Guest speech to the ASTI annual conference

12 Apr 10

Thank you for your kind invitation to speak to this 88th ASTI annual conference and for your patience over the next fifteen or so minutes.

As a former pupil of an ASTI school, Tullow Community School in County Carlow, I am especially proud to recite before you the motto of my alma mater which neatly encapsulates the ethos of my message today. Our motto was “to nurture the wellbeing of all so that they may grow in knowledge, conscience and compassion” sums up very well the spirit of educationalists and what they seek to achieve.

The focus over the next week at this and other teachers conferences will centre on your response to the public service reform deal recently brokered at Croke Park. The motions in your convention handbook reflect the deep concern among teachers about issues regarding the security of your jobs, pay and pensions.

Media attention may also centre on the cohesiveness of the trade union movement which will come under scrutiny given the growing crevices between the expectations of union leadership and membership from that negotiation process.

I understand why this is the case but I would also respectively suggest that not enough discussion will occur this week on the future direction of Irish education which is what my comments here today will address.

In order to talk about the future, I would like to bring you a brief historical journey of how the nature of the state has changed because of the audacious political reforms of the nineteenth century and the bold educational changes of the twentieth century which have lessons for us as we approach the second decade of the twentieth-first century.

Access to voting rights and access to education transformed Ireland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In the nineteenth century the extension of voting rights transformed forever the nature of the Irish state. Two examples:

The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 and the Reform Act of 1832, for instance, brought about wide-ranging changes to the Irish electoral system which saw Catholics allowed to stand in parliament for the first time. Daniel O’Connell and his MPs commanded considerable political influence and were rewarded with substantial reforms in return for supporting the Whigs in government.

A similar dynamic earned Charles Stewart Parnell his statue on the top of O’Connell Street. The Secret Ballot Act of 1872 introduced the privacy of the ballot and created the context for the revolutionary decade of the 1880s. As a direct consequence of those reforms, Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party held the balance of power between the Liberals and Tories. A Wicklow man had held the seat of the British Empire to political ransom. An extraordinary feat.

In the twentieth century, it was access to education, rather than voting rights, that changed forever the nature of the Irish state. Ireland is a nation defined by three momentous waves of educational reform.

The first, the 1908 Irish Universities Act established the National University of Ireland. Until this time, Catholics did not have the opportunity to access third level education. The Church hierarchy had prohibited Catholics from attending Trinity College Dublin because that university refused to teach theology.

This extraordinary opportunity educated the emerging political and civil service class which included: Hugh Kennedy, Éamon de Valera, Eoin MacNeill, John A. Costello, Kevin O’Higgins, Patrick Hogan, Patrick McGilligan, Richard Mulcahy, John M. O’Sullivan, Michael Hayes, Kevin O’Sheil and others. It was here that the majority of the highly able and public spirited young men of the civil service, the Army and the police were educated.

Donagh O’Malley’s Free Education Act was the second wave of revolutionary educational reform in the twentieth century. The 1967 act transformed access to education. No longer was education a right limited to a privileged minority but a right extended to the majority.

The third wave of educational reform, imperfect as it was, saw the abolition of university fees in 1995. Over 55 per cent of school leavers now attend third-level institutes. We are better educated and more informed than any previous Irish generation. The consequences of this reform have perhaps yet to by fully appreciated. Those first to benefit from unprecedented third-level access, myself included, are now in their early thirties, the same age as those that founded the State.

These three waves of education revolutions, the national university act, the extension of free post-primary education and free third level education, of sorts, coincided with greater political and economic freedoms.

What type of revolution will distinguish twentieth-first century Ireland? If our country is to emerge poetically like a phoenix from the ashes then I believe that it is through education, once more, that this will occur. My sincere belief is that the Sex Pistols have in their unlikely procession the answer to Ireland’s current crisis of political, economic and ethical authority.

‘Goodbye authority, The ones who think that they know it all… Just take a look at the world they’ve made’ are the punk rock lyrics of one of their more anonymous songs, ‘Revolution in the Classroom.’

I submit that it is no coincidence that Johnny Rotten, this provocateur extraordinaire and lead singer, is of Galway descent, and that this ASTI conference convenes in the city of tribes for its 88th annual convention to celebrate a century of educational service.

Teachers right now have a fantastic opportunity to influence the type of Ireland that will distinguish this century. Two-thirds of Ireland’s population, some 2.8 million Irish citizens, are younger than the Taoiseach. Demographic trends offer you, as teachers, the promise of reshaping the attitudes and outlooks of a new generation. By 2015, Ireland’s 5-14 year-old population will rise by more than 15%. Within the OECD, only Spain and Israel, share such high demographic trends.

As someone once said however, it’s no use carrying an umbrella if your shoes are leaking. What are you, as teachers, going to do with this opportunity? Educational revolution shaped Ireland of the twentieth century and it will do so again in the twentieth-first. But this revolution will not just be about access to education but will fundamentally reassess the way in which it is delivered.

As a tutor at the University of Limerick and as a lecturer in Trinity that the perception of educational success is dependent on what your beliefs about education are. An intellectual audit of the roots of our current malaise may conclude that a predisposition towards short-termism in decision making, deference to authority and a fear of asking awkward questions were responsible for why the depth of our crisis are greater than other country according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The present method of accessing third level education rewards students that learn rather than understand. The point’s race replaced creative inquiry with exam oriented teaching. The consequences of this, as any lecturer with responsibilities for first year university teaching will admit, is the best part of a year is spent deprogramming students and educating them to think for themselves. Something has gone wrong along the way.

Prof Michael Cronin, DCU advocated recently for the introduction of philosophy as core subject in the Irish educational system, as is the case with many of our European neighbours. The confidence to motivate critical thinking within the classroom has a profound impact on the relationship between education, civil society and democracy.

As educationalists, you hold within your grasp the possibility of reinvigorating and transforming Irish society by generating a new generation of leaders from your classrooms.

How can you achieve this? By having the courage to sit in the same seat as your students and demand of yourselves what you demand from them. Leadership, courage, critical thinking and evaluation. As teachers, you have an enormous influence on your students and process an unrealised power of your ability to shape the minds of a generation. Those that regard teaching as a vocation appreciate its potential to challenge the belief systems of a country by analytically engaging students and facilitating independent thinking.

When Donagh O’Malley made his historic decision to introduce Free Post-Primary Education in 1967, he did so on the basis of a policy document initiated by Patrick Hillery called Investment in Education. The research for which was derived from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The OECD perhaps holds again the underlying suggestions for educational policy reform. Last year, as you know, the OECD published a set of internationally comparable indicators on thirty education systems in the developed world called Education at a Glance.

On the subject of evaluation, the OECD recommends that the effectiveness and efficiency of teachers can be improved through performance appraisals and incentives for continuous improvement. Ireland has the weakest evaluation structures within the OECD where 39% of secondary teachers are without any form of school evaluation in the previous five years.

The type of teaching practiced in Ireland is ranked as having the greatest ‘predominance of structuring practices.’ It is more traditional and conventional in outlook that other countries. Along with Hungary and Malta, Irish teaching is based on the principles of explicit learning goals, revision and homework review.

Ireland’s commitment to student-oriented teaching practices and enhanced activities are not as pronounced. Denmark encourages a flexible learning environment with a greater emphasis on student autonomy. This is exercised through student self-evaluation and participation in classroom planning and individually adapted tasks. The Icelandic and Norwegian education systems encourage active citizenship through enhanced activities which promote creativity such as working on projects and debating.

Ireland can learn from the Danish and Icelandic models. Now more than ever there is a duty to re-think the necessity and purpose of the structure focused junior and leaving certificate examinations.

In February, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) published “Innovation and Identity: Ideas for a new Junior Cycle” which presented a set of ideas about what a junior cycle of the future might look like. It emphasised a teaching context which promoted attributes of ethical behaviour, leadership, innovation and personal and social development.

Imagine an Ireland with leadership qualities like that? Conferences such as these can become missed opportunities to discuss the concept, direction and nature of Irish education. No other profession has the power that you do to alter the course of a country’s future. We are a young country with old leaders where new thinking is needed. It is easy, in times like these, to be afraid of the future which is why the past can help us understand and teach us about potential of a future which we have still to write.

Access to voting rights and access to education transformed this country in the past. The future will be defined by how education is delivered. This in turn will challenge how we have made our political choices.

In the last week of March in 1800, almost exactly 210 years ago, Henry Grattan gave his final speech to the Irish House of Commons. His protest at the imminent Act of Union, which sought to unite the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland and create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, was in vain. The Irish parliament voted itself out of existence and Ireland was robbed of legislative independence for 120 years. But Grattan always believed in Ireland even when there didn’t seem to be any hope. His oratory was an art form and his words insist on being said out loud:

“The constitution may for a time seem lost. The character of the country cannot be lost. The ministers of the Crown will find that it is not so easy to put down for ever an ancient and respectable nation by abilities, however great, and by power and corruption, however irresistible. Liberty may repair her golden beam, and with redoubled heat animate the country…

Yet I do not give up my country. I see her in a swoon, but she is not dead. Though in her tomb she lies helpless and motionless, there is on her lips a spirit of life, and on her cheek a glow of beauty… While a plank of the vessel holds together I will not leave her. Let the courtier present his loyal sail to the breeze, and carry the barque of his faith with every wind that blows: I will remain anchored here; with fidelity to the fortunes of my country, faithful to her freedom, faithful to her fall.”

Thank you.

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