Fintan O’Toole: Between aspiration and reality we build a bridge of bullshit

There is nothing wrong with having high hopes, but action plan for education is an exercise in denial

Minister of State for Training, Skills and Innovation John Halligan and Taoiseach, Enda Kenny while speaking at the launch of the action plan for education. Photograph: Alan Betson

Minister of State for Training, Skills and Innovation John Halligan and Taoiseach, Enda Kenny while speaking at the launch of the action plan for education. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

To see bullshit in action, take last Friday’s Irish Times. Open page 4. At the top of the page, with a series of photographs of Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister of State John Halligan against a blue backdrop with the slogan Action Plan for Education, is a report of the launch of that very plan.

It quotes Minister for Education Richard Bruton as saying that it aims to make the Irish education and training system “the best in Europe over the next decade”. (I looked it up and the plan does indeed say this, over and over.)

And at the bottom of page 4 is another news story under the headline: “Irish education spending low by OECD standards”. It reports on the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2016 findings that expenditure per student in the Irish system has fallen by 7 per cent since 2008 while the average OECD country increased spending per student by 8 per cent.

Are these two stories by any chance related? Oddly enough, they are in fact inextricably bound together. Irish public policy has to bridge a fundamental contradiction. We want to have world- class public services. And we don’t want a tax system that could pay for them. We want European-style social democracy. And we want Anglo-American-style market fundamentalist economics.

Investment

So on the one hand, we are going to have the best education and training system in all of Europe by 2026. And on the other hand, we’ve been falling way behind European levels of investment in the education of our children and young people. Between aspiration and reality we build a bridge of bullshit.

One of my favourite book titles is Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? The autobiography of contemporary Ireland could be called Why Be Normal When You Could Be Best?

In social and public services like education, health and childcare, Ireland should aspire to reach the levels of normal western European countries. But no. That might actually be achievable but it would demand serious long-term thinking. It is, paradoxically, much easier to aim to be A1, king of the hill, top of the heap. That way, when we fail, we can console ourselves that we at least had high ambitions.

Just think for a moment what it would mean for Ireland to have the best education and training system in Europe by 2026. Over the course of a mere decade, our apprenticeship system is going to become better than Germany’s or Switzerland’s. Fantastic! Well literally fantastic – the numbers taking on apprenticeships collapsed during the recession, falling from about 29,000 in 2007 to 5,711 in 2013. There are currently about 7,500 apprentices in the system. Just 34 of these are women. Our primary and secondary school systems are going to become better than those in the leading European countries where, to take one indicator, the pupil-teacher ratio is currently half of what our students endure. Our early childhood education system, currently ranked 16th in Europe by the Economist Intelligence Unit, is going to have leapfrogged the leading countries like Sweden and Finland.

Our universities, currently tumbling down the world rankings, are going to be more prestigious than Oxford, Cambridge, Heidelberg or the École normale supérieure. Actually never mind any of them, just consider the University of Copenhagen, which has a student-teacher ratio of four to one, while our universities have a ratio of 20 to one. Actually, never mind that either – imagine a ratio of 15 to one as a point we might reach on our journey to infinity and beyond by, say, 2021.

Hyperbole

What would it actually cost to get Irish universities down to that ratio? Using figures given by Bruton in the Dáil in June, I calculate it would cost €2.24 billion over the next five years. That’s for just one fairly modest intermediate step in our voyage towards being the best in Europe. But of course these hyperbolic aspirations come with no costings and no commitment of resources. Given that we have only 10 years to get to educational nirvana, we have to start straight away. So we’ll see the first annual instalment of this huge investment programme on October 11th when Minister for Finance Michael Noonan unveils Budget 2017. Except we won’t be able to see it because the skies will have darkened with flying pigs.

There’s nothing wrong with having high hopes, but this is just an exercise in denial. What’s being denied is the immense damage wrought by austerity. We’re in denial about the fact that we now spend (according to the new OECD figures) just half of what the leading European countries spend per student on education.

Spending isn’t everything but there’s no getting away from the fact that the countries that do best across the range of education and training spend much more than we do – and raise the taxes to pay for it. They also do weird things like making teaching as prestigious as practising law. Pure Bolshevism of course. We need to have that conversation but could we, in the meantime, drop the bullshit about being the best and think about what it might take to be good, decent and fair?

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