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If you were the Minister? December 28, 2009

Posted by Tomboktu in The Left.
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A few months ago, a comment was made here about the achievements and failings of the Labour Party the last time it was in government, between 1992 and 1997. Now, a post on that topic would be a dead certainty to generate plenty of debate probably without actually adding much to the sum of human knowledge. I mention it because not to ignite that debate, but because my thoughts on that comment at the time and since lead me to what I think is a more useful question: what should a minister from the Left seek to do the next time they are in government?

So, first my memory of the thrust of the comment: that Labour’s achievements in the 1992-1997 governments were predominantly in social policy areas and not enough in economic policy.

It may be the curmudgeon in me, but my initial mental response was to be unimpressed with the character of the achievements that Labour was being credited with. Yes, Mervyn Taylor did introduce a series of changes to marriage law that pre-empted the re-use of arguments that had led to the rejection of the previous attempt to the lift the constitutional ban on divorce. And yes, Brendan Howlin brought in the amendment that meant you no longer needed a doctor’s prescription to get condoms. Mervyn Taylor also introduced the two key planks of the equality legislation (although the referrals to the Supreme Court by President Robinson meant it was left to his successor from Fianna Fáil, John O’Donoghue to steer the final versions though to become law). It cannot be denied that these are in essence significant achievements of Labour the last time they were in government.

However, I suggest the achievements might not be as complete or significant as some would claim. The definition of ‘success’ or ‘achievement’ in that work was limited to changes in law. To use the language of policy-makers, success was defined in terms of ‘outputs’ rather than ‘outcomes’.

To illustrate the difference, consider some of the situations that continued after the statute books were changed. Prohibiting harassment of gay students in our schools (in the Equal Status Act) has not led to it ending — nor as I posted recently, did it lead to any action to deal with the problem. Permitting the unprescribed sale of condoms did not necessarily made them accessible everywhere to everybody who wants or needs them — initially through refusals to stock in many places, and on an ongoing basis through cost.

That was my initial thought. When I wondered if it was a fair assessment, I did conclude that the reforms Labour set itself met the ‘SMART’ criteria presented in some management training: specific, measurable, achievable (or ‘ambitious’ in some versions), realistic, and time-bound. But the ultimate outcome may not have been what what was desired.

When I turned my thoughts to the redistribution or the economic agenda, I wondered if we on the Left have similar clear objectives. There are plenty of statements of what we’re against, and lots of broad ‘feel good’ aims or statements of outcome that is to be achieved with not enough about the outputs that will be delivered to achieve those outcomes. There is also the fact that the content of many ‘front end’ specific objectives or demands change more rapidly in the economic sphere than in some areas of the social policy sphere. A demand to lift the ban on divorce remained as valid (or invalid) in 1989 as it did in 1979; a demand at that time to increase the unemployment benefit by, say, £5.00 per week would now be outdated, and not just because the currency has changed.

Iin addition to wondering if we have clear objectives for economic and distribution systems, I also wondered whether it is possible to have such objectives. The social policy objectives Labour championed in the 1990s are discrete: it would have been possible to prohibit discrimination against Travellers or people with disabilities without also making condoms available without a prescription. I don’t know if changing the systems of importing, producing and exporting goods and services or of changing the systems of property ownership, pricing and transfer, work and pay, social welfare, tax, and public services can be broken down into discrete single actions with defined outcomes in the way the ‘liberal agenda’ can be.

I think the cabinet and its members do three key things:
– change laws (although constitutionally that task is done by the Oireachtas, in our system it typically implements the government’s proposals),
– decide on the taxing and spending of public funds, and
– in their capacity as as the most senior director of organisations that deliver some services, shape or set further non-spending rules and policies.

That list of three role is narrow in its focus. Ministers do have other key roles. Important among those is seeking to shape public opinion (which Brian Lenihan has been successful in doing in relation to fiscal policy) and negotiating in various bodies (a task it might be said — unfairly — that John Gormley failed at in Copenhagen). But I think that the link between outcomes and outputs in those roles is less certain. If I were taking a seat at my first cabinet meeting, I think my mind would be on the first three roles, for those are (usually) within the control of a minister.

I would probably be at a loss if I were given an economic portfolio in that imaginary cabinet and wanted to identify meaningful and realistic objectives. I could set out to change the tax laws to penalise companies that do not share profits or to make co-ops or mutual society models more attractive for entrepreneurs. Maybe I could find some change in how executive pay is set to reduce the inequality between the top and the bottom. I would definitely want to make the right of workers to collective representation effective in all employments. But, somehow, I doubt any of that would lead to serious changes to the economic injustice that exists in Ireland.

What three or four specific policy objectives would you steer through the system if you were appointed to the cabinet?

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Comments»

1. LeftAtTheCross - December 28, 2009

A New Year’s Wishlist for the Left, great idea. My opener would be secularisation of the primary and post-primary education system.

How far can the envelope pushed on this? Do we assume reform within the bounds of the EU treaties only?

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2. sonofstan - December 28, 2009

If its a FG/Lab govt. with a roughly 60/35 split of seats, then Labour should insist on getting Health and Education and ending co-location, reworking the financing of the health service through a ring fenced levy and/or universal insurance (single payer): and, with regard to education, as LATC says, secularise, but more important, raise standards hugely in areas of disadvantage.

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Tomboktu - December 28, 2009

“raise standards hugely in areas of disadvantage”.

How would you do that?

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sonofstan - December 28, 2009

First, accurate assessment of strengths and failings of particular schools, allied to in depth assessment of the needs of pupils in such schools and what they have to get to be able to improve their chances.

Secondly, work out a budget such that schools who are doing badly at present get the most resources, so that they can pay a premium for better, more experienced teachers who want a challenge, and younger ones willing to take on a difficult job for more rewards. Instead of relying on quasi- religious notions of a vocation, or the idea that making a difference to the life chances of poor kids is in the gift of the well meaning, make it the job of the education system to do this, and reward people for doing their job well (and penalise them for doing it badly, for cynically neglecting the welfare of such kids because they ‘won’t amount to anything’ or because ‘the parents don’t care’).

I know people have objections to league tables, and over -regulation of schools, and i share some of them: when such info is presented baldly without taking into account the socio-economic factors productive of results, its a distortion in the interests of the status quo. But….. we wouldn’t – or shouldn’t -let hospitals get away with letting down those who need them most and we ought not do that with schools. The notion that our education system is ‘one of the best in the world’ is specious crap – until it starts really treating all the children of the nation equally, it should be monitored and assessed continually.

You could help pay for this by removing state subvention form private schools.

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Tim - December 28, 2009

SoS, you make a lot of sense and have the basis of a good programme there. Except for the last line.
How will making some schools worse make others better?

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3. Drithleóg - December 28, 2009

At the end of the day, even if it’s a 50/50 mix coalition it will end up with policies being diluted and as the Labour Party’s policies are already very much “middle of the road” we can only expect them to move to the right as in the past. They will of course also comply with the diktats of the EU and IMF.

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4. Jim Monaghan - December 28, 2009

Someone said Labour should insist. That will be the day if it insists on anything very meaningful.
But I am attracted by the idea of a minimum program for left participation in government.It would pose a challenge to the opportunists in Labour and SF and indeed Community TDs.I leave out the Greens for obvious reasons.We could build on Sonofstans good start.
I owuld add say a maximum state funded salary of 200,000 Euros including perks. (I include state bodies, RTE and rescued banks in this.I also include those who are private contractors esp. the “talent” in RTE.) Yes, I am being terribly reasonable

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sonofstan - December 28, 2009

Too reasonable…..

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5. sonofstan - December 28, 2009

@Tim,

I’ve a feeling we’ve had this argument before…..

The inequity of state subsidised ‘private’ education seems clear enough to me: the fees pay for a competitive advantage out of proportion to the outlay, but, much worse, not only do you buy an advantage for your own kids, but you directly disadvantage the children of others. in this respect, it is not like private health care, because, in that case, there is not a necessarily limited number of outcomes, such that a private patient successfully treated does not result in a bad outcome for a public patient: but, much simplified, this is what happens with private education.

Say there are 100 places in Medicine in UCD: and say 80 of those places are taken by those with a private education and 20 by those from the state sector; and lets say there are 90k pupils in the state sector and 10k in the private. Now, assuming the distribution of ability to be roughly equal across society, the fair outcome should 90 +- places for state pupils and 10 for the private sector. That the actual result is much closer to my guess is because of the smaller classes, better teachers and the culture of success provided by private schools: but that competitive advantage directly reduces the chances of kids in state schools, with large mixed ability classes, discipline problems brought about by social factors outside the school concern and so forth: reduces the likelihood of a child from such a school getting to be a doctor by about 75% actually. Which is manifestly unjust, especially as the state pays for both kinds of school, and the parent in the private sector is only required to pay for the extras.

And please don’t come back to me with the old chestnut about parental priorities and the working classes choosing to spend the money on holidays and big TVS while the middle classes ‘make sacrifices’. There are huge numbers of parents in this country who are not in a position to choose either.

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sonofstan - December 28, 2009

Though, of course, the short answer to your question is ‘by helping to pay for it’ – making a few slightly worse off, to make everyone better seems pretty in tune with the ethos of this site…

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Tim - December 28, 2009

I think we might’ve actually.

The way I see it is that private education is an ‘extra tax’ (assuming education is the responsibility of the state) paid by some parents to give their kids an advantage, over and above the taxes they already pay for all schools. This is similar to, say, my paying for private security because I don’t trust the Gardai.

In terms of schools, such parents are relieving the burdern on state schools by removing their children from the system, so have a reasonable right to expect state assistance on a per capita level with that afforded to state schools. I don’t know what the government pays per year per child to run a school – no idea – but private fees are a lot. And if parents want to pay it (it was the ONLY way I could get into a mixed-sex Protestant school, btw) then that’s their choice. Incidentally, there were low-income kids in my school, on scholarships.

If private schools received a greater proportion per capita than state schools, I would oppose that.

The programme you described- a universal, secular, (mixed???) education with well-paid teachers and high standards – would render such schools obsolete anyhow. It makes no sense to damage them now. After all, if there was a decent alternative, they wouldn’t exist.

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ejh - December 28, 2009

In terms of schools, such parents are relieving the burden on state schools by removing their children from the system, so have a reasonable right to expect state assistance on a per capita level with that afforded to state school

What absolute tosh. Because they’ve decided not to take up a state-school place they have a reasonable right to have the money spent on their child elsewhere? No they don’t. Because that’s not the system. If there was a system of school vouchers, which thank god there isn’t, they’d have that reasonable right. But they don’t.

Incidentally, there were low-income kids in my school, on scholarships.

So what?

if there was a decent alternative, they wouldn’t exist.

Yes they would, and you well know it. For a number of reasons but most fundamentally because some well-off parents will always want to pay to give their kids a large head start and keep the worse-off kids away from them. They’re not just looking for a decent education and it’s not remotely honest to claim otherwise: they’re looking for rather more than that. They’re looking to be at the front of the queue by right.

I’ve heard all these arguments all my life and I’ve no time for any of them. All they mean is “it’s not fair if a small minority can’t have all the advantages and expect everybody else to shell out for them”.

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ejh - December 28, 2009

This is similar to, say, my paying for private security because I don’t trust the Gardai.

Which, as it happens, is why it’s bollocks. Because you wouldn’t get a sub from the state to pay for private security. Nobody would say “well, Tim has chosen not to be protected by the Gardai so we’ll give him money to pay for bodyguards”. It’s an example which demonstrates the ludicrous nature of the argument in support of which it is deployed.

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Tim - December 28, 2009

No, you’ve just missed the point and in doing so made my argument for me.
The Gardai aren’t going to rock up to my house and say, ‘hey, you’ve got extra security so now we’re not going to help you’
are they?

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ejh - December 28, 2009

The Gardai aren’t going to rock up to my house and say, ‘hey, you’ve got extra security so now we’re not going to help you’ are they?

No, they’re not. They still exist. If you choose not to go to the Gardai, the Gardai are still there. As is the public education system, which will be obliged to offer a place to anybody leaving the private system. For no extra cost to the parents.

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Tim - December 28, 2009

“making a few slightly worse off, to make everyone better” should never be necessary.
On the point about doctors – you’re right. The answer is to provide more places, as Ireland is desparately short of doctors…

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6. LeftAtTheCross - December 28, 2009

To open it up a bit, some other suggestions:

Address the housing situation. Compulsory purchase of unsold / unoccupied housing to a housing body, paid in shares of NAMA rather than cash, and eliminate the public housing waiting lists. Use this same body to build social infrastructure in these housing estates, shops, local service office space, community centres, playgrounds, creches / after-school centres, whatever.

Plan for the end of cheap oil. Renegotiate the Corrib gasfield deal. Public capital programme to build wind turbines on a huge scale, with compulsory purchase of land and short cuts through the legal system regarding objections from the NIMBY classes. Massively increase carbon taxes. Invest massively in public transport provision. Provide a mechanism for families who bought into the “commuter dream” to re-locate to centres of population close to their workplaces. Plenty of other stuff to address under this one…

Increase corporation taxes massively. Accept that this will drive multinationals offshore, so what, the money was never ours in the first place, good luck to them.

Undermine the professional classes. Negotiate bilateral deals with Cuba, China, whoever, to bring in massive numbers of qualified medical staff. Let the rich keep their Blackrock Clinics and Mater Privates, but remove the medical staff in those facilities from the public payroll in every respect. Don’t use this as a mechanism to drive down wages in the public health system, rather use it to bring a new breath of fresh air from the ground up in a hierarchical class dominated system. Move from the British common law system to the European system which Napolean initiated. It would be messy initially but it would wipe the slate clean and allow us to redesign the legal system from top to bottom.

Nationalise the banks. Close the IFSC.

Hold a referendum on leaving the EU.

Open the cabinet table to the radical left, bring in TDs from PBPA and the SP, and the Greens, with ministers of state (don’t know if they have voting rights at present?). Not as a mechanism for Labour to muzzle its left flank, but as a counter-balance to FG and the conservative forces within Labour & SF, to widen the agenda for government.

Electoral reform. A tricky one. We don’t want to make life easier for single/local issue independents and the populist centre.

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7. Crocodile - December 28, 2009

A FFer I know took particular pleasure, during the ‘renegotiation of the Programme for Government’ in the prominence given to the hare coursing question. He knew, as FFers always do, that as long as one’s coalition junior partners are concerned with making ground on their pet issues, everyone’s happy and nothing’s really changed.
Ideally (and we’re talking about wish lists here, after all) a left party in the next coalition would start by demanding not the health and education portfolios but, say, finance or at least enterprise. The problem with our education system is not the existence of Blackrock College, but the facts that our second level students have no computer lessons and sometimes no toilet paper.
It’s all about budgets and allocation of resources.
‘But’, protests a Green, ‘we have a core value of opposition to blood sports.’ The way you get to do something about it, though, is to get your hands on the money bags. Being a junior coalition partner, forever appeasing your grass roots with crumbs from the cabinet table, is demeaning and leads nowhere.

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Tomboktu - December 28, 2009

After you and I have demanded and obtained the Finance and Enterprise portfolios, what will we do with them?

(BTW, I think that a ‘realistic’ approach to my would allow all but the top three of Taoiseach, Finance and Foreign Affairs to be shaped according to the contingencies of the day. And even then, I think that’s not entirely true of Finance which I have a vague memory of having been split into a Dept of Economic Planning or some such as well as a “department for raising and spending the public finances”.)

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8. CL - December 28, 2009

“We too have lived through an era of stability, certainty, and the illusion of indefinite economic improvement. But all that is now behind us. For the foreseeable future we shall be as economically insecure as we are culturally uncertain…if social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear..
A social democracy of fear is something to fight for. To abandon the labors of a century is to betray those who came before us as well as generations yet to come.” Tony Judt.

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23519

Already the economistic ideologues have had a victory in Lenihan’s IMF austerity budget. As these measures merely add to the economic debacle the right-wing cry will be for even harsher attacks on the poor and the working class, couched in pseudo-scientific jargon of ‘equilibration’ and ‘adjustment’.
Is the Labour Party capable of offering the resistance required or is it also imbued with the false, obsolete, economistic doctrine of efficiency, privatisation and the market solution? The signs so far are not auspicious.

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9. Bartholomew - December 28, 2009

Entirely tangentially, but the title of the post reminded me of what Raymond Aron always described as a formative experience in his intellectual development. He had spent a year in Germany in 1931-2 and realised the extent of the Nazi threat:

… And then there is a second element, perhaps more basic: the refusal to answer the question someone once asked me:”lf you were in the minister’s position, what would you do?” When I returned from Germany in 1932 — I was very young — I had a conversation with the secretary of state for foreign affairs, Paganon…
“Tell me about your experiences,” he said. I made a very Ecole Normale kind of presentation, apparently brilliant …
“All that is very interesting ” he said after about fifteen minutes, “but if you were in my place, what would you do?” Well, I was much less brilliant in the answer to that question…

(The Committed Spectator, 1983)

(Apologies, if necessary, for quoting a cold-war liberal on this site…)

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10. sonofstan - December 28, 2009

Tim and EJH,
Re the analogy between security and education: surely its as if Tim decides he doesn’t think the Gardai are up to the job, so he hires some private security, but expects the state to pay their basic wages, with him looking after overtime and the odd sandwich?

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Crocodile - December 28, 2009

But if he hired private security and therefore the state was saved a guard’s salary, wouldn’t he be justified in asking that his entitlement to a state security service be provided in the form of the private guard’s salary? Convoluted, I know, but isn’t Tim’s point that the parent of a Gonzaga child is entitled to have his teachers’ salaries paid, like any other citizen? If Gonzaga were bulldozed, the same salaries would have to be paid in some other school, state or not, so there would be no net saving to the government or ‘taxpayer’.

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Mark P - December 28, 2009

Well not quite, Crocodile.

If every last private school shut down and all of its pupils entered the state system there would be no saving. However, if some of these schools remained open as entirely privately funded institutions, the children who go there would not be a burden on the state system at all.

One of the unusual things about private education in Ireland is that it is so widespread. And it is so widespread because it is heavily subsidised by the state and therefore relatively cheap when compared to private education in much of the rest of Europe. However, private education does still exist in other countries, although confined to a smaller elite.

A related point is the dominance of private day schools as opposed to boarding schools, which again very much reduces costs. So between these two factors a year in St Michaels costs (according to the latest figures I can find) approximately €4,000 while a year in Harrow costs approximately €40,000. A year boarding in Clongowes costs approximately €12,000, which should give you an idea of how much of the difference is down to state subsidies. (Of course, the British public schools are also subsidised by the state by being allowed charitable status).

I think you can take it for granted that quite a number of our private schools would stay open and private if state subsidies were removed. Many others would come into the state system.

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Tim - December 28, 2009

- Crocodile,
yes that was my point. I think.

The private aspect being an ‘extra’ I am prepared to pay for, while not replacing that which is already there.

In Ireland private schools are usually, but not always, Protestant schools, and rather than demand from the state some special ‘minority’ status, we, I think, would rather say, treat us like all your other schools, and subsidise us no less or no more, and we will pay any difference to maintain our ethos.

Obviously, secularists will deny that there ought to be an ‘ethos’ in schools and in one respect they are correct, but my experience was that my particular school was very secular in outlook in that there was no specific R.E. class and no church services. And anyone would have a tough time arguing that, say, Jews, should not have their ‘own’ schools.

Maybe rather have entirely secular education as sonofstan says, with optional religious education outside the school? tough one..

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Mark P - December 28, 2009

Where did you get the idea that private schools are “usually Protestant schools” from?

That may possibly be true in the countryside where private education is relatively rare, but it certainly isn’t true in the cities and it’s in the cities that private education is overwhelmingly concentrated. The likes of Wesley or Kings Hospital are heavily outnumbered by the likes of St Michael’s, Blackrock or Gonzaga.

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ejh - December 29, 2009

The thing is, they are being paid. He’s just not taking up their services – unless he changes their mind, in which case they will be there all right. Sonofstan’s analogy is entirely apt. As indeed are Mark P’s points.

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11. sonofstan - December 28, 2009

List here from 2005 of fee paying schools in the repubilc:

http://archives.tcm.ie/businesspost/2005/05/29/story5177.asp

31 schools, 19 Catholic, 9 Protestant, and 3 ‘other’. The majority- of either kind- in South Dublin.

(I think there’s a few missing though – High School? Newtown? still a large Catholic majority, and in areas where there are ample state alternatives.

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Crocodile - December 28, 2009

I suppose if you hear the term ‘fee-paying school’ and think of St Michael’s, you’ll agree with SofS/MarkP. If you think of Wilson’s Hospital, you’ll agree with Tim.
That’s my point, really: there’s no such thing as a typical Irish fee-paying school and there’s not much point comparing Bandon Grammar to Glenstal abbey, let alone Harrow.
And I’m so thick that I still don’t understand the ‘subsidy’ thing.

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Mark P - December 29, 2009

What do you mean you don’t understand the whole subsidy thing?

It’s relatively straightforward: The Irish state pays for some of the costs of private schools. That is, the Irish state subsidses private schools. Many other governments don’t do this. In Britain for example, people can set up or attend private schools if they wish, but they have to find the money to support those schools without the assistance of the state. Although the British government does allow them an indirect subsidy by permitting the public schools to register as charities which makes private gifts to those schools tax free.

Subsidising private education has a number of effects, basically because it makes it a lot cheaper. In particular it puts the cost of private day schools within the reach of quite a substantial minority of the population.

In the country side, for reasons of population density, private education will, outside of the largest towns, tend to mean boarding schools which while still a lot cheaper than boarding schools in England are a multiple more expensive than private day schools. For this reason, a secondary effect of subsidising private education is to make it into a primarily urban phenomenon – and private education expanded hugely in Dublin and Cork during the boom years.

Another effect is that the wealthy parents who would avail of private education even if it was much more expensive receive a massive financial bonus from the public purse. They get the same “service” but they pay a small fraction of the amount they would otherwise pay for it.

And just to come back on the point about comparisons, I compared St Michael’s, Harrow and Clongowes because all three are undeniably, in the context of their different countries, elite schools even within the private education sector. If you want to send your child to a “top” private day school in Ireland it costs about a third as much as sending him (and these are all boys schools) to a “top” private boarding school here and about a tenth as much as sending him to a “top” private boarding school in England. That is the comparison demonstrates the effect of the subsidy by comparing like with like.

And no, no matter what school comes to mind when you think of “fee paying schools” Tim is not correct. Roman Catholic schools are a large majority of fee paying schools at all levels.

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Mark P - December 28, 2009

The list misses out all of the schools starting with letters between D and Q, which is probably a large swathe of them.

A large majority of fee paying schools are Roman Catholic nationwide.

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sonofstan - December 28, 2009

*slaps head*

OK, this list is complete

http://www.educationireland.ie/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=19&Itemid=26

By my calculations, 30 Catholic, 20 Protestant, one Jewish, 2 non-denom.

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Mark P - December 29, 2009

That sounds closer to the truth.

This discussion is largely academic anyway, given that there is absolutely no possibility of any government in the near future abolishing the subsidy to fee paying schools. It would be a direct attack on the rich, on the middle classes and even on the most upwardly mobile and affluent sections of the working class. Fianna Fail, Labour, Fine Gael, etc would never stand for such a thing.

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Tim - December 28, 2009

There are a good few missing from that list as you say – I’m sure there are more than 9 Protestant schools in Ireland but I accept your point. I find it easier to argue for minority schools than majority ones I suppose, but the arguments still stand.
On the other hand I’m somewhat disarmed at this point because while this article for one,

http://www.independent.ie/education/features/should-private-schools-still-receive-state-aid-1668230.html

gives the subsidy amounts, I don’t know what a state school costs to run per student and until I have those figures I won’t know which side I’m on….

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Mark P - December 29, 2009

Well, you see the supporters of subsidising fee paying schools always prefer to have the argument focus on the tiny percentage of the population who are (a) Protestant, (b) rural, and (c) relatively poor and who would (d) rather send their child away to a boarding school elsewhere to avail of the religious “ethos” rather than sending them to a local, probably Roman Catholic, day school.

We are talking about genuinely tiny numbers of people and their needs could easily be addressed, even assuming the continuation of confessional educational, through a means tested grant scheme. The overwhelming majority of people who benefit from the subsidies to private education to not fit into those four categories. Indeed, I’d be surprised if the number of people falling into all four of those categories reaches even clost to one percent of the population of the country as a whole.

Now think about this for a second. Does the debate on an issue of national importance normally focus around the desire for spiritual nourishment of a tiny number of poor people? The idea is laughable. Those poor, rural, Protestants are simply used as a shield by the real beneficiaries of subsidised private education, which is to say the outright rich and the better heeled parts of urban society. They know that their argument is unwinnable – millions a year in subsidies for Blackrock College is a tough sell – so they prefer to pretend that the argument isn’t about them at all.

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sonofstan - December 29, 2009

Well, I guess you can see that if there weren’t ‘Majority’ schools, then there wouldn’t need to be ‘minority ones either.

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12. CL - December 28, 2009

-Most of all, we are entering the new decade with a loss of confidence among the world’s governments, regulators and central banks about how they should be running the global economy. The post-cold war triumph of finance capitalism has been shattered, but no one quite knows what will follow it-Financial Times.

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/50963f46-f3d8-11de-ac55-00144feab49a.html

The lack of confidence of the Irish government in how to run the economy is manifest in the Green/F.F. government’s reliance on obsolete, 19th century dogma.
The practitioners of the dismal pseudo-science of economics are in disarray. The task of the Left is to understand the reasons for this economistic loss of confidence, to contribute to it, and to defeat the regressive doctrine underlying government policy.

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13. sonofstan - December 29, 2009

And just on the education thing, before I go to bed – I’m sorry this got derailed into a discussion of private education, because what I wanted to suggest as an attainable, popular and useful objective for the Labour component in a future government was genuine reform of the state sector with one objective – moving towards equality of provision within the system. Even leaving aside completely the private sector there are huge inequalities within the school system that ought to be addressed.

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14. LeftAtTheCross - December 29, 2009

For fucks sake, if a discussion of what we’d all like the world to look like (even from a limited reformist social-democratic perspective) degeneragtes into a discussion of public-ve-private schooling that’s a sad reflection on what socialism means in the 21st century. Move on and look at the bigger picture. Please. I think Tomboktu’s post deserves a better discussion then we’ve had so far.

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Tim - December 29, 2009

Well, he did ask what individual ministers ought to do, not what the worldwide goal of socialism should be. I may be something of an outsider here, but any fool knows that we are not getting a socialist government next year, but rather a minor left-leaning coalition partner, albeit a sizeable one.
In that regard, your frustrations are misplaced. I’m keen to know what Labour will insist on, and what departments they will control. Ruari Quinn did a good job in Finance last time, but I suspect, as has been said here, Labour will control Education and Health at the very least.
Apologies for side-tracking the discussion, if that is how it is perceived, but I’ve outlined above the perspective I approached this topic with.

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15. ejh - December 29, 2009

Well, to be fair it did derive from somebody writing to the question and making a specific proposal as to what presumably minority Labour ministers would do in a future govenment – which is a hard thing to do, since the more substantial the proposal, the more powerful the argument that they wouldn’t have the clout to push it through. Which kind of leads us back to what Crocodile is saying at #7, and the question is whether or not one agrees with the conclusion there.

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Tomboktu - December 29, 2009

I wasn’t clear in my post, but I wasn’t thinking of just ministers from Labour, but anywhere that could be seen as from the Left.

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16. Tomboktu - December 29, 2009

LeftAtTheCross: How far can the envelope pushed on this? Do we assume reform within the bounds of the EU treaties only?

It would probably be useful write a separate post on changes that are needed at an international level. In that I would include not only the EU but also the global economic institutions, like the WTO and the IMF.

And that prompts a domestic reform I would bring in as Minister for Education: I think the content of the CSPE curriculum at second level needs be reformed to give a sounder introduction to how we are governed. The questions in that section of the paper (see The State Examinations Commission) are shockingly simple (except for question 3iv in 2006, linked through the word ‘Commission’ above, which unintentionally raised complex issues about the relationship between the EU and the European Court of Human Rights, all to be fitted into a fill-in-the-blank question).

Here’s a sample:

3. Complete each of the following sentences.

(a) The place where votes are cast in an election is called a p______________
s__________.

(b) A vote to change the Constitution of Ireland is called a r________________.

(c) The Deputy Prime Minister in Ireland is known as An T________________.

(d) The person who keeps order in Dáil Éireann during debates is called the
C___________ C________________.

(e) Mary Mc Aleese is the name of the P_____________ of I_____________.

(f) The h___________ is the national symbol of Ireland and appears on all
government letters and envelopes.

(6 marks)

As far as I can see, topics on global ‘governance’ consist of naming the secretary general of the UN, and knowing about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and about the UNCRC.

And I don’t see much in the exam papers on the content of the rules that govern our interactions with the state or in the economy.

One of the criticisms I heard on remarks made by a UK minister (can’t remember if it was one of the Millibands or H Benn) following the outcome of Copenhagen was that a focus only on local individual action is inadequate if the global systems are not changed. The CSPE syllabus is open to that criticism. Little and weak attention is given to what the rules of the game are, or how they can be changed or what the changes might be, and a huge amount of space is given to local action.

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sonofstan - December 29, 2009

Yeah, it’s shockingly childish. i remember when my daugher did the exam 5 odd years ago, she and most of her class found it insulting, if an easy honour: but, she reported, there were some of her class who didn’t know even the simplest thing about our system of governance and who had to ‘learn off’ the answers to such questions.

But that brings up another point about our supposedly wonderful education system – secondary education has been entirely reduced to exam passing and rote learning; kids, even, perhaps especially, in ‘good’ schools learn off essays, spend 6th year practising answers to past papers. Then, when they get to university, the goal of all this, they have no clue as to how to work independently, how to research something, how to be even interested…..

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Tomboktu - December 29, 2009

Heh. Shortly after commenting on the need for more awareness of the IMF and WTO, I read an article in the Financial Times on a board game called Eternal Debt and ‘involving the IMF’ that is all the rage in Argentina.

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17. Tomboktu - December 29, 2009

Any suggestions on specific objective concerning the systems of importing, producing and exporting goods and services or concerning the systems of property ownership, pricing and transfer, work and pay, social welfare, tax, and (other) public services? I know Michael Taft has been championing proposals for responding to the immediate crisis, but it it possible to bring in domestic changes that will do anything about the underlying and ongoing patterns of distribution of income and wealth or must all of that await European or global action?

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18. School Marm - December 29, 2009

To the poster who suggested targetting extra resources at failing schools, so as to allow them to incentivize the best teachers to move from the better schools ….

You do realize that to have any effect you’d have to incentivize the parents to swap families also?

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19. Jim Monaghan - December 29, 2009

On failing schools and best teachers.The cynic in mesays are they not all best,
In Japan teachers are employed by regional boards not by schools and are transfereed to where they are needed. This would presumably allow say Donnybrook based teachers to teach in Ringsend. I am sure Breda O’Brien would not mind.
On wages I was accused of being too generous with my max of 200,000. What multiply of average wages should be the max. What should be the % extra should be allowed for professional groups like teachers etc.
Who should controll the schools. I am sceptical about parents,
Most parents would be afraid of their children being got at if they complain about anything.

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20. School Marm - December 29, 2009

@Jim

Parents have little or no control over schools.

They do however have a massive influence on their kids’ attitude to their own education. And thusly, a huge impact on their attainment.

Oh and let me tell you, forcing newly qualified teachers to ply their trade at a school not of their own choosing would further discourage the brightest and best from entering the profession. As if we needed more ways to exploit the insecure position of younger teachers, already taken for a ride by their older colleagues.

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ejh - December 30, 2009

forcing newly qualified teachers to ply their trade at a school not of their own choosing would further discourage the brightest and best from entering the profession.

It might,. It’s how it works in Spain, though, where teaching is a branch of the civil service, one passses exams (oposiciones) to enter the profession and where one then goes depends on one’s position in those exams. It’s not a system I necessarily agree with, but it’s not clear to me that it really discourages anybody who really wants to do the job.

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School Marm - December 31, 2009

“It’s how it works in Spain”

Here’s another shockingly simple CSPE style question …

The form of government in Spain up to 1975 was known as a F______ D___________. Hint: it wasn’t a Federal Democracy.

Societies with a history of highly authoritarian, centralized rule tend to be much more accepting of such statist policies.

I do find it disappointing, given all that is broken in Irish education, that the most heat on this thread was generated about private education. People seem to miss the obvious point that to withdraw support for private education in the morning would fundamentally change the terms & conditions of a very large chunk of the membership of a relatively militant teaching union. It simply would not be tolerated. At the very most, the state could reduce capital grants to all private schools, or the block grant to Church of Ireland schools (a highly problematic move) and of course refuse to replace any retiring teachers. The savings would be tiny initially, maybe 10 million per annum.

Mere pennies, when set against say the economic cost of the crisis in Maths education.

There are much more pressing issues to be tackled, and the whole class-war thing against private education is just a big distraction.

Grown-up education policy requires serious ideas around curriculum reform, engaging unemployed/unskilled parents in their kids’ education, and most importantly a quantum leap teaching practice. On that last point, I’m not afraid to admit that there are many, many poor practitioners in the profession and this issue needs to be tackled head-on. Bleating on about the fees for Michael’s or Clongowes gets us nowhere on these crucial challenges.

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ejh - December 31, 2009

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in fact Spain has been a democracy for more than thirty years. I have – I live there, and work with teachers there, few of whom are influenced in their thinking by their experiences under Franco, what with many of them having been born after he died and all.

The savings would be tiny initially, maybe 10 million per annum.

Just out of interest, how did you arrive at that figure?

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Mark P - December 31, 2009

She pulled it from her arse.

As for the teachers unions, they would certainly support any move to abolish state support for private schooling.

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Tim - December 31, 2009

A Fucking Disaster?
now that’s hardly fair…

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WorldbyStorm - December 31, 2009

School Marm, without in any sense wishing to be snide have you read the About Us section at the top (tabbed for convenience). This happens to be a left wing blog hence yoiu will find a left wing approach to such matters. I’m continually amazed at how some from the centre and right of centre appear to think that we’re something we’re not.

Throwing in the notion of ‘statism’ is all fine and dandy, but to most leftists of my acquaintance the idea of private education is anathema. Why is it anathema, because basic issues of opportunity of access, provision of services, equality of treatment and so forth come into play. Even if it costs considerably more to implement a state wide education sector (unlikely given that the state pays the way of almost all education in this state at national and secondary level) that would still be worth the expense in order to prevent pockets of privilege being established or continued. You can term that class war, I consider it a foundation stone of progressive/left educational philosophy. And the idea that this notion, one which broad social democracy across Europe has considered quite uncontroversial across decades, albeit one which hasn’t been implemented anywhere near in full, isn’t ‘grown-up’ perhaps speaks more of your prejudice than ours.

As for the forms such state education might take, well there I’m open to considerable flexibility beyond the parameters of a broad central core, flexibility that might well make provision for both religious and secular aspects if religion is an issue, etc, etc. ,

I’ve had the dubious pleasure of reading the submissions from the fee-charging sector to the Oireachtas sub-committee on education and I’ve posted about it previously. They talk a good game, but for all the posturing what they do is seek to protect societal approaches which those of us on the left consider pernicious.

BTW, I’m most entertained at the idea that young teachers ‘ply their trade’ at schools of their own choosing. My experience of such matters is that they try to find a job, any job. Usually on a short term contract. And then they take it.

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ejh - January 1, 2010

I’m most entertained at the idea that young teachers ‘ply their trade’ at schools of their own choosing. My experience of such matters is that they try to find a job, any job. Usually on a short term contract. And then they take it.

Indeed.

I would have thought that with teaching, the problem was less getting people to enter the profession and more encouraging them to stay there.

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WorldbyStorm - January 1, 2010

That’s more or less it. My sense is that it is getting full time contracts, anywhere, that is the crucial hurdle for younger (or not so young but new teachers). That’s a long process for many, if not indeed most.

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21. Cl - December 29, 2009

“Typically, these countries are in a desperate economic situation for one simple reason—the powerful elites within them overreached in good times and took too many risks. Emerging-market governments and their private-sector allies commonly form a tight-knit—and, most of the time, genteel—oligarchy, running the country rather like a profit-seeking company in which they are the controlling shareholders…..
As masters of their mini-universe, these people make some investments that clearly benefit the broader economy, but they also start making bigger and riskier bets. They reckon—correctly, in most cases—that their political connections will allow them to push onto the government any substantial problems that arise….
elite business interests….played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them…..

Regulators, legislators, and academics almost all assumed that the managers of these banks knew what they were doing. In retrospect, they didn’t….
money was used to recapitalize banks, buying shares in them on terms that were grossly favorable to the banks themselves. As the crisis has deepened and financial institutions have needed more help, the government has gotten more and more creative in figuring out ways to provide banks with subsidies that are too complex for the general public to understand….
Even leaving aside fairness to taxpayers, the government’s velvet-glove approach with the banks is deeply troubling, for one simple reason: it is inadequate to change the behavior of a financial sector accustomed to doing business on its own terms, at a time when that behavior must change…
In some ways, of course, the government has already taken control of the banking system. It has essentially guaranteed the liabilities of the biggest banks, and it is their only plausible source of capital
today…
while the replacement of the bank executives who got us into this crisis would be just and sensible, ultimately, the swapping-out of one set of powerful managers for another would change only the names of the oligarchs…
Our future could be one in which continued tumult feeds the looting of the financial system, and we talk more and more about exactly how our oligarchs became bandits and how the economy just can’t seem to get into gear.”

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200905/imf-advice/4

Unless the entrenched, corrupt oligarchy that misgoverns Ireland is ousted it hardly matters who the minister is: he will act in the interests of the forces that put him in power to the detriment of working people.

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Tomboktu - December 29, 2009

Now that comment has me puzzled. The starting point of this discussion was that you are a minister. Would you act in the interests of the corrupt oligarchy that misgoverns? I presume not, but I have no idea what measures you would introduce.

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22. CL - December 30, 2009

Given the Irish class structure and the resulting power relations to become a minister would would have to serve the interests of the oligarchy.
One can of course indulge in a utopian fantasy of what one would do if one woke up one morning and found oneself to be MOF, but such exercises are of little use in analysing Irish political economy and developing a pro-working class alternative.

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LeftAtTheCross - December 30, 2009

CL, “Given the Irish class structure and the resulting power relations to become a minister would would have to serve the interests of the oligarchy.”

I don’t know if that’s true, think of Noel Browne for example. I agree in general there haven’t been too many ministers that rocked the boat, but in a government with the ambition / mandate to do so (e.g. the 1948-51 inter-party government) I think it’s defeatist to accept that meaningful reform is not possible. (I acknowledge that “reform” is a contentious word on the left, but that is what we’re addressing in this thread).

Apologies to all for the tone of my last post, it was made at 3am after having the neighbours around for a few christmas drinks. Late night replies are now filed away under “not a good idea”.

Is it fair to say that this thread exposes some of the weaknesses and strengths of the thinking of many of us on the left? The strengths voiced above are obvious but worth stating nonetheless, a passionate belief in a better society and a depth of conviction and analysis on how that could manifest itself, for example in reform of the education system. But maybe there’s a weakness in pulling together the little pieces into a bigger picture which we believe is credible and worthwhile in itself, and a view on how to get from here to there. Perhaps we get a bit distracted by the enormity of the gap between our present reality and our future dreams? (Yes I am speaking of myself here, of course, but maybe it applies generally).

As Bartholomew quoted in #9 above: ““All that is very interesting ” he said after about fifteen minutes, “but if you were in my place, what would you do?” Well, I was much less brilliant in the answer to that question…”.

It’s a very difficult exercise to list even 10 things which one would do if one was minister.

I would very much like to hear a response from spokespersons from the left political parties which addressed the question which Tomboktu posed in the original posting.

Anyone from Labour, Sinn Fein care to post a shortlist of reforms which their parties would consider “realistically achievable”? Anyone from the Workers Party, Communist Party, People Before Profit, Socialist Party?

Not an essay, just a list of 10 reforms in bullet point form, and leave the ensuing debate to the rest of us :-)

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Tomboktu - December 30, 2009

Is it fair to say that this thread exposes some of the weaknesses and strengths of the thinking of many of us on the left? The strengths voiced above are obvious but worth stating nonetheless, a passionate belief in a better society and a depth of conviction and analysis on how that could manifest itself, for example in reform of the education system.

Unfortunately, I would say that education is the only area where there is any depth of analysis so far. I’d be really interested in how we might bring more justice to our economic systems.

(I’ve been wading through a paper by Gary Becker, Kevin Murphy and Iván Werning entitled “The Equilibrium Distribution of Income and the Market for Status“. It will take some parsing, because it assumes a familiarity with a fair dollop of specialist concepts in both mathematics and economic (e.g. a ‘hedonic market’). But if I am reading it correctly, it is saying that given certain conditions in a market economy, there will be a minimum level of inequality, no matter what the starting distribution is.)

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23. CL - December 30, 2009

The market economy and capitalism are premised on inequality, meaning they cannot exist without it.
(By the way, ‘equilibrium’ is found only in textbooks: it doesn’t exist in reality.). Its widespread use in conventional economics is a beautiful example of Alfred North Whitehead’s fallacy of misplaced concreteness.
Members of the Chicago School, such as Gary Becker, are right-wing ideologues, and their ‘contributions’ to political economy should be seen in this light.
Leftatthecross: Noel Browne was surely an exception, and what happened to him proves my point: to become a govt a minister in a class-ridden society one must serve the dominant, controlling oligarchy.

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LeftAtTheCross - December 30, 2009

CL, nothing is impossible, if Noel Browne could make a difference in the Ireland of the 1940’s then I don’t lose hope that reform in the 2010’s is impossible.

On your other response, to Tomboktu, I agree that inequality if a necessary precondition for global capitalism, and that the real question is whether reform in itself is worthwhile? I tend towards a “no” on that one, as I’m sure you do yourself, but personally I’m happy to work with small steps in the short term.

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24. School Marm - December 31, 2009

@ejh

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in fact Spain has been a democracy for more than thirty years.”

Did you notice my reference to ‘up to 1975’?

“… few of whom are influenced in their thinking by their experiences under Franco”

The point is that the teaching colleges, the older teachers, the teaching unions, many parents, and the media were all conditioned by the centralizing tendency of the Spanish state under Franco and are thus willing to accept this highly regimented form of teacher recruitment.

Given the history of Irish education, it simply wouldn’t fly here. And even if it did, it wouldn’t fix any of the real issues in Irish education (as opposed to the imagined problems).

“Just out of interest, how did you arrive at that figure?”

According to the Irish Times, €2.1 million was spent on capital or building works in 17 fee-paying schools in 2008.

According to Minister O’Keeffe, the block grant is expected to be €6.5 million in this school year.

Finally, assuming one fortieth of private school teachers retire every year on half the top-of-scale salary and were not replaced on the state payroll, about 50 posts lost. Taking into account the lack of pension levy, superannuation, recent pay-cut and top-rate PAYE paid by pensioners, the net saving to the state would be at most a quarter of their final salary, well less than €1 million in total.

Add up the previous three figures and the grand total in savings comes out at less than €10 million, as predicted.

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ejh - January 1, 2010

The point is that the teaching colleges, the older teachers, the teaching unions, many parents, and the media were all conditioned by the centralizing tendency of the Spanish state under Franco and are thus willing to accept this highly regimented form of teacher recruitment.

No, the point is rather that it doesn’t in fact put off younger people from entering the profession.

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25. sonofstan - December 31, 2009

Grown-up education policy requires serious ideas around curriculum reform, engaging unemployed/unskilled parents in their kids’ education, and most importantly a quantum leap teaching practice. On that last point, I’m not afraid to admit that there are many, many poor practitioners in the profession and this issue needs to be tackled head-on. Bleating on about the fees for Michael’s or Clongowes gets us nowhere on these crucial challenges.

I kinda started this debate, and if you look back at my first post, you’ll see the comment about private education was an afterthought to a long post that more or less agrees with everything you say in the paragraph i quote. It got into a debate about it because Tim took me up on it, and as it happens, its something I oppose for reasons I set out, but, in this case, it wasn’t my central point. However, see Mark P. above for a better analysis of the doublespeak/ think around the issue.

In the original post I never said anything about forcing teachers to work in failing schools: on the contrary, i said they ought to be offered a substantial premium to do so; as well as the challenge to improve their practice.

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26. WorldbyStorm - December 31, 2009

Given that the Dept. of Education and Science budget allocation for 2010 is €8bn I think we’d survive the transition from fee charging to non fee charging. And note that none of this would need to be a big bang straight to a single state system but instead an evolutionary one across years where schools, for example, stopped using finance as a means to ration access… individual ethos could be maintained exclusive (or do I mean inclusive) of that.

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27. School Marm - December 31, 2009

@Mark P

“She pulled it from her arse.”

Now that’s just rude. See above for details of my calculation.

“As for the teachers unions, they would certainly support any move to abolish state support for private schooling.”

Do you presume to speak for the ASTI on this matter?

ASTI policy has never been to abolish state support for private schooling, for the simple reason that a significant minority of their membership teach in private schools. These members would be loath to leave behind the security of their salary and pensions being paid by the state.

@World By Storm

“to most leftists of my acquaintance the idea of private education is anathema”

I wasn’t so much arguing in favour of private education, as against an obsession with this small sector at the expense of the real problems facing educators in general.

“BTW, I’m most entertained at the idea that young teachers ‘ply their trade’ at schools of their own choosing. My experience of such matters is that they try to find a job, any job. Usually on a short term contract. And then they take it.”

In the case of the better-performing secondary schools, you’d be surprised how many newly recruited teachers are sons and daughters of former teachers, or past-pupils of those schools, or others with “connections” (e.g. the gaelgoir set).

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WorldbyStorm - December 31, 2009

Mark P was in truth being unseasonable.

But, I would indeed be surprised if such a situation was the norm rather than the exception and I’d be very very interested in any empirical evidence. However… that’s slightly different to the original point which is that those who leave college and become teachers have choice in terms of their work location. Ain’t so.

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School Marm - January 1, 2010

“Ain’t so”

Well, I’d beg to differ.

At the very least they can choose the broad parameters of location, ethos, methodology and language. Urban or rural; ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ side of the tracks; R.C. or C. of I.; tech or secondary; English-medium or Gaelcholáiste.

I hope you’re not making the mistake of extrapolating from the pressure on freshly minted HDips during this special period, to what went before and what will obtain again in the future.

And even in these abnormal times, a sufficiently well-qualified Maths teacher can still pick and choose between jobs.

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WorldbyStorm - January 1, 2010

I’m profoundly dubious about that. From almost direct experience of teachers in secondary/VEC etc amongst both friends and direct and extended family my sense is entirely otherwise. Sure, in some very specific subjects perhaps people can pick and choose, although even there my sense is that that is the exception rather than the norm. And no, cheers for the cautionary words, but I happen to have an interest etc in this stretching back to the 1970s.

Again, we can throw anecdotal evidence back and forth. Precisely what empirical data do you have to support what is a pretty remarkable contention?

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28. Tomboktu - December 31, 2009

CL: “The market economy and capitalism are premised on inequality, meaning they cannot exist without it.

I don’t know if this gets too technical, but … I am interested in the reasoning behind this claim.

I can see that capitalism (in all its varieties) is premised on inequality: its basic position is that “to he who has [and "she", though to a lesser extent so far in history], more shall be given”. But I don’t see why this should be true of a market economy.

I doubt we can prove it by pointing to the failings of all known existing market economies: John Roemer has pointed out the fallacy of the equivalent rejection of centrally planned economies:

Many people believe that the failure of the centrally planned economies in the late twentieth century proves that asset ownership cannot be socialized. I do not believe such a proof has been produced. What we can conclude from the failure of the CPEs is that the conjunction of three institutions does not work: state ownership of the capital stock, non-market allocation of resources and commodities, and political dictatorship. Logically, this is all that we can deduce without a finer analysis of the history.

Mind you, in the version of this paper on his website that I took the quote from, he also says:

I do not point to the huge salaries of American CEOs are evidence of a market failure: to the contrary, I am ready to believe that those salaries are in fact approximately equal to marginal productivities.

[Interestingly, this does not appear in the version of that article which was published earlier this year (sez Tomboktu, scraping in under the time-line) in The Oxford Handbook of Economic Inequality.]

Or, if the comments and replies don’t provide the space for an adequate answer, can you say where one can go to read it?

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29. School Marm - January 1, 2010

@World

Lets assume for a moment that you’re correct, and newly qualified teachers are indeed randomly distributed across the available schools, with little or no choice on the part of the teacher themselves (as they apply for every single job going, and eventually get chosen by one board of management or another).

This random distribution of teachers should bring with it an essentially uniform distribution of teaching skills. Ergo the failing schools would not actually be disadvantaged in terms of quality teachers. So there would be no need to reallocate the best teachers to these schools as suggested by Son Of Stan above above, there being no re-balancing required on the teaching side. In fact, such a reallocation of teaching resources would actively discriminate against the kids in non-failing schools.

So in falling over yourself to defend a proposed intrusion of the state, you’ve chanced upon a self-defeating argument.

Though of course there are other aspects of disadvantage that could and should be re-balanced, such as access to the internet at home, or after-school homework supervision, or holiday revision courses, or even a good nutritious diet. Those issues are of course what we really should be discussing, if improvement in educational attainment really in the goal, as opposed to an exercise in state power over individual choice.

Concrete policies with achievable results are needed. They may not be on the same ‘heroic’ scale as forced collectivization, but they could achieve a lot more without destroying all that is good in the current system.

For a start I’d transform the back to school allowance from cash to an in-kind benefit, directly distributing loaned school books, new satchels, sensible shoes and school uniforms. I’d then use the money saved to fund after-school homework supervision in DEIS schools. The supervisors could be a mixture of final year students, newly qualified teaching graduates and also members of the community with standing among the parent group (the ubiquitous semi-volunteer/semi-funded community worker for example).

Simple, practical, effective.

There are many other small and not-so-small scale reforms and innovations that would yield measurable gains, that we should be talking about before force-marching teachers down the road to another school on a bureaucrat’s whim (even if the aspect of compulsion is only the need to earn a premium payment so as to avoid defaulting on their mortgage).

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30. ejh - January 1, 2010

The last bracketed bit actually renders the previous clause absurd, doesn’t it?

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31. WorldbyStorm - January 1, 2010

Schoolmarm, you continue to elide two completely different issues, the ability of those recently out of college to pick and choose their chosen destinations – my initial and subsequent point being that my understanding was that that was not the case – and long term patterns of employment for those who have long since left college which would… of course… be different as individuals gained experience etc.

That elision undermines your steady state theory of teacher employment from the off.

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School Marm - January 1, 2010

I fear, World, that we shall just have to agree to differ on this point.

If your group of teaching acquaintances are on the young side, you may have the got the impression of them changing schools at the drop of a hat, subbing left and right, covering for a maternity leave here and a career break there.

Fast-forward five years into their career and you will see a very different pattern. There tends to be very little mobility between schools for the very simple reason that one’s place in the seniority pecking order is lost after such a move. So believe you me, teachers do think long and hard about where they wish to teach long-term and what would be needed to position themselves for a desirable permanent post. This could involve working Mother’s contact book, keeping a very close ear to grapevine to hear about planned retirements, getting involved in coaching a particular sport (many’s the door has been opened by the GAA or rugby set), immersing themselves in particular extra-cirricular activities (some principals live and die for debating or drama) , or improving their specialist skills (for instance, teaching through Irish).

In the end of the day, teachers themselves decide which permanent posts to apply for. And the ones thinking strategically will have a big influence on which schools they end up teaching in for forty years. Call it choice, or call it influence, it doesn’t really matter. The point is that the distribution of teachers among schools is anything but random.

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Garibaldy - January 1, 2010

Of course, teaching through Irish shouldn’t really be a specialist skill set should it? That says more about the failings of the teachers who are supposed to have a certain level of competency than anything else.

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WorldbyStorm - January 1, 2010

My teaching acquaintances are far in the main from the young side. A direct family member was a vice principal in a voluntary secondary school until the last few years. For the rest they’re mostly in their thirties and forties spread across VECs and voluntary secondary areas.

And given their analysis of the situation, yes, I think we will have to differ on this.

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32. sonofstan - January 1, 2010

For a start I’d transform the back to school allowance from cash to an in-kind benefit, directly distributing loaned school books, new satchels, sensible shoes and school uniforms.

Good idea – but why not look at Britain, where no one has to buy school books? and why keep the absurd and demeaning uniform idea in the first place? Britain aside, the rest of Europe gets by without them. I know the arguments about stopping the kids competing as to who has the best trainers and so on, but, like the specious arguments supporting private schools, the notion doesn’t stand up. Uniforms are all about asserting authority in an obvious and unsubtle way, and one which indicates an attitude towards kids that is itself part of the problem – they are the object of social control, not partners in a process.

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LeftAtTheCross - January 1, 2010

SoS, I find myself in agreement with almost everything you write here but on the school uniform thing I would raise a simple point that school uniforms are practical workwear, they are typically well made and stand up to the type of abuse which is inflicted upon them in the school yard, they are easy to clean (house husband of the year award please), and they remove the dilly-dallying in the morning of “what will I wear today”. Trivial arguments I know, in the face of your valid point about them being a tool of societal control, but valid nonetheless. There is a stronger argument for free choice of schoolwear at post-primary level, once the kids have grown up somewhat and don’t need so much parental involvelent in getting out the door in the morning. Sorry to distract the discussion in this way. Apart from that, spot on as ever.

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WorldbyStorm - January 1, 2010

I went to a community school which had a uniform. Now, it was far from nominal, but it was flexible. Grey cords were as acceptable as grey slacks, etc, etc, and girls were allowed to wear green cord trousers. We didn’t have to wear a crest which I thought was pretty sensible, but it did operate as a ‘uniform’ and I thought that in that flexibility it was pretty good.

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sonofstan - January 3, 2010

Not too hung up on the uniform issue, but as a counter to the usual arguments, one point my daughter made recently: she went to an non-uniform wearing, mixed comp. and she says that the difference between her friends and others -particularly girls from single sex schools – now that she’s in college is noticeable; she and her mates dress functionally (and are capable of talking to males sensibly), whereas ex-convent girls come into lectures dressed as if they were going clubbing (and seem incapable of having normal conversational intercourse with guys that doesn’t involve cringe making inappropriately flirtatious behaviour) -and guys from single sex schools are similarly debilitated. In other words, wearing your own choice of clothes in school means you learn how to dress yourself for work, and precisely not to see daily life as a parade ground for status or for sexually charged display. Yo learn something quite important about being an adult in other words.

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LeftAtTheCross - January 4, 2010

SoS, are you mixing your arguments there regarding mixed gender education and those regarding school uniform? I take your point fully about increased social maturity in kids coming out of mixed gender post-primary. Anyway, as you say, uniform is a smaller issue than the bigger discussion happening above/below.

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School Marm - January 1, 2010

“why not look at Britain, where no one has to buy school books?”

I’d wholeheartedly agree.

The only problem is that there’s a powerful body of opinion that opposes universalism at every turn. Why should the state pay for the school books of Blackrock College boys or Loreto girls? Wouldn’t that only enable the parents to purchase yet more advantages for their already privileged kids?

Not an issue for me, but there are many on the left and right that seem to have a real problem with the state benefiting anyone but those who they brand as ‘the vulnerable’. Witness the continuing brouhaha about ‘free fees’ at third level.

“why keep the absurd and demeaning uniform idea in the first place”

I’ve no particular attachment to uniforms, though I’d suspect that attempting to abolish them from on high would bring us down yet another rabbit hole of distraction, bleeding off energy and attention that should instead be applied to fixing the real problems that lead to low attainment.

Personally I don’t think the kids would learn any better or worse in their own clothes, and it is this quality of learning that must remain in the forefront of education policy.

The only reason I mentioned school uniforms at all is because these represent a real expense to parents, that the current back to school allowance is intended to defray. If not uniforms, kids will still have to kitted out in new winter clothes & shoes at the end of the long holidays. So any reform of the allowance would need to consider an alternative arrangement for getting the clothes on the kids’ backs. The economies of scale and simplicity of uniforms would just make this all the easier and cheaper to administer.

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Leveller on the Liffey - January 1, 2010

Re uniforms: IMHO, school uniforms are (a) Handier to find amongst all the other gear for our working week; (b) Easier to persuade the apple of my eye to wear than his latest fashion craze until it’s worn to bits; (c) Does somewhat prevent the richest family’s kid in class showing off with the best clobber money can buy and putting less-well-off kids in the shade.

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WorldbyStorm - January 1, 2010

I think you raise an interesting point there about attitudes towards universalism school marm. To my mind it’s a bit like child benefit. Universal provision of the benefit and then use the tax system to recoup costs. That way, even in the absence of the abolition of fee-charging education (and by the way just to reiterate my point above, as a transition, or even as reasonably progressive move in and of itself, I could live with the current situation less fee-charging so one would retain at least in the short to medium term voluntary secondaries, VECs, etc…), one could shift towards more progressive outcomes. That’s why I’m broadly speaking in favour of no fees at third level. Again use the tax system to claw back costs…

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Tim - January 1, 2010

Children are supposed to have authority asserted over them: they’re children :)
aside from that, clothing, labels etc are a major source of problems for parents, and kids are quite literally excluded from social circles for not having the right trainers. My kid is 12, I know what I’m talking about…
I suspect Britain is worse in that respect than mainland Europe, and so there is no one-size-fits-all solution, (no pun intended),

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33. School Marm - January 1, 2010

“Of course, teaching through Irish shouldn’t really be a specialist skill set should it? That says more about the failings of the teachers who are supposed to have a certain level of competency than anything else.”

Only at primary level is every teacher expected to have competency in Irish.

At secondary level, there is no such requirement. Nor should there be, in the vast bulk of schools for which English happens to be the medium of instruction.

A facility with Irish sufficient to competently teach through the language is only required for a small minority of specialist schools, therefore it really is a specialist skill. It just so happens that the Gaelcholáiste are among the best schools in the country, and make excellent destinations for the minority of teachers with the right language skills (and maybe a few connections to the gaelgoir set also wouldn’t go astray, this being the ways things work Ireland after all).

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34. Garibaldy - January 1, 2010

I wasn’t saying that is isn’t a specialist skill set, I was saying that it shouldn’t be given that the language is after all the first language of the state. That there is no requirement at secondary level says a lot about the nature of the southern state, and its commitment to linguistic and cultural diversity, about which we hear so much.

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School Marm - January 1, 2010

“That there is no requirement at secondary level says a lot about the nature of the southern state, and its commitment to linguistic and cultural diversity, about which we hear so much”

Garibaldy: a bit off-topic, but here’s an interesting recent study by the ESRI on the labour-market advantages enjoyed by Irish speakers.

This was surprising to me, given the relatively tiny number of positions outside the education sector for which fluency in Irish is really needed in order to do the job effectively. Commitment to language diversity is one thing, whereas linguistic elitism is another thing entirely.

Slightly related to the earlier discussion on teachers’ choice of school (or vice versa, the schools’ choice of teacher), that paper speaks to Gaelscoileanna attracting good teachers and also the importance of networking among gaelgoiri leading to preferment for certain job opportunities.

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35. Jim Monaghan - January 2, 2010

“that paper speaks to Gaelscoileanna attracting good teachers ”
I would add to this committment by parents.I would guess that the avgerage parent here makes a big effort to help their children. My feeling is that a large section of parents do not take much of an interest in their childrens education. It depresses me when I see children out (in many cases with a parent, I am afraid SFs Ruane did noit set a good example here.) during school hours. This is at least child neglect and should be dealt with through sanctions of some kind.The school year is the shortest in Western Europe and nothing should be missed.This committment was also true of the multi-denominational sector.

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Leveller on the Liffey - January 2, 2010

My feeling is that a large section of parents do not take much of an interest in their children’s education. It depresses me when I see children out (in many cases with a parent, I am afraid SFs Ruane did not set a good example here.)

Ah, Jim, you’re surely not suggesting Ruane doesn’t take an interest in her kids’ education, are you?

I’m not defending Ruane just because she’s a Shinner but they weren’t latch-key kids bunking off every other day while their ma ignores the impact. If memory serves me well, she had them out of school for holidays to meet work/family schedules, just like I did recently for a trip to Disneyworld scheduled by my kids’ Irish dance school. While it may not be desirable, that’s life.

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School Marm - January 2, 2010

Jim: I don’t know anything about the Ruane case you mention, but I’m 100% agreed that parental involvement is absolutely key, probably the single most important factor influencing attainment.

And its only a slow process of cultural change and individual empowerment that has any chance of getting those disinterested or intimidated parents on board with the program. Grand gestures motivated by ideology simply won’t cut it.

The first step is to stop telling the parents that they and their kids are victims. We need to think before making the lazy reach into the liberal lexicon for words like disadvantaged, deprived, marginalized. We need to talk instead about potential, talent, possibility.

The second step is to empower parents to transform their means of interaction with their own kids. Simple but effective measures such as literacy/numeracy training can achieve a lot here. But also some tough-love administered in the style of Obama or Bill Cosby: turn off that TV set, unplug the Wii, don’t drink cans of Dutch Gold in front of your kids on a school-night.

The third step is to deal with the intimidation that many parents (who may have had little education themselves) feel when dealing with the school authorities. I’m not afraid to admit that both sides have to change in this regard – while remaining firm, teachers have to work on being more respectful to parents and avoid any suggestion of talking down to them. We also need to hand more power to the parents, either via democratic structures of school governance (e.g. the Educate Together model) or even a voucher system to allow parents wield some monetary power over the school system.

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ejh - January 3, 2010

turn off that TV set, unplug the Wii, don’t drink cans of Dutch Gold in front of your kids on a school-night…..teachers have to work on being more respectful to parents and avoid any suggestion of talking down to them

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WorldbyStorm - January 3, 2010

Who precisely says that the parents are victims? The idea that any teacher/parent interaction could be characterised like that is very wide of the mark in my experience of such matters. And words such as marginalised (I tend to eschew the US spelling) have a utility when describing areas or sectors, but not so much in the context of specific individuals. Nothing ‘liberal’ about it. Now if the complaint is that ‘special needs’ and other programmes seem to brand issues, my sense is that parents in schools with them are in the main delighted for the additional support and see little or no problem with it. Which makes me wonder whether you’re not projecting your own aversions onto others.

Which leads on to talent, etc. Lovely. But your educational experience – and I’d be interested to know where in general terms that lies – if it has any exposure to yes, marginalised and deprived areas will presumably demonstrate that intrinsic structural problems exist in a very real way which prevent talent being exercised. Sometimes this is due to basic and understandable dynamics… a preference towards children getting immediately higher earning jobs rather than waiting for more nebulous careers which require longer education… etc, etc. Sometimes it is due to – I wouldn’t term them cultural precisely – societal attitudes that predicate against certain forms of education achievement etc. Sometimes it is simply that getting by is bloody difficult and there’s little or no energy to spare for much else.

I wonder at the feasibility of the second step and it also strikes me that precisely those dynamics occur in less deprived contexts. My parents, both in education, one in the NS sector, the other in the secondary weren’t averse to drinking a bottle of Guinness in front of me on a week night. I’ve lived to tell the tale. Most middle class families will have equally as many TVs, if not more, Wiis, etc. And Dutch Gold? You think?

Which leads us to the ‘tough love’. So the hypothetical parents who can’t be patronised with a language of victimhood (and aren’t really) can be patronised by a language of ‘tough love’? Hmmmm…

I also think that experience of schooling in such areas over the past decade or two would tend to demonstrate that the notion of the intimidatory power of educational authorities by those parents who require the greatest support is overblown. There are some, but the structures in place in schools who engage directly with those parents are now considerably more nuanced. Many years ago my brother overheard a teacher at the extremely forward looking community school I went to saying to a colleague who was giving a supportive, even inspirational, talk to some of the pupils… ‘why are you doing that, sure what have they to look forward to [in terms of work etc]?’ Those days are largely over.

As for vouchers… and here we swing straight back into
the ideological. I can’t think of anything else in this context that more clearly gives the appearance of autonomy while denying the reality. At the end of the day those with actual monetary power are able to wield all the power they want uninterrupted and… simultaneously an attempt is made to bring a commercial mode into the educational system.

What was that you were saying about grand gestures motivated by ideology?

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36. Maddog Wilson - January 3, 2010

The comment about Dutch Gold is a bit patronising, School Marm, unless you like a tin yourself that is?

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School Marm - January 3, 2010

Maddog: Well, I’m not averse to a tipple myself, though I tend to stick to the low-cal options ;)

The point about tough-love though is in a sense to upset the subject. To jar them out of whatever rut they’re in. To hold up a mirror to their behaviour in its most unvarnished form.

So yes, it may sound patronising. And maybe it was, a bit. But the whole point is to not fret about hurting feelings, rather to wade right in and call a spade a spade.

Some people will be offended (as theye were when Obama or Cobsy made their controversial comments about African-American parents and their kids’ education). But message will get through to others, enough to change their behaviour.

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37. ejh - January 3, 2010

Will it? What would be new about it? Isn’t it actually a message they’ve actually been hearing from a very long time? Isn’t it actually, itself, something of a grand gesture motivated by ideology? Aren’t in fact the real determining factors in educational achievement largely economic, and is it actually possible to change much about educational achievement without addressing that fact?

Voucher systems, dear God.

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School Marm - January 3, 2010

“Isn’t it actually a message they’ve actually been hearing from a very long time?”

The message they’ve been hearing for a very long time has been couched in the language of victimhood and powerlessness.

I’m talking about transforming the dialogue to focus on the kids’ potential.

“Isn’t it actually, itself, something of a grand gesture motivated by ideology?”

No, ideology never helped anyone learn and that’s all I’m interested in. Rather its a cultural response to a deeply embedded cultural problem.

The way I see it, the analysis driven by ideology goes something like this … certain schools do better than others and that just isn’t right. So we must drag down those schools by poaching their best teachers and cutting their funding. Because mediocrity all round is just so much fairer.

I prefer a practical response, figuring out what’s broken in failing schools (or rather, the wider school community) and trying to fix it. While at the same time preserving what works in successful schools, maybe even replicating the secret sauce where possible.

So if we determine that parental involvement is the key factor in the success of Gaelscoileanna (which, by the way, cross the social divide from Ballymun to Ranelagh) then we should concentrate our efforts on building positive parental involvement in failing schools. Instead of wasting energy on trying to abolish private education, or move teachers around, or secularising schools, or abolishing parental choice.

“Aren’t in fact the real determining factors in educational achievement largely economic”

There’s a correlation between socio-economic status and educational attainment, to be sure. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the one is the real determining factor for the other.

Say we implemented the Spirit Level theory in the morning and broadly equalised income levels across society by massively increasing welfare, funded by a much heavier tax burden. Would the kids in failing schools suddenly start learning more effectively?

In fact, the problems are much more multi-faceted (to borrow the most irritating public admin buzz-word of the moment). Economics play a part, to be sure. Its hard to come to school and learn effectively if Mammy can’t put a decent breakfast on the table. But if Mam and Dad are both unemployed, they should have the time to supervise homework and take a direct interest in their child’s education, much more so than the time-poor double-income family down the road. Of course the opposite actually happens in reality, so our job is to figure out why this is the case and imagine how we can empower the distinterested/intimidated parents. Not to bleat on about unfairness and injustice.

“Voucher systems, dear God.”

What was I thinking? Giving parents power that should rightly rest with the state, the cheek of me! Of course a distant bureaucrat can make much better resource allocation decisions than the parents on the ground.

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ejh - January 3, 2010

I don’t know what you were thinking, no, seeing as vouchers have been proposed for as long as I can remember – and implemented by nobody, because nobody with any practical knowledge of the field thinks they’re any good.

The message they’ve been hearing for a very long time has been couched in the language of victimhood and powerlessness.

I really doubt this. Have teachers been telling their charges “there’s nothing you can do, you’re the victims, don’t worry about it?” Of course they have’t. It’s not true. It’s a crock. Some people like to pretend otherwise, because it suits them.

I’m talking about transforming the dialogue to focus on the kids’ potential.

Have you been on a course?

There’s a correlation between socio-economic status and educational attainment, to be sure. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the one is the real determining factor for the other

I’d suggest that it’s statistically the single most important factor. Vast disparities in educational attainement are inextricabnly linked to vast disparities in economic status. It does no good educationally to pretend otherwise.

Of course the real point is that it’s all a cloud of rhetoric. You or anybody else can complain about the attitudes of parents to their children’s education all you like, but people have always done so. It’s not some new observation. (I sell books in schools. I can see very well that the more deprived the area, the fewer books I sell, the less the interest of the parents. I can see this because everybody can see this.) What nobody’s actually been able to come up with is an explanation of how they propose to overcome that, other than rhetorically exclaiming that it ought to be overcome. If somebody has worked out a way of actually, practically achieving this then thw whole world of education is agog to hear it. I mean this is your big chance, if you know how it’s done then you’re a multi-millionaire by the end of 2010.

But in the absence of that, all you’re doing is telling people what they already know while pretending that they don’t know it. It patronises teachers, of course, to do so, but it also insults their, and our, intelligence.

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Tomboktu - January 3, 2010

ejh: “Aren’t in fact the real determining factors in educational achievement largely economic

A little learning is a dangerous thing, but here goes :).

Point 1: Some years ago I took a module in a course I did on educational inequalities — it was part of a multi-disciplinary course, and this was the only module I took on education, so I am no expert. In the literature I read for the end-of-module essay, a number of points were made about the determinants of educational achievement. One of the papers looked a the chain of acievement measured in the New Zealand system. (There, testing at regular intervals across a child’s school career allowed tracking. I don’t know recall if the data were all drawn from a national system of testing or were from a combination of that plus some additional testing for the research). The greatest predictor of a pupil’s achievement at stage n was the her or his achievement at stage n-1. I have to hand the following point from his article:

[...] the relative differences associated with social class in the cognitive skills of children may be detected before they attend school on reaching the age of 5
[Source: Roy Nash (1999) "Realism in the sociology of education: 'explaining' social differences in achievement", British Journal of Sociology of Education vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 189-202.]

Point 2: This is anecdotal and concerns an incident about ten years ago. I was a nominee to the board of one of the area-based partnership companies. I don’t remember much of the business of the board, but this event sticks in my mind.

One of the programmes the partnership ran was an after-school story club in the earlier years of primary school for pupils who teachers had identified as needing extra support but who did not come up as having learning disabilities. The structure of the club was that a small group of the children with a parent each (who, it happened, were all mothers) would work with a educational facilitator in some fun activities to improve the children’s literacy. One of the activites involved one of the mothers reading a story to the group and the children doing art-based activities. [The design of the activities took account of parents who had literacy problems so that they were not embarrassed by being asked to read in front of others.]

The board of the partnership received a report from the staff of the partnership: an administrator had been visiting one of the schools in the programme to deal with finances, and while she was there one of the mothers came running out of the room crying. That was not supposed to happen, so an investigation was conducted. The mother’s account was that she had been concerned at the report of her daughter’s slow development and was delighted that there was extra support available and was happy to participate in a programme to help her catch up. Al went well, with the mother taking her turn to read a story to the group. What had upset her occurred when she finished the story: her daughter said that she hadn’t known her mother could read. The mother felt that her daughter’s slowness was because she had not read stories to her in the years before she had started school. The funding for that programme was withdrawn a few years ago.

(Part two of this point is a different anecdote. A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a colleague who sent her children to fee-paying schools. It was sparked by a recent report in the Irish Times about school enrolments, which cited a Department of Education audit of enrolment of Travellers, children with special educational needs and those for whom neither Engligh or Irish is a first language, in geographical clusters of schools. She argued that the fees in her children’s schools were used to provide extra support to those in the schools with disabilities. Which leaves me wondering why she felt it OK for students with disabilities in non-fee-paying schools not have the same level of support.

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School Marm - January 3, 2010

Tomboktu, some interesting research on parental engagement (assuming you’ve access to ejournals online): Harris, Alma and Goodall, Janet (2008) ‘Do parents know they matter? Engaging all parents in learning’, Educational Research, 50: 3, 277 — 289.

Note especially the clear distinction drawn between engagement at home in the child’s learning, and the presence of parents at school activities (the latter alone conferring little or no benefit).

Also for a perspective on the correlation between mothers’ educational background and their childrens’ level of attainment:
Feinstein, Leon, and Sabates, Ricardo (2006) ‘Does education have an impact on mothers’ educational attitudes
and behaviours?’ London: Department for Education and Skills.

Interesting for its consideration of self-selection effects due to mothers’ positional ambition … related to your anecdotal mother who knew how to read to her kids, but never did.

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Conor McCabe - January 3, 2010

School Marm, the two articles you linked to are based on studies undertaken in the UK.

I guess that makes their expertise all fine and valuable in its own right, but hardly relevant to a discussion about mainstream education in Dublin.

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38. WorldbyStorm - January 3, 2010

What you said ejh…

Clearly we were thinking the same thing at the same time…

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39. School Marm - January 3, 2010

ejh & world: clearly I’ve hit a nerve with the Dutch Gold comment, obscuring the actual point. Which is that parental behaviour and attitudes are part of the problem and thus must change as part of any solution. Pretending this isn’t so, for reasons of political correctness or to just to avoid giving offence, won’t help any child achieve success.

On the paradox around not patronising parents in their dealings with the school, but also apparently talking down to them in order to jolt them out of destructive behavioural patterns … I didn’t envisage that teachers themselves should fulfill both roles. Instead teachers should go softly softly on building up a partnership with parents, while authority figures from within or at least associated with the community administer the tough-love. The same way that Obama and Bill Cosby could say what they did about African-American parents, precisely because of their own racial make-up. These authority figures could be local politicians, or community workers, or local boys/girls made good.

I know nothing about boxing, but I’d imagine Bernard Dunne talking to a group of parents in Neilstown about this quest to learn Irish as an adult could inspire many. Possibly also shame some into giving better example to their own kids in terms of their attitude to learning.

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ejh - January 3, 2010

It’s a useful rule of thumb that any comment which invokes “political correctness” is likely to be humbug, and I don’t think the above is the exception. Who are these people who think that parental attitudes aren’t part of the problem? Could you cite them? With quotes, that actuaoly say that?

Or is it actually the case that everybody knows this but everybody is aware of how hard it is to change tose attitudes -and in the meantime, they have to deal with the question of how actually to motivate the kids whose parents have been unable or unwilling to do so? Isn’t that actually the reality?

I’d imagine Bernard Dunne talking to a group of parents in Neilstown about this quest to learn Irish as an adult could inspire many.

That’s your policy? That’s your big idea? School visits, from role models? Quick, get on the phone! The schools will surely be keen to hear of this great new inspirational idea!

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School Marm - January 3, 2010

“That’s your policy? That’s your big idea? School visits, from role models? Quick, get on the phone!”

Just one part of a practical solution to a practical problem. Note though I was taking about the model citizen talking to the parents, not the kids.

Small steps to incremental improvements. Easy to laugh at, but practical approaches like this will achieve far more than all the chest-beating in the world about private education.

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40. Maddog Wilson - January 3, 2010

School Marm

Have you actually got kids? Have you ever been to Neilstown? or only heard about it at a dinner party, no doubt when the kids used to firebomb the buses.

I speak as someone who has just finished an 11 year term as a school governor in a special needs school in South London. Most of the students have carers who struggle to even get them in every day. Tough Love, Obama and Cosby, you havn’t got a clue. No offence.

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School Marm - January 3, 2010

None taken.

Your put-down would have have been masterful if the debate had been either about special needs education or South London schools. Which it wasn’t.

So I guess that makes your expertise all fine and valuable in its own right, but hardly relevant to a discussion about mainstream education in Dublin. Certainly not the debate-ending reveal that you imagine.

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WorldbyStorm - January 3, 2010

Thing is though that you’re importing a raft of concepts which have no purchase on ‘mainstream’ education in Dublin, something I’m very well acquainted with. Which means that one would have reason, I feel, in all fairness to wonder at your knowledge/experience of this area. That’s by no means a debate-ending reveal, but given your thoughts previously about the ability of those who graduate from training to enter the schools of their ‘choice’ I’d also wonder…

Add to that your warnings against ideology, when it’s from the left, but your wholesale advocacy of educational policies associated with the right and I’d wonder even more…

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41. Jim Monaghan - January 3, 2010

“Ah, Jim, you’re surely not suggesting Ruane doesn’t take an interest in her kids’ education, are you?”
She is a minister and should set an example. I would object to the Irish dance grouip doing the same. It is I would say easy for committed parents esp. those with education to make up for lost time( I would count you amongst those, are you sure the rest of the parents involved were similar). Unfortunately the less committed just draw a lesson that it is ok or does not matter if a child misses a week or two.dd in the football, cheaper holidays etc. The effective school year, already short officially comes down even further.

More later. This is a real discussion that does not start and end with a genuflectation to teachers.
Oh, I am familar with the problems of Clondalkin and Ballyfermot form my profession.

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42. Jim Monaghan - January 3, 2010

On a footnote poverty is not all the problem. Leitrim isthe poorest county, yet participation ion third level is high. Why?
They are not Meath ranchers sending their kids to private schools.

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43. Jim Monaghan - January 3, 2010

In Boston kids that are deemed to need extra help before progressing are made attend a special summer school to bring them up to speed. I appreciate that there are problems with this but there is no use attending classes where you don’t know what is going on because you have missed the preceeding steps.
I was sent to Spiddal once to learn Irish. I was put in the same class as by 6 year older brother. He was doing all his classes through Irish. My standard was so low I could nor follow the class. He boycotted the class until I was put in a class closer to my then level.
I would submnit that a big cohert of kids are in a similar position acroos all the subject areas..
Another suggestion is to have an Applied Junior Cert.The Inter in effect won out over the Group. Partrly due to middleclass bias against “prcatical” subjects. Many kids think education as having no relevance to real life. Eg My partner had to teach Classical studies in Dublin West to kids in a remedial class. They saw it as a waste of time and it accentuated their alienation from everything else.
Another tale from school. I did French for the Leavinfg. I found myself in Paris unable to converse at a basic level but I was doing French poetry. What nonsense. First the basics and then the culture.
I appreciate some things have changed but not enough.
I read a report that the Germans amongst others do much better with the “bottom” third of school kids than the anglo-saxon world of which, alas, we are part.For the life of me I cannot think of a more political correct term than bottom. All kids need the education to survive in a hostile world. Irish kids have to compete with everyone in the world or at least in Europe for jobs etc.
Oh, in Ballyfermot the principals insisted on the education sub group of the partnership finishing at 5-00 pm. If this is the committment from the school management it leaves a lot to be desired.
Oh School marm, are you by any chance in the other “juristiction” in out beloved country? if so would you know the difference in the school years North and South.

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44. School Marm - January 3, 2010

World

“That’s by no means a debate-ending reveal, but given your thoughts previously about the ability of those who graduate from training to enter the schools of their ‘choice’ I’d also wonder…”

Except that I made no such claim about the journeyman period of subbing and temping that immediately follows graduation. In fact, I drew a clear distinction between that post-qualification insecurity and the choices involved in the securing of a permanent post.

“Add to that your warnings against ideology, when it’s from the left, but your wholesale advocacy of educational policies associated with the right and I’d wonder even more…”

As far I can recall, the only identifiably right-wing idea I mentioned was the voucher system, which I’m not particularly fond of, but I’m willing to consider on the basis of practical efficacy. I wouldn’t care if the idea was first mooted by Trotsky himself. The point is to make policy on the basis of likely outcomes, as opposed to fitting it in to a pre-existing system of thought.

So for example, I don’t really care much for a campaign against private education that’ll likely achieve little or nothing to improve attainment in the public system. If on the other hand, abolishing subsidies for private education could be convincingly shown to improve outcomes all round, then I’d be perfectly happy with the idea.

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WorldbyStorm - January 3, 2010

Let me refresh your memory of our discussion to date…

You at Number 20: Oh and let me tell you, forcing newly qualified teachers to ply their trade at a school not of their own choosing would further discourage the brightest and best from entering the profession. As if we needed more ways to exploit the insecure position of younger teachers, already taken for a ride by their older colleagues.

To which my response was:

BTW, I’m most entertained at the idea that young teachers ‘ply their trade’ at schools of their own choosing. My experience of such matters is that they try to find a job, any job. Usually on a short term contract. And then they take it.

To which you responded:

Number 27: In the case of the better-performing secondary schools, you’d be surprised how many newly recruited teachers are sons and daughters of former teachers, or past-pupils of those schools, or others with “connections” (e.g. the gaelgoir set).

A bit late in the day to be suddenly talking about subbing teachers given that my point was explicit in covering that cohort.

As for ideology, first up you have no problem with private education. Again given that this is a left wing blog and given that most if not all of us cleave to the idea that private education is distorting for basic societal and egalitarian reasons you might reasonably expect that eyebrows would be raised at such a proposition. Now you throw in the notion of school vouchers. And it’s not in a way that suggests you’re not fond of them, it’s in a way where you argue that to implement them is…
“Giving parents power that should rightly rest with the state, the cheek of me! Of course a distant bureaucrat can make much better resource allocation decisions than the parents on the ground.”

How you propose that this ‘power’ is either actual, or can be usefully used by parents might be of interest, but the idea that our school system is simply the product of fiat by ‘distant bureaucrats’ is such a simplification of the real situation that I suspect you’re having a laugh. Resource allocation? By parents? In a national polity. I think I’d feel, and I’m no great statist by the way, that a more rather than less centralised and a more rather than less nationalised system would be the one to go for, for those egalitarian and societal reasons I mentioned previously.

And that’s in addition to your thoughts, as expressed on a raft of issues pertaining to parenting, marginalisation, and so forth which seem to place you very firmly right of centre. Now, no harm at all in this, let a thousand flowers bloom and so on, but to continually propose right of centre educational policies and then duck and run back to some amorphous ‘non-ideological’ position which on inspection appears entirely ideological gives me pause for thought.

But what does strike me from the literature in the field that I’m aware of is that vouchers push resources from the public to the private education areas. That this strengthens the private over the public and that it exacerbates well known and recognised issues of inequality of opportunity and outcome.

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School Marm - January 4, 2010

World

“A bit late in the day to be suddenly talking about subbing teachers given that my point was explicit in covering that cohort.”

Yes, your point was explicit in covering that cohort. But mine certainly wasn’t.

Lets’ consider your exhibit A …

Context is everything, so casting your eye back one comment to #19, you’ll see that Jim refers to the Japanese practice of assigning teachers to schools via regional boards. My response at #20 referred to young newly qualified teachers to be sure, because any major structural change like this would obviously only apply to new entrants to the profession. That’s how we do major structural changes in this country, I believe the technical term is grandfathering.

Your exhibit B … at #27, I refer to “newly recruited teachers”. Note the clear distinction between “newly recruited” (to a particular school, which may occur several years post-qual) , and “just graduated”.

So is your own memory of our discussion now sufficiently refreshed?

“As for ideology, first up you have no problem with private education. Again given that this is a left wing blog and given that most if not all of us cleave to the idea that private education is distorting for basic societal and egalitarian reasons you might reasonably expect that eyebrows would be raised at such a proposition.”

I’m neither for nor against private education. Rather I’m for what works and against what doesn’t. I’m for reforms that have a good chance of yielding improvements and against tilting at windmills.

In this thread, no one has really engaged with the idea that abolishing private education would free up only a tiny amount of resources to be redistributed in the public system (discounting the vulgarity cast at my estimate of the quantum of savings).

I fear that a pitched battle against the private education sector will be strongly resisted (by the ASTI amongst others, despite the blithe assurance of the poster who assumes that unions will act as cheer-leaders for this change). The net effect would be to delay and frustrate other badly needed reforms, such as the new Maths curriculum, or a redesigned replacement for the Junior Cert, that really would have an excellent chance of doing good.

“How you propose that this ‘power’ is either actual, or can be usefully used by parents might be of interest”

Have you any familiarity with the process of getting a child into primary school? Particularly in urban areas, there are generally a number of choices locally. For example, there may be a Gaelscoil, an Educate Together, a small C. of I. primary, and a number of R.C. schools.

In the current system, the more successful schools labour under the same resource constraints as the less successful. Sometimes the performing schools are even more constrained, as the parent-founded Gaelscoil or Educate Together are more likely to be in unsuitable prefab accommodation than the longer established schools sponsored by the church/state nexus. Also demand levels for each of the schools will vary widely, but generally a near fixed resource allocation will persist. So despite the Gaelscoil and Educate Together being massively over-subscribed, they may have fewer places available than the less popular state schools.

Some form of voucher system would allow resources to be gradually diverted to the more successful schools, allowing them to take on more pupils as resources allow.

You’re assuming that the voucher would be a cover to increase the involvement commercial interests in the education sector. That’s not what I had in mind at all.

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45. WorldbyStorm - January 4, 2010

Your exhibit B … at #27, I refer to “newly recruited teachers”. Note the clear distinction between “newly recruited” (to a particular school, which may occur several years post-qual) , and “just graduated”.
So is your own memory of our discussion now sufficiently refreshed?

Very droll, post-qual and grandfathering notwithstanding, given that it takes you until now to mention this, and that I expressly noted the fact these were recent graduates in my responses (to the point in Number 31 – four, count ‘em, four after Number 27 – where I made it clear that you kept eliding two points, those recently out of college and long term patterns of employment and to which for my pains it was suggested that perhaps my teaching acquaintances were on the ‘young side’. Nice). Now I’m no mindreader, but generally I’d expect that if you had second thoughts about the response I made you’d have expressed yourself at that point, or perhaps earlier. And you didn’t.

Indeed you went further and suggested that I might be making ‘the mistake of extrapolating from freshly minted HDips during this special period, to what went before and what will obtain again during this special period’. Now how am I meant to take that?

Now that almost leads me to the conclusion that you’re wasting my time. But… I’m a charitable sort of person so I’ll put that mean spirited thought aside.

I’m neither for nor against private education. Rather I’m for what works and against what doesn’t. I’m for reforms that have a good chance of yielding improvements and against tilting at windmills.

But continually you dismiss basic approaches, which I’ll articulate again below, as “tilting at windmills”, whereas your concept of vouchers and private education you regard as entirely reasonable and realistic. Hmmm…

You’re very clearly in favour of private education, your posts to this point have not merely been a defense of it, but an argument in favour through vouchers of an extension of it.

But given that your chosen ‘reform’ consists as articulated above of largely rhetorical appeals to firstly stop calling people victims – something that I’ve noted simply doesn’t happen in the contemporary context, further appeals for better behaviour on the part of parents, a complete misreading of the relationship between teachers and parents as regards the dynamic of their interactions in the contemporary era and finally vouchers. I’m hard pressed to see why the abolition of fee charging schools, or as a first step the removal of the funding by the state of these schools is either utopian or tilting at windmills. Could it be simpler? It could not.

In this thread, no one has really engaged with the idea that abolishing private education would free up only a tiny amount of resources to be redistributed in the public system (discounting the vulgarity cast at my estimate of the quantum of savings).

That’s incorrect. I’ve already noted that such costs would still be minimal in terms of the education budget. But it’s the principles which are key here. The state should ensure the greatest opportunity for children across the society and if part of that incurs an additional cost so be it. Education shouldn’t be a commodity which parental money can purchase improvements for. It should be a process which is there as of right and which is
equally open to all whatever their socio-economic situation. Those who have less opportunity should be given the supports for more.

I fear that a pitched battle against the private education sector will be strongly resisted (by the ASTI amongst others, despite the blithe assurance of the poster who assumes that unions will act as cheer-leaders for this change). The net effect would be to delay and frustrate other badly needed reforms, such as the new Maths curriculum, or a redesigned replacement for the Junior Cert, that really would have an excellent chance of doing good.

But why should it be a pitched battle? Firstly, and in this climate I suspect with considerable public support, would be the removal of assistance by the state to fee-charging schools. Secondly, we see how those schools do with no public funds. Some will I have little doubt prosper, particularly as the arrivistes of the boom are jettisoned from the system. Others will not and will take the route taken in the 1960s by many secondary schools who found an entirely congenial home in the general system. Thirdly given that the teachers fee-charging themselves would merely be joining a broad based voluntary system and this would incur little or no penalty to them what’s not to like? Since most teachers are outside fee-charging schools it’s hard to see the unions making a last stand for… well… what precisely? The fee-charging sector? Not likely. Fourthly – this would be long term in my view – we move towards secularising all schools but in the context of a general curriculum. After that is completed schools would be open to work with religious or cultural groups in the community of whatever denomination to implement programmes of their choosing and use school premises to do so. Parents who wanted additional Catholic instruction could send their children to those programmes. Parents keen on multi-denominational, or non-denominational likewise. In other words the schools become both nationalised and open to communities or groups within communities to operate sidebar programmes. And while the state would be important in this it wouldn’t be the only factor. Communities would play a much greater role.
I’m dubious that such moves, at least one to three, need have any delaying impact on any other aspect of education.

Have you any familiarity with the process of getting a child into primary school? Particularly in urban areas, there are generally a number of choices locally. For example, there may be a Gaelscoil, an Educate Together, a small C. of I. primary, and a number of R.C. schools.

I appreciate your concern about my own familiarity, and as it happens I have direct experience currently. But a moments consideration of the numbers shows that the NS system remains the overwhelming vehicle within which those operate, even in denominational terms, and therefore far far easier to modify.

Secondly, and more importantly you’re dragging in a different issue from fee-charging/private education. My main concern as expressed previously is the latter issue, not so much the form that schools take within the NS or indeed secondary sector. Do away with those fees and private status prior to a proper radical overhaul of the system and I’ll be fairly relaxed given that there are methodologies available today to engage with differentiation within a national system both primary and secondary. Indeed looking at my point number 4 above for my version of a nationalised schooling system I think we could see an interesting blend arise in precisely that context between different forms.

In the current system, the more successful schools labour under the same resource constraints as the less successful. Sometimes the performing schools are even more constrained, as the parent-founded Gaelscoil or Educate Together are more likely to be in unsuitable prefab accommodation than the longer established schools sponsored by the church/state nexus.

So… what’s the obvious long term solution? Let’s dismantle the church aspect of that nexus. What is it, a bit over 3,000 odd NS’s are Catholic in terms of patronage, much lower numbers are of other denominations. Let’s make them all multi-denominational (as they should be in legal terms). Problem at least partially solved. A national curriculum, schools that are essentially identical in terms of process and then where there are problems, where schools require greater supports such supports can be given. There’s nothing utopian in that. Nothing that is beyond the beyond. A simple implementation of what should be the current situation legally would be all it takes.

Also demand levels for each of the schools will vary widely, but generally a near fixed resource allocation will persist. So despite the Gaelscoil and Educate Together being massively over-subscribed, they may have fewer places available than the less popular state schools.
Some form of voucher system would allow resources to be gradually diverted to the more successful schools, allowing them to take on more pupils as resources allow.

As for resource allocation, well, here’s the thing, while in no way diminishing the ET GS schools it remains clear that consumer demand in relation to education isn’t necessarily the best or only way to run that railroad. There are obvious solutions, such as the GS in Kilbarrack being housed in the old girls NS where, believe it or not I and my peers were housed for a couple of years in the very early 1970s (in prefabs). But clearly it is beyond the resources of any state to provide every option given scarcity. Hence my wish for a more flexible NS and secondary national system.

But what’s the clear evidence that state schools are less popular. Sure, ET and GS are growing rapidly, but they remain state schools in functional terms while traditional national schools remain the overwhelming choice of school.

And that will have precisely what effect on ‘less successful’ schools? And what of the children in stream throughout this process in these schools? Schooling isn’t a meal that one can pick and choose and withdraw children at a whim. It’s a one shot opportunity for each individual child who is then locked into a much broader engagement on numerous different axis and that requires consistency both of process and of perception.

Splintering the system yet further builds in unnecessary contradictions and conflicts that divert resources, or push schools with specific sets of problems further into trouble.

You’re assuming that the voucher would be a cover to increase the involvement commercial interests in the education sector. That’s not what I had in mind at all.

Actually you’re assuming my assumption. I made no such statement. What I do I think is that the idea of attempting to monetize in any fashion, or further introduce competitive elements between schools in the education system at primary or secondary level is pernicious. Education is difficult enough for parents without adding in further, and cosmetic, complexity or layers of decision making which ultimately leave almost all back where they started and those with real money still in pole position. Same as it ever was.

By the way I sense something; a presence I’ve not felt since…well, do the initials PJ mean anything to you? And while I’m on it, neither the terms ‘grandfathering’ or ‘post-qual’ have much currency in Irish educational debates which I find interesting too.

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46. School Marm - January 5, 2010

World: we’ve been talking past each other, I feel.

This statement is the key to our disagreement:

“Education shouldn’t be a commodity which parental money can purchase improvements for.”

In practical terms, it would be impossible to prevent parental money entering into the equation in one form or another. The key point from my perspective is to concentrate on raising up standards where standards are low, as opposed to forcibly leveling them off in pursuit of fairness.

Nor in my belief is there a fixed quantum of learning to be distributed, like a big pie being sliced up. Should a better science lab in one school be resisted on principle because its funded by parents directly? Does the lab’s existence damage the learning of anyone else? I honestly don’t think it does.

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WorldbyStorm - January 6, 2010

Then the issue is how to minimise parental income as a factor. To remove it from the equation as it were.

And yes, I think a science lab in one school that is better and funded by parents does predicate against the outcomes in another. And add to that other facilities funded by parents and pretty rapidly one can see how and why.

And then add in fee charging as a ‘gatekeeper’ on access and the situation is yet further exacerbated.

That stops being a case of ‘raising standards’ and becomes a case of rationing/pooling standards in specific instances which aren’t available to others.

Again I refer you to the fact this is a site which in its broadest philosophy (far too grand a term but you know what I mean) seeks a generalised increase in standards across the board without that being at the expense of other students.

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47. sonofstan - January 6, 2010

Nor in my belief is there a fixed quantum of learning to be distributed, like a big pie being sliced up. Should a better science lab in one school be resisted on principle because its funded by parents directly? Does the lab’s existence damage the learning of anyone else? I honestly don’t think it does.

See my post at §5 above: there isn’t a fixed quantum of education, but there is a finite limit on outcomes.

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48. Jim Monaghan - January 6, 2010

“In practical terms, it would be impossible to prevent parental money entering into the equation in one form or another. The key point from my perspective is to concentrate on raising up standards where standards are low, as opposed to forcibly leveling them off in pursuit of fairness.”
Thre is a good deal of truth here. Even banning private scvhools would not prevent parents sending kids say to the Institute on Saturdays or language schools during the summer. Or if they are educated helping their kids at night in an effective manner.
Small digression continuous assessment is in many cases done on the basis of collaborative work at home, impossible to police where the kid ended and the parent began.That is why I am for exams. They are a blind test. If we didn’t have points, all the places in medicine would go to the in crowd.
I would like to level up as distinct from level down. I would also like some though on how to get kids to catch up. Educating parents on the value of education, perhaps.
Footnote, one of my kids is dyslexic. His mom and grandmom struggled and played a major part in developing his reading and writing. We sent him and paid for him to go to summer schools run by the association.For us it was not a question of getting him into medical school but of giving the basic literacy skills for survival.I am sure there are many parents like us. Alas, there are also many who are not for various reasons. Oh, I found the help given esp. in secondary school minus. It would have been better for him if we had not informed the secondary school school of his problem. that way he would not have been written off in fitrst year.
We need to discuss in education what works, what does not work and what we need to do to give all our kids a proper start in life. My opinion is that the answers would be uncomfortable for parents, teachers and the state.

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49. Keena G. Rviz - September 23, 2014

You could definitely see your enthusiasm within the
work you write. The sector hopes for more passionate
writers like you who aren’t afraid to mention how they
believe. Always go after your heart.

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