificate controversy and some elements of the new Admissions to Schools Bill as well as the grievances the teacher representative bodies harbour over pay structures and pension entitlements.

The Minister’s address to the unions usually generates a good deal of flame, but not a great amount of comforting warmth. When one strips away the posturing adopted by delegates who delight in talking tough to a representative of government, and the posturing of the Ministerial headmaster or headmistress determined to stick to their lecture notes in spite of the sometimes unruly dissent of her captive classroom, what is left is usually feeble pickings when it comes to meaningful dialogue and progress on important issues.

This is a pity, because, aside from the live issues of the day, there are very important strategic matters in relation to the future focus of education that could greatly benefit from meaningful discussion between the Minister and her senior Dept officials and authoritative union representatives.

Perhaps the Minister’s interaction with union conferences would be more productive if what has become the set order of things were adjusted to allow for such substantive exchanges, and these annual occasions were structured less to cater to the demands of the media and more towards the betterment of students, whose voices should also perhaps be heard when such gatherings take place.

As these will probably be the last round of union conferences before the next General Election, there is a heightened sense of an opportunity being let go to waste as this week’s back and forth unfolds.

The Government will likely opt to go to the polls on the back of the next Budget, either shortly after its unveiling in November or while its no doubt more magnanimous than usual contents are still fresh in the collective memory in the early part of next year. That Budget is likely to contain some meaningful investment in education, but there seems no clear unanimity among the teaching sector as to where increased expenditure would be most beneficially directed.

The opportunity to influence the Minister tellingly in this regard through conference engagement is therefore likely to be wasted.

This is deeply regrettable given the accentuated disadvantage that exists for pupils at all levels of education as a result of the economic downturn. We editorialised last week about the current inadequate state of provision in schools for young people who are experiencing mental health difficulties and whose continuing engagement with the education system is often imperilled by the scarcity of adequate supports and the unacceptably protracted time it takes to get access to them.

To address problems such as these, a greater level of investment in the pre-school system would seem to be required – particularly in the area of specialised training that would enable potential learning difficulty problems to be addressed and arrested at the developmental stage and when parental response would be at its most amenable. This would surely lessen the difficulties for children and their families that could arise at a later stage in the education pathway, and make the task of schools and teachers a great deal easier. However, it is unlikely that this issue will receive any meaningful level of address during the current conference exchanges, save indirectly by the agitation for smaller class sizes which would increase the chances for early detection of learning problems.

The tailoring of the school curriculum to form a snugger fit with the realities of economic and social development in this country is another important strategic area that gets barely more than lip service from either the Minister or the unions during conference season.

It is surely time to develop a stream of formal learning at second-level that enhances the business acumen and enterprise instincts of young people, and gives them a foretaste of the practical realities of entering into the area of active employment creation rather than merely acquainting them with its theory and lexicon. We in Co Monaghan pride ourselves on our enterprise culture, but do comparatively little to formally foster and propagate it – our coterie of successful businessmen and women who have nurtured and developed their own start-up ideas from humble beginnings to sometimes world-renown stature form a well-stocked pool of valuable knowledge and inspiration for emulation that our second-level schools should be tapping into in a formal way for the benefit of their pupils.

It must be acknowledged, however, that much of what the teaching unions will argue for this week in the context of future education investment is extremely laudable.

One important and easily accomplished means of addressing educational disadvantage would be for Minister O’Sullivan to undo the misguided decision of her predecessor Minister Quinn to severely reduce guidance counselling provision. And it would greatly help pupils of all learning abilities and teachers themselves if the current Minister left as a legacy the commencement of a structured programme to bring class sizes in this country down towards the European average.

The union arguments with regard to the pay and career pathway disadvantages currently confronting those entering the teaching profession are also valid ones. Inadequately awarding what is sometimes conspicuous academic achievement by those who enter into a teaching career effectively undervalues and disincentivises young educators and jeopardises the future quality of Irish education. The calibre of our teaching is an essential but often underappreciated cornerstone of our economic health – and at a time when we are supposedly working to restore vitality to our economic performance, it makes no sense whatsoever to drive the best and brightest away from the educative professions.

If the Minister opts to listen rather than lecture, there will be much for her to glean from her run of the gauntlet this week that could bear beneficially on the manner in which education expenditure is handled in the next Budget.
But there will remain a need for a whole different order of meeting of minds between government and educationalists if important strategic issues in relation to the way we educate our young people, and build the Ireland of the future, are to be adequately addressed.

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