Why the Minister for Education should stay at home

Opinion: Teaching is the real loser in conference spat between Minister and teachers

 ‘The scenes at the ASTI conference were pure TV news gold. They generated the type of lively footage that pushes any item up the running order.’ Photograph:   Patrick Browne

‘The scenes at the ASTI conference were pure TV news gold. They generated the type of lively footage that pushes any item up the running order.’ Photograph: Patrick Browne


Whole libraries of books and shelfloads of theses have been written about how news priorities are determined. The perennial question of which events or utterances are reported and in what order and which are ignored has always excited media studies students, journalists and political scientists.

For decades in Ireland the coincidence of the Easter school holidays and the short post-Easter political silly season has meant teachers’ conferences get media coverage out of all proportion to that given to other trade unions. Too often of late teachers have wasted the opportunity generated by this massive exposure.

While some have sought to portray this as a bad week for Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn, the actions of some teachers in conference and the forces that shape news selection meant the teaching profession in general was the real loser.

The first items on RTÉ television’s news bulletin on Tuesday night was a report by education correspondent Emma O’Kelly that opened with snippets from Quinn’s speech to the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) conference in Kilkenny that morning.

The first clip chosen by O’Kelly for her report was that of the Minister proposing that a pass in higher-level maths in the Leaving Cert should be a requirement for entry to teaching. Curiously this suggestion, instead of being welcomed with applause as improving qualification standards for the profession, was derided in audible sighs from INTO delegates.

The RTÉ education correspondent then, in a peculiar intermixing of reportage and comment, voiced over to say “and the Minister continued digging”. How saying something that is positive for the profession and the standard of maths education can be characterised as “digging” will have been lost on most viewers.

What happened next in the report, while entertaining, was hardly worthy of prime billing.

Higher-level maths
The Minister tried to make the point that many young women who went on to be teachers, although capable of doing higher-level maths, dropped down to ordinary-level maths for the Leaving Cert because higher-level maths was not necessary for primary school teaching.

However, Quinn failed to get his point across and instead appeared to be critical of the feminisation of the teaching profession, thereby irritating his largely female audience.

It was a mistake on Quinn’s part, which he easily rectified in later media contributions where he had the space to make his point more calmly and comprehensively.

The prominence given to the Minister’s feminisation remark in Tuesday night’s bulletin was all the more peculiar because a report of the same conference and the same speech earlier on the RTÉ lunchtime television news was entirely different.

The lunchtime report focused on what the Minister had said about the need for equality of pay between younger and more established teachers, and made no reference at all to Quinn’s talk of honours maths or feminisation of the profession.

News reportage
That report was by RTÉ’s southeastern correspondent Damien Tiernan, but it is not clear how the change of reporter for the nighttime package changed the news reportage of the same speech.

It may be explained, perhaps, by the fact that the Minister got an even rowdier reception on Tuesday afternoon at the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI) conference in Wexford.

It appeared the focus on the “gaffe” at the INTO conference needed to be emphasised to fit neatly the narrative in the headlines and the newscaster script about how it had been a “bad day” for the Minister, who had got “a very hostile” reception from teachers.

The scenes at the ASTI conference were TV news gold. They generated the type of lively footage that pushes any item up the running order. A satirist would have struggled to script it.

During his address to that conference the Minister was repeatedly jeered and heckled. To top it off, one of the delegates felt it necessary to use a megaphone to make his interruptions heard in the hotel ballroom.

While these antics were criticised roundly by some other delegates at conference the next morning, on the whole one gets a sense that many teachers just don’t see how badly it presented their profession to the general public.

Interestingly, in an RTÉ news blog posted before last weekend O’Kelly wrote of how journalists covering the teachers’ conferences would be watching out for teachers versus Minister story lines.

“RTÉ news will be there, along with the rest of the country’s media, to report on the issues, the rows and, of course, the Minister’s address,” she wrote. How will he be received? Will teachers walk out? Will they applaud or will it be the silent treatment? Boy, do the cameras love this. They lap it up.”

The camera certainly lapped up the rows this week and the issues got lost.

Instead of competently communicating their case in the interest of the education system and their members, the teachers in conference, and the ASTI in particular, managed to lived up to their annual media stereotyping as extreme, rude and incapable of hearing arguments.

It’s the Minister who the cameras follow to union conferences like this. The Minister should stay at home from such events: they serve little policy purpose.

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