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Exam blues December 8, 2016

Posted by Tomboktu in Bits and Pieces, Education.

I’ve been back in college since September. It’s part time, postgraduate (diploma for year 1, a masters degree if you add a thesis in year 2) in a subject area specifically relevant to my work, and delivered by specialist body under the academic oversight of one of the universities in Dublin.

I don’t mind the hard work, but I am finding this course a nightmare.

Now, I’ve been at the books on and off for over a decade, including a previous masters degree a decade ago. Last year I did a course at the Law Society. It was a short enough course, but with some tough slogging at assignment time. They had reasonably short turn-around times, and strict word counts. For the early assignments, you needed to critically assess the specific primary materials – usually court judgements. For the final, major essay, you needed to find the relevant cases as well as critically assess the judgements.

The problem with my current masters is the main assessment method: closed book examinations. I had one exam last week, and have three more in the next eight days. My approach to the study has been to delve into the assigned readings, annotate them, and when I can synthesise some points I think are to be drawn from a number of them, do so. But yesterday and today, going back over my marked printouts and my notes, and drafting mini-riffs to have ready for tomorrow’s exam, I find I cannot make it stick in my brain.

Maybe I’ve become lazy in that department. At work, I write a lot of policy analyses, and within the space we operate in they’re good* — my manager doesn’t read my work closely+ any more, and the only feedback from the board for my last project was to correct a single typo. But when I am drafting those positions, I have free access to all of the sources I can find, and don’t need to remember the details.

In my last masters degree, the main assessment for taught modules was by take-home exam: two questions to be returned in two days. The questions were designed to get your analysis, and when we started, we were warned that it would not be enough to summarise the relevant literature.

But this memorising is doing my head in.

*Whether the people we give them to think they’re good is a different matter.

+ Update: Actually, that’s not quite true. She no loner reads it closely before it goes to the board, but she sits me down before a board meeting so she can understand the rationale for all of the points and any possible banana skins.

Home Schooling… August 13, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Education, Irish Politics.

Always find this an interesting issue. I get in the abstract why there might be an instance a parent might wish to home school, but I tend to the view that in the concrete the advantages of socialisation with other children and so on – well before we get to the issue of education itself – are so great and so necessary that schools for all their flaws are a better ‘choice’ (and to be honest this often seems like a ‘choice’ which is exercised by those with financial resources to do so – not exclusively so, but often). There’s the point too that home schooling has become so inextricably linked to the right in the US (and further afield) that the political aspect is deeply off-putting. But whatever about all of those it is clear that it is constitutional to home school in this state and only a very small number of people actually do (the Home Education Network had 120 families as members last year – one can extrapolate from that but obviously it’s not a massive number).

Still, no surprise to see Breda O’Brien, whose husband home ‘educates’ (as she puts it) her her children (while, she is a teacher herself), pointing to the case of two home schoolers who have refused to be assessed by the state and (at least one of whom ) has been imprisoned for a number of days because they refuse to pay a fine on foot of that refusal. Given that O’Brien herself recognises that the state ‘is relatively benign towards home education’ and that in her own families case ‘we registered, had a perfectly pleasant home visit and heard no more’ it’s hard to see what the problem is.

She suggests that somehow in the event that the State turned nasty (not her words, but the implication is there) ‘the current system could be used to impose that’. That’s true, but so what in the case at hand? And truth is it remains unlikely given the Constitutional right to home schooling. And very very curiously she argues that ‘Given the current trend towards “one size fits all” in education, those concerns may not be outlandish.’

This would presumably be the trend towards multiple different types of schools and so on. And that continuing Constitutional right, which I can’t see sight nor sound of a referendum on the political horizon about. So perhaps outlandish is the correct term.

She continues:

There are all sorts of hidden assumptions in the way the current system operates. For example, there appears to be an assumption that if a child is at school all is well from a welfare and educational point of view, despite the fact that the education system is creaking at the seams due to lack of funding. But when a child is educated at home, there is an automatic query over how well that child will fare.

As to the broader argument, Jacques de Molay in comments below the IT article makes some very pertinent points. But one thought strikes me. I find it very hard to take entirely seriously the idea that the assumptions she points to in the above quote are unreasonable. Many of us will have been assessed for various roles by state services – fostering for example comes to mind. The state has – under the Constitution, not just the right but the duty to ensure that its citizens are looked at and looked after to the appropriate degree (that we can have an endless discussion on that latter is another issue entirely).

And there’s no real substance to the line that schools aren’t examined in the same way as home schoolers. There’s a rigorous system of assessment, control and communication in school rooms – O’Brien herself will know that. Not just the formal ones of inspection but also lines of communication for pupils through other teachers, and between teachers and principals and the relevant bodies that oversee them, and no less importantly boards of management, parent teacher meetings and so on. That vast net isn’t infallible, as anyone who has had the appalling experience of encountering abuse by teachers will know (though the safeguards are much greater now than they were hitherto). But those systems of assessment, control and communication cannot exist in the same way in the family home. Indeed, when contrasted with that, it’s not that difficult to make the argument that the state’s assessment is actually very minimal indeed (and again look at the structures around fostering or adoption which are exhaustive in way that the processes described as regards home schooling appear not to be).

And in this instance it would seem this bare minimum is what is being asked of these parents. And why, because in all this the child/citizen’s right to education is paramount. And to reiterate, the reason for the imprisonment is not the refusal to register but their refusal to pay the fine.

By the way, for a sense of the mind-set of some in the US as regards home schooling, this report on the Dublin case is revelatory – as are the comments below it.

LMD: “Cheap Euroloans at a high cost” April 27, 2014

Posted by Tomboktu in Austerity, Economy, European Politics, European Union, Social Policy, Taxation Policy.
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Seeing as there is a European election under way, from the April issue of Le Monde Diplomatique‘s English language edition:

European leaders considered the introduction of new contractual agreements between the European Commission and member states at a summit in Brussels last December, as demonstrators protested outside about a free trade agreement between the EU and the US (1). If implemented, the new contracts could be the most powerful tool ever granted to the EU’s institutions for dismantling member states’ social welfare provisions.

The contractual arrangements — the Convergence and Competitiveness Instrument (CCI) — are based on a simple principle: in return for financial incentives, European states would be asked to sign up to macroeconomic reforms. These would affect social provisions, the economy and taxation, independently of powers already devolved to EU institutions. Given the Commission’s current priorities, it is easy to imagine that the “financial advantages” might well be conditional on the withdrawal of employment protection and reductions in welfare expenditure or the provision of corporate tax breaks.

The proposal has provoked strong scepticism in some member states, including some of Germany’s traditional allies, and there is strong resistance within the Council too. Even a moderate social mobilisation might find allies within the EU to stop the plan being adopted (or to remove its most problematic aspects). So the EU election campaign offers the European left — who have too often acted too late, and been repeatedly defeated since 2007 — a rare opportunity to act.

“The dogs of war [were] unleashed week after week after week to attack me…” April 24, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Marriage equality, Social Policy.
1 comment so far

… or so says John Waters here.

‘Tsunami’s of hatred’, ‘an ideological dimension’, ‘sinister developments’, ‘alert the Irish people to what’s happening’, ‘your freedom is at stake’, ‘what happens to the Irish Times isn’t a domestic matter, it’s a matter for the Irish people’, ‘a mob on twitter are dictating what is happening’, ‘lack of support’, ‘condescension’, ‘why should I have to endure this kind of abuse from people for expressing my opinion’, ‘I’m saying to them ‘wake up’, your newspapers and media are being taken over’, ‘the chanting mobs on twitter’…

And more… and more… and…

Sex education in Irish schools March 5, 2014

Posted by Tomboktu in Education, Health, Human Rights.

In yesterday’s Irish Times, Jacky Jones uses her column to attack the advocacy of sexual abstinence until marriage as part of Relationships and Sexuality Education in Irish second-level schools. She reminds her readers that “Anyone over 17 years of age, married or single, gay or straight, can choose to have, or not have, consensual sex at any time.”

One of the interesting nuggets she draws attention to is that the Department of Education and Skills cites European human rights law in its 2010 circular to schools reminding them of their obligations (pdf of circular here).

1.5. Access to sexual and health education is an important right for students under the terms of the Article 11.2 of the European Social Charter. The Council of Europe European Committee of Social Rights, which examines complaints regarding breaches of the Charter, has indicated it regards this Article as requiring that health education “be provided throughout the entire period of schooling” and that sexual and reproductive health education is “objective, based on contemporary scientific evidence and does not involve censoring, withholding or intentionally misrepresenting information, for example as regards contraception or different means on maintaining sexual and reproductive health.

Jones asserts in her article that Catholic schools are not entitled to promote Catholic views on sexuality. I don’t know enough about the rights of a Catholic school to know if that is correct, but there is a further aspect Jones did not mention. The Department of Education circular she quotes from also cites the Education Act:

1.4. Regard must also be had to Section 30 (2) (e) under which a child may not be required to attend instruction in any subject which is contrary to the conscience of the parent of the student, or in the case of a student who has reached 18, the student.

At some stage in the mid 1990s I attended the launch, in the city’s museum, of the Derry Pride Festival. A few of us were amused when some Free Presbyterians showed up outside to protest, singing hymns: a handful of zealots were not a threat. But we were mistaken to see it only as amusing. One of the people at the launch inside the museum was the teenage son of one of the singing protesters outside.

Jones points out in her article that we have no information on whether restrictions on young people’s rights to objective relationships and sexuality education are practised, although I would bet that the Opus Dei school in Dublin does not teach objectively about the role of contraception.

The Education Act was passed in 1998, before the European Committee of Social Rights was asked to rule on the Croatian case that the Department quotes in its 2010 circular. It is time to re-visit Section 30(2)(e) to ensure that it cannot be used by parents to restrict their children’s rights to full RSE education.

School bullying, inspectors, and the Oireachtas February 26, 2014

Posted by Tomboktu in Education, Irish Politics, Oireachtas business.

Last week, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection heard evidence from senior managers in the Inspectorate at the Department of Education and Skills. The hearing followed the publication last November of the Chief Inspector’s Report for 2010–2012 (119 pages, pdf here)

Among the points he made, the Chief Inspector, Dr Harold Hislop, told the Committee that the Inspectorate now uses anonymised questionnaires completed by students as part of its process of gathering data to assess a school’s performance. And one item he chose to highlight how that was the following.

One of the interesting things from the pupil questionnaires and student questionnaires is the extent to which Irish students feel safe in schools. There are very high percentages there — often over 90%. What is really interesting is when the questionnaire data comes in for an individual school, if that is significantly lower than we would expect normally, we would immediately say to the school that it might think it is dealing well with bullying but there is clear evidence that it needs to go back and go through its anti-bullying lessons and make sure that children know who to talk to and who to report bullying to. It can be quite a shock sometimes for a school because when we interview those involved they say the school has an excellent anti-bullying policy and it is doing an excellent job on that but when we get the data they throw up a completely different set of questions.

None of the TDs or Senators questioned what that rule-of-thumb means in practice (although the meeting suffered from both being rushed and clashing with a Seanad sitting):

  • None of them asked what the threshold is for the Inspectors to come to the view that enough students feel safe in their school.
  • None of the TDs or Senators asked if it is a single figure or changes in different circumstances.
  • None of them asked if this is matched with or adjusted for the presence in the school of any vulnerable groups.
  • None of the TDs or Senators asked if any further probing is done in an inspection to see why any student feels unsafe in the school.

As I understand the Chief Inspector’s comments, if the school has a small number of — say — Traveller students each of whom is bullied, or openly gay students none of whom feels safe, or students with a severe lisp all of whom have to put up with hell from one or more of their classmates, the Inspectorate does not identify their lack of feeling safe as a problem until the constitute a sizeable group.

That seems to me to be a weak model of assessing an essential aspect of school safety. And it was poor oversight by the Oireachtas Committee that this was not examined by it.

HIQA Report let government off hook. November 14, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Abortion, Bioethics, Culture, Irish Politics.
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A very welcome post by Brendan Young, member of Action on X. As Brendan notes “‘Action on X’, which campaigned for legislation based upon the ‘X Case’ – but regards James Reilly’s recent abortion law as unacceptably restrictive. Action on X has the support of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, SIPTU, UNITE the Union, the ICTU Women’s Committee, USI, and the African women’s support network AkiDwa.”

Recent comments by Dr Sam Coulter Smith (Master of the Rotunda maternity hospital) about the strains the hospital is under, and the findings in the recent HIQA Report (into the death of Savita Halappanavar) that our maternity hospital records are not systematically centralised and monitored, highlight the deep problems in the Irish health service. But the HIQA Report, while it revealed problems with the medical care given to Savita Halappanavar, avoided the issue of the law. And there is a risk that the Galway University Hospital medical team, who may have made errors, will be scapegoated for Savita’s death. Yet it is Irish law, including Art. 40.3.3 of the Constitution and the recently-passed Reilly Act on abortion, that continues to pose risks to women – including those going through inevitable miscarriage.

Doctor Peter Boylan hit the nail on the head in saying that the state, through HIQA, did not ask the obvious question in relation to the death of Savita Halappanavar. What impact did the law on terminations have on the actions of the Galway medical team? Would an earlier delivery – a termination of pregnancy – have saved her life? In his opinion it probably would have. HIQA didn’t ask. Why not?

Last year’s HSE Report into Savita’s death raised the legal issues. It said ‘concerns about the law … impacted on clinical professional judgement’. It quoted the consultant obstetrician as saying “If there is a threat to the mothers’ life you can terminate. If there is a potential major hazard to the mothers’ life the law is not clear…. There are no guidelines for inevitable miscarriages.” The same consultant also said: “Under Irish law, if there’s no evidence of risk to the life of the mother, our hands are tied so long as there’s a fetal heart (sic).”

The HSE Report’s Recommendation 4b makes clear that the law restricts clinical decisions, and suggests change: “… We recommend that the clinical professional community, health and social care regulators, and the Oireachtas consider the law including any necessary constitutional change and related administrative, legal and clinical guidelines in relation to the management of inevitable miscarriage… These guidelines should include good practice guidelines in relation to expediting delivery for clinical reasons. We recognise that such guidelines must be consistent with applicable law and that the guidance so urged may require legal change.”

It is also clear that the consultant obstetrician considered a termination when Savita asked for it but felt legally bound to rule it out because there was a fetal heartbeat – even though the demise of the fetus was inevitable. Yet the HIQA Report poses the issue exclusively as management of sepsis – making no suggestion that ‘expediting delivery’ could have been done to avert infection / sepsis in its list of 13 ‘missed opportunities’ to intervene.

Flowing from its enquiries, HIQA’s Recommendation N10 says: “The HSE should develop a national clinical guideline on the management of sepsis… This guideline should incorporate an escalation/referral pathway that includes clinical, legal and ethical guidance for staff at critical clinical points …”

HIQA’s ‘escalation/referral pathway’, by definition, assumes the woman’s health is deteriorating due to sepsis. Recommending ‘… legal and ethical guidance for staff at critical clinical points’ is to accept that a woman must reach a critical condition before termination can be considered – the only issue where the law becomes relevant. Why would a woman, her loved ones or her doctors wish to allow sepsis to develop to such a potentially lethal extent? Yet termination of pregnancy to prevent infection is not considered in HIQA’s Recommendations. The HSE Report is commended in passing, but its key arguments to legislators are glossed over.

By placing the blame for Savita’s death on the consultant obstetrician’s failure to manage sepsis and ignoring the legal restrictions upon her clinical choices, the HIQA Report is letting Fine Gael, Labour, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin off the hook. They can all comfortably point to the need for better management of hospitals and / or more resources – all of which are needed. 

The consultant obstetrician may have made errors, but she should not be made the scapegoat for Savita’s death. A fundamental problem in dealing with inevitable miscarriage is that Art. 40.3.3 of the Constitution, and its interpretation by the Supreme Court, effectively preclude termination of pregnancy during miscarriage if there is a fetal heartbeat – until a woman’s life is at risk. This legal restriction on clinical action contributed to Savita’s death and politicians have a responsibility to deal with it.

If the HIQA Report is used to inform the medical guidelines accompanying James Reilly’s abortion law, its focus on management of sepsis will entrench a perverse situation where medical conditions due to pregnancy that are not in themselves life-threatening (eg inevitable miscarriage) must be allowed become life-threatening before it is legal to perform a termination of pregnancy – on a fetus that will die anyway. The same legal restriction that allowed sepsis to develop in Savita Halappanavar will remain.

James Reilly’s abortion law, based upon Art. 40.3.3, codifies this restriction by giving legal protection to the ‘unborn’ from the moment of implantation in the womb until delivery. Such restriction on doctors, which HIQA did not examine, must be removed so that women’s lives can be protected. At minimum, the HSE Recommendations must be acted upon. Both Art. 40.3.3 and Reilly’s abortion law must be repealed.

The benefits of going to a private college? List them again… August 29, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, Education, Irish Politics.

There was a short piece in the SPB a while back on the ‘benefits of going to a private college’. It’s odd, in a few hundred words one would think that such benefits could be outlined clearly, but apparently not. After starting well, suggesting that the ‘points required for entry onto courses in private colleges are generally significantly lower than colleges in the state sector – as a result of the fees, rather than a reflection of the quality of the courses’ it sort of sputters to a halt.

For it continues as follows… ‘if finances allow, studying a private college may allow a student to simply get on with their studies without having to repeat or go over seas’. Of ‘for many students, if finances allow, private college can be the yellow-brick road to the career of choice in law or business or provide courses in areas such as game design, journalism, psychology or ICT’.

One can see the key phrase in all that. But aren’t these pretty nebulous in any case? Once ‘can’ or ‘may’ come into play generally there aren’t hugely concrete advantages.

And what of this? While discussing the lower entry requirements it suggests that:

‘However this does not mean that standards within the private colleges are not demanding. Students have to measure up, be well motivated and be able to cope with the demand of undergraduate programmes.’

Which differs from the state institutions in what way?

And raises the question, what are the benefits again? Other than ‘if finances allow’.


Some may remember this piece too…

A private education… August 21, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, Education.

Some interesting underlying assumptions about education and private education in particularly in this judgement here, aren’t there?

A 12-year-old boy ranked in the highest percentile of scholastic achievements for his age is to be enrolled at a private school by order of a High Court judge.
Mr Justice Gerard Hogan today ruled that the boy, whose education is one of a number of divisive issues in a broken marriage, should not have to attend a particular non fee-paying school as earlier ordered by the Circuit Court.

And as ever with private education it points up the role of availability of money as the card that trumps everything else in terms of gaining access, in fact this case points up in perhaps the most stark way not merely those assumptions working in relation to (private) education but also suggests how inequitable they can be in the way they work out both at the individual and general level.

Private schools? A ‘luxury’? Well I never… July 25, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Education, Irish Politics, Social Policy.

According to the Insolvency Service guidelines…

Mortgage-holders who cannot repay their home loan will be warned today that they must be prepared to forego sending their children to private schools and give up luxuries such as a second car and satellite television if they seek to enter an official insolvency arrangement to settle the debt.


One of the cornerstones of the package is the release of official guidelines on a “reasonable standard of living” for insolvent debtors and “reasonable living expenses”. These are expected to prove contentious given the expenditure limits they will impose on insolvent debtors.

It will, no doubt, be informative to see how the proponents of such schools deal with this given their enormously entertaining line in the recent past of how they’re really doing the state some financial service by keeping those children who attend them out of the public system. I await their letters pointing out this contradiction with the insolvency guidelines with some interest.

Moreover it cuts directly across the trope some would like to see take hold more widely that private education is simply an additional extra, something that is entirely ordinary. Of course it is not. In the main it is indeed a luxury, available broadly to only those who can afford it.

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