Corruption claims should not halt junior cycle reform

Jan O’Sullivan rejects Fintan O’Toole’s view that ‘teachers should not be trusted to mark their students’

Observations about corruption in Irish society shouldn’t stand in the way of junior cycle reform, Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan has said. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times.

Observations about corruption in Irish society shouldn’t stand in the way of junior cycle reform, Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan has said. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times.

 

Observations about corruption in Irish society shouldn’t stand in the way of junior cycle reform, Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan has said.

In a strong rebuttal of arguments made this week by Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole for the retention of the Junior Cert, Ms O’Sullivan said the journalist was suggesting “all Irish people are venal and corrupt” and therefore teachers couldn’t be trusted to mark their own students.

“Fintan is absolutely right in some ways,” she said. “Fairness must dictate our approach to reform of the junior cycle. He’s also right to point out that the current exam system is ‘brutal and mechanical and depersonalising’. And he is right to point out the risks that increasing casualisation of the teaching profession pose to the quality of our education system. But in other ways, he is entirely wrong.

“I won’t accept that a brutal, mechanistic idea of fairness should take precedence over the potential to greatly improve learning for all of our young people. And in particular, I cannot agree with his conclusion that corruption in Ireland is so endemic that teachers cannot be trusted to act as professional educators.

“Those of us who are elected to public office become accustomed to regular insinuations that we are all corrupt. I completely reject those insinuations, but they have become part and parcel of our public discourse.

“But this week, Fintan went much further, and extended that insinuation to include all of Irish society. He argued that Ireland is ‘a place where corners are cut, where subtle and not so subtle pressures are applied, where connections matter, where rules are made to be bent.’ That, I think, is an entirely corrosive line of argument.

“It suggests that all Irish people are venal and corrupt. It implies that no aspect of Irish society can ever escape the supposed grasping, self-serving motives of our people. I reject those ideas utterly.

“We do not live in a perfect society. Nobody does. There is no fantasy utopia, where truth and justice always shine through. Equally though, Ireland is not some oddly-formed dystopia, where no good can ever win out.

“I believe that our people are capable of much, much more than Fintan would allow. Reforming our junior cycle is certainly something we can achieve. We know that the current system serves most of our students poorly.”

Ms O’Sullivan was speaking at the annual meeting on Thursday of Education and Training Boards Ireland.

She noted that writing in The Irish Times several months ago, ESRI researchers Frances Ruane and Emer Smyth argued that “in second year, a significant number [OF STUDENTS]lose focus and drift or disengage from schoolwork”.

As a result of this disengagement, “some students, especially working-class boys, get caught up in a cycle of ‘acting up’ and ‘being given out to’ by teachers, especially from second year onwards.”

The Minister said: “Unsurprisingly, this is the same cohort who are most likely to drop out of school before the Leaving Cert, and who face poorer prospects throughout the remainder of their lives.

“The current exam system is seen as fair. But that is measuring fairness as applied to the system, and not to the individual.”

She noted the philosopher John Rawls “famously proposed that we should identify the principles by which our society should be ordered from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. In other words, that we should be deliberately blind to how those principles might impact on people or social classes we are close to.

“Adopting that approach in relation to junior cycle would require that we develop a model that will lead to more equal outcomes between students from different backgrounds. And it would demand that we ensure all of our students develop the skills they will need later in life.

“Fintan O’Toole has a long record of arguing for a more egalitarian Ireland. On Tuesday, he again argued for fairness to lie at the centre of how we imagine Ireland’s future. For over 30 years, we have talked about the need to reform junior cycle.

“The type of reforms now being implemented were first mooted by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment in 1999.

“If we want to be fair to our young people, we must ensure that the next generation who pass through our schools are given the opportunity to learn in different ways, according to their different needs. That would be really fair.”

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