Ruairi Quinn report card: B for pluralism but D for higher education reform

Junior Cycle, special educational needs, and third-level funding top next education minister’s in-tray

Outgoing Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Outgoing Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Wed, Jul 2, 2014, 16:34

Three years and four months isn’t enough time to transform as conservative an area as education but Ruairi Quinn can’t be faulted for his effort. In the end, he chose to fight a limited number of battles - with mixed results.

Like a relay runner who has covered just part of the circuit, he leaves the next minister for education with much to do.

Pluralism: B

In his first month in office in March 2011, Quinn announced the establishment of a Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, promising long-overdue change to one of the few areas in Irish public life still dominated by the Catholic Church.

While portrayed in some quarters as an “atheist crusader”, Quinn built a key strategic alliance with Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin who shares his concern at the slow pace of progress in divesting patronage. Unlike some of his religious critics, Quinn has actually read up on the subject, and is fond of quoting the Catholic theologian Hans Kung on the need to learn from other religions.

His views about teaching faith formation in a manner that doesn’t interfere with classwork, and that allows children to opt-out without being made to feel like second-class pupils, have been often misrepresented as an attack on religious education.

Still, only two of the state’s 3,169 primary schools have changed patronage since the process began: just one Protestant school and one Catholic school. Hardly a revolution.

Budgeting: C

Like other Ministers, Quinn was dealt a tough hand with the financial crisis but he has managed it reasonably well. There has been no major run-ins with Finance over escalating costs. Teacher numbers have grown in line with the population, and the school building programme continues with €2 billion committed to 275 new schools and extensions.

By Quinn’s own admission, this ring-fencing of resources has been helped by the fact that three out of the four members of the Economic Management Council - Enda Kenny, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin - are all teachers. And that is likely to continue after the reshuffle.

Against that, however, there has been a squeeze on supports for special educational needs. While staff numbers have grown, teachers and parents say it is not meeting the increased rate of diagnosis. Moreover, children who qualify for resource teaching are getting 15 per cent less than recommended under measures introduced in 2013.

The next minister has a major challenge here - and special educational needs could become a big issue in the general election.

Curriculum reform: B

A lot of ministers have talked about the need to combat rote learning in secondary school. Quinn is the first to tackle it head on.

The teacher unions have accused him of failing to consult over the Junior Cycle reforms but they were largely the architects of their own downfall by failing to contribute to early consultations on the plan.

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