A Ministry In Need Of a Little Education

Watching the Scannal programme as I write, staring at me from the screen is an old newspaper headline ‘The scandal of our schools’ with the by-line of Pat Holmes. As I am not paying any great attention, merely making use of the opportunity it provides to kick-start an article, I don’t know the date of the piece. But it sure helps to create a feel that the way education is promoted in Ireland has long been scandalous and not just a recent phenomenon foist upon the sector nationwide by Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail.

If we didn’t know them any better we might be gasping in bewilderment at Sinn Fein kicking up a fuss over the current state of the education system in the Republic. Senator Pearse Doherty and MEP Mary Lou McDonald have been at the forefront of the party’s charge against Fianna Fail and the Greens who between them have hacked away at the intellectual future of the Republic in Budget 2009.

In warning the government parties that there would be an electoral price to pay for their refusal to reduce classroom sizes, Senator Pearse Doherty predicted: ‘It is my view that Fianna Fáil and the Green Party will be punished for their savage attack on pupils, teachers, parents and the entire education sector at future polls.’

Sinn Fein criticising any party for breaking promises is a bit rich, but that failed to dissuade MEP Mary Lou McDonald from hitting the chutzpah bull’s-eye with her comment that:
In advance of Budget 2009 Fianna Fáil and the Green Party promised to protect the vulnerable and frontline health and education services. But they have in fact delivered is one of the most inequitable budgets in recent memory.

Absolutely true but how easily does any of it actually sit with party colleague Catriona Ruane serving as British micro minister for education in the North with a most undistinguished record on the very things her southern colleagues complain about? Pearse Doherty may indeed make calls for ‘the public to continue in their support for the teachers, the unions and the education partners and not to support a wage cap on teachers' salaries’ but it tends to look ludicrous when it is considered that his party with Catriona Ruane at the helm shafted the classroom assistants in the North only a year ago because Peter Robinson’s budget demanded it. A very partitionist approach to budgets is it not? A right wing assault on education facilities in the North and left wing resistance in the South.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that Sinn Fein’s sabre rattling all amounts to a bit of envy, really, that Fianna Fail and the Greens rather than their own lot are in a position to shaft our schoolchildren. Par for the course with Sinn Fein: do a lot of shouting about policy when all it is they really want changed is people. Their people in, other people out, the type of change that means things remain as they were. Careerist politics, no more, no less. This gives the critique of Fianna Fail and the Greens a vacuous ring, meaning it will most likely wither on the vine rather than bloom into electoral success for Sinn Fein.

Given that, in terms of its own self image as both the cutting edge of Northern nationalism and the driving force behind any movement in the direction of a united Ireland, calamity follows back to back on debacle, there is a view that Sinn Fein has lost its way, is devoid of all strategic direction and flails around hopelessly waiting for some unspecified cavalry to ride over the hill and pull it out of the hole it has dug for itself. Those of this view find no shortage of material for their critique in the North’s ministry of education.

At no point in her ministerial career has Catriona Ruane scaled the heights of Mount Competence. In the North the education minister and her advisors are widely regarded, even by British officials, as being inept bunglers who think acumen is an alien body that must be zapped at all costs. Ruane’s handling of the academic selection controversy is a case in point. Her determination to end the 11 plus may indeed be laudable but nobody seems to know what it is she wants to replace it with. And because of indecisiveness she has allowed a head of steam to build up which is causing much of the turbulence her ministerial flight is experiencing.

Writing in his own blog a northern Protestant nationalist blogger claimed that ‘Catriona Ruane seems to know absolutely nothing about education.’ It is a challenge to find evidence to contradict him. She seems concerned more with finding scapegoats than solutions. Last year she hit out at radical proposals for improvements in the education system on the grounds that there was not enough finance. Her opponents on the matter were accused being ‘ostriches with their heads in the sand’. The British who were responsible for the amount of money given to the department seemed to have not been subject to her opprobrium. Ruane takes the view that the media is behind the difficulties faced by her department. ‘Look at who controls the media and in whose interest the media works … there is, and I am putting this in inverted commas, the old boys’ network and I think that is what you are seeing.’

Mediocrats out to destroy the education process. Aye, right. It might be more plausible to argue that because of the nepotism that saturates the Stormont career structure she sits astride a jobs-for-the-boys network and as a result has been denied the input of competent advisors.

Despite the intellectual emaciation of the Sinn Fein body politic Ruane’s policies paradoxically would make any future merger between it and Fianna Fail much easier to implement. And the more disastrous education policy becomes in the South who better to run it than Ruane and her advisors? They can hardly claim lack of experience.

First published in Fourthwrite Winter 2008 Issue 34


  1. Why is it laudable to end the 11-plus? I have never heard a satisfactory answer to that one, just a lot of straw men.

  2. Because it differentiates, segregates and stigmatises at a vulnerable age. I believe it is psychologically oppressive for a lot of kids in that it brings tremendous pressure on them. I feel that this is unnecessary in so far as those who 'fail' can get as good a standard of education outside the grammar school system anyway. Why bother having to go through the stress? What are grammar schools actually needed for? I went to both and the only difference I noticed was in terms of social class and Latin! Irish and Spanish also. Not a really good reason to stigmatise young people as failures. Grammar was overrepresented in the snob area. At some point there will be a hiving off in education. I just think 11 is too early. I suppose it is a bit like the debate over the age of consent. Who can say definitively what the right age for consent is?

  3. I take your point, but don't think it quite works.

    What is needed is the *way* those who fail such an exam are treated. It rolls in to the failing-standards _debate_ (as if it is anything other than a shrieking match) that comes every year with the exam results. (There *are* falling standards, but that isn't to slight the kids, more the social engineering of a generation of Left thinking. Being of a phsyicist bent, I can tell, due to the fact stuff I did at O Level isn't even touched at A Level these days. I can't speak for the humanities, as they don't count ;)

    I *believe* we need academic streaming. (Be it the 11 plus or something else, it up for debate.) Why? Because then we can give the *best* teaching to all. Tailor the way those of lesser academic ability are taught. Get the best from them. But let those with the ability to be more academic get the teaching they deserve. Mixed-ability classes just drag everyone down to a lowest common denomintor. And we need a way of targetting the teaching.

    And yes, eleven is an arbitrary age (I was lazy, and never kicked in until around fifteen, at which point I realised that education was my way out of the repressive, disasterous place of my birth) but it is just before children start pushing all the boundries in their lives.

    Psychologically oppressive? That is the fault of the way it is set up, not what it does.

    Yes, I went to a grammar (and now live in Cambridge, but don't hold either against me :), and if I could afford it, I would without a doubt send my children to private school.

    I am not sure it stigmatises, I still kicked around the same estate, with the same people, some who went to the posher grammar school, some who went to the high school, some who went to the sink school.

    What needs to be done is overhaul the whole of the system, not just the eleven plus. And to get over whatever politics-of-envy dictates we make sure everyone gets the worst possible education.

    But we still need to differentiate what the children can do (don't call it selection if you don't want!) in order to help them, to give them the best chance they can.

  4. This is part of the problem. The exam is designed to create ‘failures.’ It sets out deliberately to produce x amount of people who will not get to grammar school. Even at university when people are better equipped to deal with it or at least can be said to be adults responsible for where they end up in the pecking order the demand for failures is paradoxically lesser. There they are more ambiguous about it – they give those they fail third class honours degrees. The university system creates drop outs but is not designed to. The 11 plus creates dropped outs.

    On way to treat those who fail the 11 plus is to send them to grammar school but that wouldn’t work because the purpose of the exam is to keep the majority out.

    Giving the ‘best’ teaching to all merely means disguising preferential teaching for some. (This of course is if the grammar schools really offer better education). It is not like the education system at say Peterhouse where the teaching is intense and focused.

    Tailoring means prioritising those who escaped the big net purpose-built to trawl in the ‘failures.’ Society decides for its children when they are at a very early age that some are academically better than others. My point is that I think it is far too young.

    If mixed ability classes really drag everybody down to the same level then how can a test carried out on a mixed ability class of 11 year olds be a way of deciding their future? Academic selection by all means but when? I am not arguing against doing away with the grading system at honours level or opposed to the selection of a very few for post graduate study. That may sound self serving as I benefited from both but there we go.

    I think it is psychologically oppressive because of the pressure it brings to bear on people so young. If parents looked on it like they looked on a child’s football game - win or lose it will hardly matter the day after - it would be ok. Point is parents don’t.

    It is not about giving every one the worst possible education but about giving everyone the best possible chance. If they blow it later in life too bad. But to have it blown for them younger in life – not what I prefer.

  5. I don't think it means preferential treatment in teaching for some. Remeber when you were in school? There were some who could do (for example) maths, and plenty who couldn't. Similarly for the other subjects. Wouldn't it be better to target teaching of maths in such a way that those who can, progress further, and those who are lesser in ability, get a good grounding and understanding up to their ability? And if you don't have some sort of test for that, you rely on teachers/parents/money. Of course, it would be come apparent very quickly if someone was out of their depth. I am all for a *complete* rethink and rearrangement of how children are taught. Why on earth The State needs to have *anything* to do with it is beyond me...but that is probably just me.

    We don't need a big trawl net. We need a smaller one. Why shouldn't one child be doing a few GCSEs in the subjects they excel at early, and take their time and do the others later? See, maybe I have talked myself out of the eleven plus here, and we start from entry into school, see what children are good at, and, more importantly, weak at, and stratify the the teaching? This isn't specialisation (we can leave that for tertiary level, much like what I did) but the thrust of what I mean: targetting. Give *every* child a chance to be great at what they can do. And if they are a polymath, well, more the better.

    The mixed ability classes below eleven are just that, dragging some down and no one up, so there is a test to stop that. But I also take the point that is was a snob thing, being unable when I did the eleven plus to get into the *posh* grammar round my way, as I was from the lower classes, didn't have siblings there, didn't have parents who went there, couldn't afford to go to the prep school nor afford the entry fees.

    I still don't see how it can stigmatise children as failures, if you are playing to their strengths. (Yeah, yeah, the eleven plus doesn't do this, we have been discussing theory :) Arguably the SATS introduced by this administration (this side of the water and border) are *worse* than the eleven plus, as then it is down to the test being taught.

    I also want to give everyone the best possible chance. Some can do X, some can't. Some can do Y, others can't. Me, I can't write nor draw, but can do a wee bit of maths.

    By _targetting_ the teaching (more teachers needed, probably, God, am I advocating expanding the public sector here, shoot me now) I think it is the best way of getting the best from everyone. But there will always be scumbags who don't want to learn, but that is a different rant.

    (Seriously, next time I am over, I must swing by, and we can talk nonsense over booze. That is the way philosophers should meet :)

  6. At school I was one of those who could not do maths and still cannot. Examined at 11 I was a ‘success’; at 13 I was a ‘failure’ and dismissed from grammar having failed every exam but one, I think. What am I to take from that? That at 11 they got me right but had me wrong at 14? Ability may be latent and consequently may be missed at 11. People no good at maths at 11 may become good later. I remember being so slow in class that the day I got all my spellings right the teacher made them give me a clap as encouragement to continue. But intellectually I could not have been all that hopeless as later life would prove.

    You dislike what you think is the one size fits all approach to non selection. I don’t believe in a one size fits all either. For that reason I think the 11 plus is wrong because it is a one size fits all examination. The one size is 11 when there is no solid evidence for believing that 11 is the optimum age for everybody at the one time.
    When I was at school there was selection within selection. So the teaching was stratified. Different levels of classes at grammar ranging from A to D. Same at comprehensive. I went down the ranks quickly. What is actually at dispute here is not selection but when to select and how. I have seen nothing yet that would persuade me that 11 is a good age. Most of the evidence suggests it is detrimental to children. That may change overtime but for now it is what we work with.
    When I was at grammar school those who failed the 11 plus could buy their way in if their parents had the dosh. It was a question of wealth for them not ability as established through the test. Lots of idiots make their way to grammar school. They are there because they make the cut at the right time. It is arbitrarily decided that grammar needs X amount of places and so they are filed. It is created as a filtering system to help create a bottom pool from where society can draw for its future elites. Preferential teaching may not be the right term but preferential treatment certainly is.

    The trawl net is big because it is stamped failure and the system is purpose built to have more who fail than succeed. You may well be talking yourself out of the 11 plus but there is nothing wrong with that. I might accept the 16 plus or 15 plus if sufficiently persuaded of its merits.
    The notion that the deficiencies of mixed ability classes below 11 can be corrected by the 11 plus is a bit of a circular argument. It fails to deal with the issue of how it can be made to work in a system which your earlier logic suggested could not allow it to work. There is a strange tension in your reasoning.
    I hated the snobbery of grammar school. I fought them physically all the time while there. The snobbery of some teachers, their disdain for the poorer kids was appalling.
    It stigmatises kids as failures because it tells them that in the first serious academic challenge of their lives, in essentially a rite of passage, they have failed.
    Of course come over and we will debate it. You can even take the kids fishing for me!! Both are at the age now. We can booze at the side of the river.

  7. Great piece here and the comments too....when I took the 11+ I was still in LaLa land and failed miserably although 3 years later they decided to move me to a Grammer school....so like you Tony I have both sides if the coin to compare....i liked the kids better in Comprehensive but the teaching was better from more motivated teachers in Grammer school..It also seemed that the parents themselves were more motivated with the grammer school kids and on their backs more about homework and studying.....yet at the end of it all my mates were all from the Comprehensive as there was a strong class seperation felt by me at the Grammer school...Now I am over in America and they start testing at 6 years and its a minefield of tests and scores mostly linked to funding...out the window goes most art/music and humanities as Maths and English are the considered the most vital,..wierdly enough I grew up in Cambridge where Stray Taoist is now residing..go figure.

  8. aricaiwdjts, the US system is a fine example of the way we could go if soething radical is not introduced