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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.

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.

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.

Childcare June 6, 2013

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

A most interesting thought in the SBP from Richard Curran who when writing about the current debacle in childcare notes that:

It [the childcare industry] emerged out of a market demand, rather than by a thought-out government policy.

In that respect he regards it as a product of the Celtic Tiger and he’s probably not entirely wrong there. Certainly, having had the opportunity to see it up close myself it’s very evident that standards are variable in the extreme, that the marketisation of the process has not been to the best and that the incidents and – perhaps more accurately – attitudes – noted in the RTÉ Prime Time last week were far from a surprise.

My own experience is of an excellent community creche in the inner city. There was never anything approaching concern at any stage. And yet, it is fair to say that it has all seemed very contingent. It was pure luck that there was a place there. And even there it was obvious just how great the challenges were for staff.

Curran makes a sensible point here:

The fact that the programme affected so many people reflects just how enormous the private childcare industry has become. The industry has emerged relatively recently and is clearly not sufficiently regulated and monitored, reflecting the speed and haphazard way in which it came about. It exploded onto the scene in a hurry at the back end of the economic boom.

Haphazard is a very appropriate term to use. There’s this sense that this is something that has sprung up almost out of nowhere. An example. Around the corner from where I lived there was talk about six years ago that there would be a creche in a house on the road. These are terraced streets, small gardens or yards, but it struck me at the time that it seemed reasonable in that it would be in the community but that the location would be very constrained.

Curran argues that women’s participation in the workforce is an enormous driver of this increase in childcare needs.

When Bertie Ahern became taoiseach in 1997, there were 539,000 women in employment. Within two years, that number had grown by 130,000, and within five years nearly 200,000 more women were in the workplace. This peaked at around 890,000 in 2008, just before the crash – an increase of 350,000 in just over a decade.

Of course the other way of looking at that is that there was already in 1997 an enormous need and that this was masked by a societal indifference to the issue. The state wasn’t going to take charge – the RoI state never does. So instead the ‘problem’ was addressed piecemeal and in an ad hoc fashion.

Curran also argues that tax individualisation had its part to play making it more attractive for women to work (though note in passing that it is women who are regarded as the supposedly ‘natural’ childcare agent in families)

There were a number of reasons for this. In December 1999, the then finance minister Charlie McCreevy announced the introduction of tax individualisation measures for two-income married couples. This meant that, instead of having a single tax credit for a married couple, if both partners were working they could each have their own tax credit. Each year the benefits to dual-income families increased.
It meant that a single-income married couple earning €68,000 or above in 2007 would pay €6,240 more in taxation than a married couple where both went out to work.

But in fairness Curran continues:

The move provided a clear financial incentive for married women in general, and young married mothers in particular, to go out and work outside the home. This was no bad thing. But it needed a proper childcare system to emerge in tandem.

And that’s the crucial point. No such system emerged. Anything but.

Despite the state being awash with money and running up surpluses, it didn’t provide the funding. Instead, McCreevy and other cabinet ministers wanted to see the state’s role in these matters reducing not increasing. Childcare would have to develop along an American market-driven model.

The older I get the more I am convinced that the period between 0 and 12 is the most important in a person’s life in terms of shaping future potential. It’s now very evident that life chances are impacted negatively (or positively) to a remarkable degree by this point. That requires that the greatest support and assistance has to be channelled to that age cohort. But this isn’t what is or has happened.

Women responded to the tax changes in their droves. Tens of thousands of mothers were taking up jobs, and trying to do the best they could with family and friends to help out with childcare.

And a central point:

Employers realised that they didn’t have to provide proper childcare support, and that they would get more and more women to work for them anyway.
By 2001, these factors had combined in a way that highlighted the need for a proper childcare system. The state had allocated just IR£46 million for state childcare provision in its 2000 budget. This was paltry.

And there were other dynamics at play:

The economic boom, combined with the individualisation measures and other changes, was providing more and more mothers with career opportunities and better incomes to help support their families in the long run. The boom was also opening up a world of opportunity for the family as a whole to enjoy a better standard of living.
However as house prices continued to skyrocket, the decisions that families made then would restrict their options into the future, should anything go wrong with the house-price bubble.

But still the state didn’t enter into the equation in any meaningful way.

However there was no real state provision of childcare. At the time, there were no tax credits for childcare expenses. It was clear even back then that the childcare crisis was not going to go away, but would only get worse.
Instead of defining a vision for how the childcare system should work, defining the state’s role in it and providing the necessary funding, successive governments allowed market forces to take over.
Undoubtedly, there has been a lot of progress in recent years in developing standards and improving the professionalism of childcare provision. But it remains a relatively poorly-regulated industry, often driven by profit.

It’s essential to consider the latter point. This isn’t service provision for it’s own good, at least not in most cases. It is a hard-nosed business where profit is central. It is this, for me, which sets alarm bells ringing much more loudly because if we’ve learned anything at all it is that when profit-oriented institutions – of whatever sort – are poorly regulated the chances of negative outcomes are much greater. Catherine O’Mahony, also in the SBP, makes a similar point but from a different position:

I reckon we have a handful of options. First, we could stop complaining and push government for a thorough overhaul of the childcare system, making early childhood education a proper formalised career option for ambitious young people, and moving toward universally available state-backed childcare provision.
There would be a significant cost.
Second, we, as parents, could demand of creches that all childcare workers have decent qualifications. By doing so, we would need to accept the need to pay them more.
Or third, we could stop kidding ourselves and accept the limitations attached to placing our children in the care of a for-profit organisation. This requires developing a healthy scepticism about claims that every creche will immerse our children in some kind of toddler nirvana.

The thing is that three isn’t in contradiction with either one or two. And one would obviously be my preferred choice. O’Mahony recounts how she found in a creche that there was something while not actively negative appeared sub-optimal in terms of what she expected.


[her] daughter remembers her time at the creche very fondly, so whatever momentary neglect or roughness was there went over her head…That said, I still couldn’t keep her there.
Her next home from home was a happier choice, an independent Montessori school with a notably high ratio of staff to children and – crucially – a far higher standard of education among the carers. And yes, the cost was a small fortune.

But the problem is that that is not an option for many people. Buying your way out of a negative situation isn’t a solution except in a very limited number of cases, and it leaves the obvious question, what of those who are left behind?

Far far better to recognise that far from ‘accepting limitations’ and ‘developing a healthy scepticism’ it is better that there is a systemic shift to state-wide provision of child-care as a service paid out of taxation and properly regulated and regularly inspected.

One final thought, I was surprised at the idea of daily ‘reports’ on what took place in the creche as being quite a normal experience. The most frequent reports, and they were more like activity books, received were on a three monthly basis. To be honest I think that’s grand as long as there’s an on-going engagement by parent(s) and creche. But then perhaps such daily reports are all of a piece with the sort of pretension that would see a creche named ‘Little Harvard’.

These things are clues.

Old Student Union Manifestos… including Brendan Doris, Joe Duffy and Mark Little May 22, 2013

Posted by irishelectionliterature in Education, Society.

The Student History Ireland project has some wonderful sets of photos and documents up on Flickr
The most recent addition is a selection of old Student Union Manifestos… including Brendan Doris, Joe Duffy and Mark Little which is well worth a look.

Protest Rally Called by members of the Teachers Unions -Tuesday 27th March at Teachers Club, Parnell Square March 22, 2012

Posted by irishelectionliterature in Education, Trade Unions.

Thought this might be of interest

At the emergency meeting that was held by the Dublin West Branch a couple of weeks ago it was decided that some action should be taken to start to bring all teachers together be they permanent, part-time or students. We have been working hard over the last number of weeks in trying to bring together various activists in the three teachers unions. We have now with their help set up a large protest rally on the 27th of March in the teachers club on Parnell Square Dublin at 8.30pm. This is rally is OPEN TO ALL TEACHERS REGARDLESS OF UNION, BRANCH OR SCHOOL Please find attached the leaflet that we have produced for the rally. Please do try to make it along to the Rally if at all possible, but also please print it, photocopy it and spread it around your staff room and if you can email it as far and wide as possible to any contacts that you have that would be a great help. The bigger the attendance we get the bigger impact we will have in trying to defend ourselves and our students from these disastrous austerity measures.

ASTI Fightback

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